Developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Computer Entertainment, The Last of Us is a third person, action survival shooter which is exclusive to PlayStation 3. You follow Joel and Ellie through an amazing story where Ellie must be smuggled to a rebel group known as the fireflies, in order for a vaccine to be created for the horrible infection outbreak that occurred 20 years ago.
You start the game 20 years prior, when Joel is looking after his daughter, Sarah. This turns out to be one of the most powerful scenes that I have witnessed in a video game. In a blink of an eye, the entire tone of the game is established before it jumps 20 years back to where you now play as Joel, who has now taken on the role as a smuggler with his business partner, Tess.
Humanity is still struggling on with quarantine zones in place to keep residents ‘safe’ with heavy military on one side, and a rebel forces known as the Fireflies on the other. You learn of the desolation that has befallen what is left of both the population and the surroundings of America. Even 20 years after the first outbreak of the infection and there is only limited food, power and resources to go around for each of the survivors. With civilisation the way it is, it has allowed nature to retake the world, which results in areas that are lush with plants and twisting vines almost everywhere you look. Often you’ll find yourself venturing through forests and the like, but even in the more urban environments of the game you can see nature forcing its way in through the desolation.
Along the Joel and Ellie journey, you run into a few side characters that push the game further and develop the character interaction. All side characters including Ellie follow Joel around and move from cover to cover in the stealth sections of the game. The only difference here is that these side characters never interact with the enemies until Joel is spotted or starts to shoot an enemy. If you are stealth killing a guard they will either sit patiently or change cover, but they will not engage. This is a good mechanic as you don’t have to restart sections due to bad AI, but it does break the immersion of the game sometimes as they will walk right in front of an enemy, and nothing will happen. I think it is necessary for the game though as sometimes there are up to 3 people following you, and restarting areas due to bad AI would be extremely frustrating.
In saying this, Naughty Dog also does an amazing job of ensuring that The Last of Us doesn’t feel like an elongated escort mission. Despite her youth, Ellie’s competency in combat situations is second only to her penchant for dropping f-bombs in such a way that every one of them have a context to be there. While in combat, she collects loose bottles or bricks to throw at foes that often get too close for comfort. This buys you the precious seconds you need to land a deadly one-hit takedown with an upgraded lead pipe. She even calls out enemy positions and eventually will be able to protect herself with her very own gun. This has saved my life on more than one occasion.
The stealth mechanics as a whole are pretty good. Without a dedicated cover button, you just have to crouch to hide from the enemies’ line of sight and take them out by either strangling, or via the use of a created shiv (if you need to be quick about it). You can also use bottles and bricks to distract enemies if they’re not in a position that would benefit you with their swift death. Even though you can kill enemies, sometimes it just isn’t worth it and you can just as easily stealth past most encounters in the game – both human and infected. There are a few exceptions to this as you will need to face “boss” infected and such, but you have as much free will as a linear third person shooter can give you.
Joel’s ‘focus’ ability is a key asset for both combat and stealth– holding down R2 forces you into a slow crawl, but allows Joel to use his “super human” ears to hear speech and movement sounds from enemies to determine where they are, even when they’re not visible. As the game goes on and these combat sections become more complex, you’ll rely on this ability more and more. This ability and other perks can be upgraded as you acquire pills that act as skill points. You have to be careful about where you spend these points as there only seemed to be a limited number throughout the game.
Even with access to all these different abilities and weapons, every encounter with the infected enemies is always tense. The sound design is amazing and every click and rumble will set your teeth on edge. The Clickers were the ones that always set me off during the stealth sections. This is because they have been infected for so long that it (the infection) has spread all over their head and face. They can only use sound to detect you but the clicking noises they make (hence the name) just echo through the warehouse or sewer that you are trying to sneak though. These enemies are also tougher and can’t be defended against if you end up getting into a hand-to-hand situation.
One thing that Naughty Dog has put a bit of work into was the death animations when interacting with the infected. They are extremely brutal with Clickers biting into your neck to expose arteries and such being pulled out of Joel’s neck before instantly cutting to a black screen and reloading the checkpoint. The great thing about these animations is they are so quick that you get hit with this awful scene and then get straight back into the action from where you left off.
Aside from combat, there are quite a number of puzzles to solve. These offer a quiet moment to analyse the environment, and gives the characters some time to banter and develop their relationship. Unfortunately, you don’t have to think too hard to be on your way. When deep water impedes your path, search for a wooden pallet so Ellie can make it safely to shore. A ladder is needed to reach higher ground, and a wooden plank can be used to cross a gap. The puzzles follow the linearity present throughout the adventure. There is only one solution, so you scan the environment for the button prompt that will whisk you to the next locale. This is a great mechanic to balance the action and replaces it with witty banter and conversations between the characters.
The best parts of The Last of Us are devoted to building these two characters, and their relationship with one another. Ellie’s development is especially powerful as this world is all that she has known, compared to Joel who has experienced everything beforehand. Though hardened by the world she lives in, she talks and acts like a believable teenage girl. When she gets mad at Joel she noticeably hangs back and act’s out at Joel’s commands. At other times she’ll skip, hum to herself and banter about random topics you’d expect a 14-year-old to be concerned with.
Joel and Ellie’s relationship is quite stand-offish at first and more affectionate later, but its development doesn’t feel forced. The Last of Us is full of incidental dialogue and short, optional conversations that you have to watch out for. The conversations flesh out both Ellie and Joel’s character, as well as the handful of other survivors they come across on their journey. Because the game spent so much time making me care about these characters, its emotional shock points were even more effective and the sad scenes even more devastating to go through.
Apart from the occasional AI glitch here and there, the game is pretty solid. The only thing that had me a little annoyed was the fact that in this survival action game you could barely pick up anything from human enemies. I was in combat situations where they enemies would shoot clip after clip in my direction only for me to come up from cover, pop them in the head and then for them to drop 1 or sometimes no bullets. This was different however if the enemy was carrying a melee weapon which would drop automatically and be ready for use. It broke a little bit of the game for me but in saying that if I did get ammo from every enemy that I killed then it would be more run and gun than a survival game.
Overall, this is a great game. It’s visually stunning, with transitions between gameplay and cut scenes being seamless and effective. The acting from the characters is the best I’ve seen so far in a video game, with some abrupt and shocking moments that left me needing to decompress before getting along with the story. The mature tone of its story is what the R18+ rating is really meant to exist for, and really shines as a game that you would suggest to someone if they asked what an R18+ game does differently. There’s a reason this game is a contender for Game of the Year and most people will agree with me when I say that this is a game you really need to play to get the full impact of what’s going on.