The Last of Us is a harrowing masterpiece in every conceivable way. Naughty Dog has habitually made brilliance look simple this generation and as one of the most intuitive, insightful and innately inspired developers currently building games for gamers – The Last of Us is their definitive creation and arguably the best game born to an over-run console generation defined by copy and paste experiences devoid of relevance, heart and impact. TLOU is a game changer – eschewing what you have come to know from story driven survival horror titles and reaching new layers of emotional diplomacy conditioned by the fragility of mere human existence. It’s distressingly real, viciously dangerous and unforgiving in its callous brutality – but beyond its omnipresent virulent infections, its gritty protagonists and its incidental perception of life and death, TLOU is at all times beautiful.
You play as hardened smuggler Joel, and coupled with the headstrong if somewhat naive Ellie, you exist as two embattled survivors fighting to exist in the aftermath of civilization brought to the brink by the all-encompassing cordyceps virus. Joel must accompany Ellie to a drop off point – and that’s about all I will say about just why Joel and Ellie come to interact with each other. It would be remiss of me to give away any specific details about their journey and their relationship; such is the importance of it to the enjoyment of the experience. In saying that, Naughty Dog does well to keep the nature of the cordyceps epidemic at arm’s length. Details relating to the virus are deliberately vague. Yes, this is an existence defined by the virus – but the need to survive and to continue to exist as a reaction to these post-apocalyptic conditions is what actually motivates the greater experience. There’s nothing particularly special about Joel or Ellie, there’s no super powers here, no caches of incredibly powerful weapons hanging from your back pack or anything like that. The only thing that might set them apart from the others that they share this existence with is a unanimous and undisputed zeal to survive at all costs.
TLOU constantly reminds you of just how rationed and vulnerable this world is. It’s rare that you’ll carry a weapon with a full clip. You’ll have to beg, borrow, steal and scavenge to survive and keep going. When you’re not raiding the drawers and cabinets of desolate, abandoned and overgrown ramshackle rooms and spaces that people used to live in for supplies, you’ll try to create your own resources from bits and pieces you find scattered about the locales. It’s effectively desperate. You never feel like you’ve got the edge on anyone in combat, even with a loaded shotgun under your arm or a petrol bomb in hand. It’s all about timing and luck. The combat itself varies from offensive weaponry like handguns and shotguns, projectiles like petrol and smoke bombs and good old fashioned fisticuffs – enhanced by the odd leaded pipe or 2X4 with scissors strewn to the top of it. It gets very intense and hands on, particularly when it comes to close quarters combat and can be ruthlessly unforgiving. The enemies, be they infected or other humans trying to exist just like you, will not hesitate to kill on sight. The AI is particularly vicious. You will die and you will die a lot. If an infected Clicker gets hold of you, they’ll tear a chunk out of your neck and you’re instantly dead. Other infected tend to run at you in packs and overwhelm you, while humans are particularly skilled at popping you off with a pistol from a distance or engaging you in a fist fight. The actual gun-play feels heavy, even a little sluggish, but not in a bad way. This isn’t a twitch shooter. You’ll have to be patient and aim effectively, or its game over. The brutality is all-encompassing. The killing is messy and at times overwhelming. It really is adapt or die stuff – kill or be killed. Life is so precious in TLOU that taking another’s just to retain your own, doesn’t require a second thought. It’s actually something of selfish experience, but you never hold it against Joel or Ellie given the circumstances.
Of course, the best way of surviving is to try and avoid fighting where possible and stealth plays more of an important part in the game than you probably initially thought. Sometimes the best way to weave through a corridor heaving with clickers or human factions is to rethink your innate urge to pull the trigger and just sneak through – perhaps strategically taking out a guard or two with a silent choke hold or a sharpened shiv to the jugular. The killing is nihilistic and ultra satisfying, but it does take its emotional toll on you after a while. The world of TLOU would be so must better if people could just trust one another. Even Joel’s best friends, old pals and other supporting cast you meet along the way who have a past with him, aren’t afraid to put a gun to his head should they feel he could well be about to double cross them in some way. This makes Joel’s relationship with Ellie all the better as they slowly grow to respect each other and live for each other despite the unwavering odds.
And it’s this relationship between Joel and Ellie that is the game’s finest layer. Naughty Dog put such a refreshing impetus into story and dialogue and TLOU never sells you short from beginning to end. It’s impatient at times, and will skip forward and not explain how you got to where you are, but it filters everything through Joel and Ellie and their unbreakable ode to survival. It’s interactive storytelling at its finest. You’ll never skip a cut-scene. The dialogue, the acting, the motion capture and the realistic nature of these characters is such that you can’t help but feel an emotional attachment to their every success and failure. It’s draining at times, overwhelming in the most tangible way, but it’s always worth it. It’s sober and gritty, but earnest and honest. Ellie is probably the star of the show here, she is wise beyond her 14 years and she slowly becomes Joel’s emotional anchor. Their relationship and how it evolves is one of the most beautiful relationships between two characters in a videogame ever. It’s deep and complicated, like every relationship in life, and it’s believable and makes you care about what it is that you are interacting with as a player.
As you have come to expect from Naughty Dog this generation, TLOU is an aesthetic marvel. Its story and its characters are presented beautifully. This is a world overrun with foliage and ruins – burnt out vehicles line the streets and nature has gradually begun to retake every urban nook and cranny. The attention to detail is incredible – you’ll find personal messages to now dead loved ones inscribed on the pavements in chalk, abandoned college dorm rooms covered in popular band and movie posters and there’s a genuine sense that these now vacant and deathly silent streets and rooms were once bustling with life, that is, before life changed for the worst. As with the attention to detail, the accompanying score is subtle, tense and wonderfully integrated.
The Last of Us is a once in a generation kind of a game, and the best exclusive on PlayStation 3. Naughty Dog has torn up the rule book and delivered a violently realistic experience akin to nothing else out there in the gaming space. Behind all of the impetuous killing and impulsive brutality, lies a heart-warming story of two vulnerable people who just want to find a reason to keep going in life. It’s an incredibly compelling experience from start to finish and one you won’t regret taking.
TGL SCORE: 10/10
Format: PlayStation 3
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: June 14th 2013