If there’s one genre that has enjoyed a resurgence across all mediums in recent years, it’s Post-apocalyptic Science Fiction. From Zombies to Nukes (and everything in between) the roads of this genre have been well trodden in the last ten years or so and this revival shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. So with so many competing for supremacy in the same arena, Sony owned developer Naughty Dog had their work cut out when they too decided to craft a tale against this popular backdrop. But with games such as Fallout 3 and Telltale’s The Walking Dead addressing similar themes, how does The Last of Us stand against its more than competent competition? Luckily for us, Naughty Dog have not only managed to craft a game that defines the genre but also addresses these themes better than any other game in recent (or long term) memory.
I struggle to tell you much of anything about The Last of Us for fear of robbing you of any element of its brilliance. Put simply the game revolves around a man named Joel and a young girl named Ellie whom he is tasked with escorting across a post-apocalyptic United States. I will say no more about how events unfold (or indeed what wiped us out) however all you need to know is that from the first second you begin playing to the end credits you will never be disappointed with this tales narrative. The opening fifteen minutes are possibly the best of any game I have ever played and it only continues in this vain throughout with many twists and turns that never feel contrived or unrealistic.
Even more impressive than the story however is the characterisation. Relationships between characters build and develop and the motivation for everyone’s actions throughout the entire game are seen in perfect clarity by the player, as you feel you know these people. There have been very few instances in my years of gaming where I felt as attached to the characters as I did in The Last of Us and it is clear that the development of relationships was incredibly important to the games creators.
A huge reason for this is the fact that these relationships are given care and attention throughout and are allowed to develop naturally. This is not a case of a story being told through just cut-scenes, in fact quite the opposite. Characters speak to each other freely and naturally in any situation. From an impending threat to the remains of an old music store or hotel, no topic is beyond the realms of discussion and this gives everyone (and everything) great depth.
Another major contributing factor here is the voice over work which has to be some of the best I have ever heard. This is not surprising given the talent on board in Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson as well as supporting roles from veteran VO actors like Nolan North. However even with standards high all performances should be praised here as they are truly a contributing factor to the games immersive nature.
This care and attention to detail doesn’t end with the characterisation either. Equally as impressive is the world in which The Last of Us takes place. As you may expect, much of the world is in ruin or has been reclaimed by nature and it has to be said that I have never seen such impressive area design, perhaps ever. Every single thing in the world feels like it has been crafted and placed in order to build a certain atmosphere for the player and the level of attention to detail is astonishing.
Unlike many games nowadays, The Last of Us is neither linear nor free-roam but instead a subtle blend of both. Areas are huge and why there is never a clear direction of where to go next, I never felt lost during my time with the game. This is mainly due to the fact that the more you explore, the deeper your experience becomes. Much of the tale of how the world ended up where it is now is hidden in the games optional areas and collectables. The more you explore the deeper into the world you will travel and the more you will learn about the people that may have trodden a similar road before you.
Games are unique as you are able to tell an interactive story through a visceral medium and the player’s exploration and conclusions can shape the experience. It has to be said that I have never seen such a good use of this dynamic in interactive storytelling and even if you play the game for no other reason, the development of the atmosphere is worth it alone.
Everything you see and do in this game feels plausible and that is something truly unique. Much like other ventures into this genre across other mediums (see Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), The Last of Us is about the journey and the will to keep struggling against adversity in increasingly bleak times. Unlike Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, you are not sure that everything is going to be alright in the end, but that is all part of the experience and the fear for these characters proves how attached to them you become.
Of course many of these things would fall flat without some of the other expected elements of triple A titles. Namely the aesthetics and sound which are both some of the best I have ever experienced in The Last of Us. As we know from the Uncharted series, high production value is a staple of Naughty Dog’s work however I have never seen such a high standard as in this game and for that they should be commended. The musical score is better than most cinematic ventures and graphically it is hard to see a PlayStation 3 title bettering this standard.
When it comes to game play, The Last of Us cannot be faulted either. Every situation you are placed in can be tackled in different ways and it sometimes pays to avoid confrontation, especially on the harder settings. However the way the game flows is a lot less cumbersome than just ‘stealth’ or ‘all-out attack’ and players will feel situations occur naturally around them, whether they are fighting humans or whatever else the game may throw at you (avoiding spoilers).
Despite only a few enemy types throughout the 15-20 hour campaign however, the AI for all is suited and flawless and this also adds to the games realistic feel. As you travel across the landscapes you will be constantly on edge, waiting for something to happen and it is this impending feeling of dread that is played on well in the games mechanics. For example, players are encouraged to manage resources and craft weapons and items, however going into your inventory does not pause the game. This in turn means you must be weary at all times as there are very few places where you feel truly safe.
As third person games go, this is up there with the best, mechanically. With elements like dynamic cover and realistic physics it is hard to pick fault here. Other than one crash and the odd friendly AI getting in my way I experienced no real technical issues in any of my playthroughs or online, and these issues were far too minor to even factor into my experience as a whole.
As well as a multitude of difficulty settings and new game plus features, The Last of Us also packs a surprisingly good online mode. Much like Uncharted 2 and 3 this is an unexpected perk that is sure to spawn a surprisingly large community. Players pick a faction and have a choice of two modes akin to game types many familiar to online play will have sampled before. However, the use of some of the games mechanics from the single player makes this a much more interesting venture than you might think. Although not completely necessary it is a welcome inclusion that in no way detracts from the experience.
The Last of Us is not just a strong contender for Game of the Year but also the Game of this Generation. With its levels of characterisation, world realisation and great game play it is an experience like no other and staples Naughty Dog as possibly the best developer in the world right now.