The Last of Us is, to put it simply, a work of art. From the meticulously designed chaos of the post-apocalyptic cities to the engaging, emotional story told through gorgeous cutscenes and movie-quality voice acting, this game encourages and deserves time and attention. Naughty Dog have managed to blend gameplay and story so seamlessly that it feels like an interactive movie at times, whilst thankfully retaining a crucial amount of gameplay, so it’s difficult to point out a sole aspect of The Last of Us that makes it so appealing.
Without giving away much of the storyline, The Last of Us follows the story of Joel, a man who has lived through an apocalypse that left most of the human population wiped out, leaving only small groups and factions to fight over supplies and territories. Somewhere along the way Joel meets Ellie, a young girl who soon becomes his companion. From there, Joel and Ellie make their way through the ruined cities and wild wastelands as they continue their journey…
I could go into more detail with the story and describe the twists and turns that surprised me and made me unable to stop playing, but that would ruin a big aspect of what The Last of Us is all about: experiencing Joel and Ellie’s adventure firsthand. Naughty Dog have done a superb job of creating realistic characters that you become emotionally engaged with, and characters that change and evolve as the narrative progresses. This is partly down the stunning graphics that Naughty Dog have pulled off with incredible attention to detail and impressive lighting, reflection, particle effects, and so on. But it’s also the animations and the quality of the voice acting that draws players into the story. It’s like a more serious, darker Uncharted game in terms of narrative; The Last of Us has that cinema-quality driving the adventure yet handles it with slower pacing and more atmosphere.
In terms of gameplay, much of the game is spent wandering through the ruins of buildings and wastelands, exploring the often expansive locations. Naughty Dog have designed the game so that areas never feel the same and even rooms coated in litter and dirt still manage to look amazing. I often found myself taking my time simply walking through areas as I admired the small details here and there. It feels organic, from the surroundings to the subtle movements of characters. When Joel crouches next to Ellie behind cover, he places his arm over her protectively. There’s no snap-to cover system either which helps with immersion. When characters move into different rooms, their voice changes, sounding slightly fainter and echoes naturally. When the torchlight begins to flicker and fade, you have to tilt the sixaxis slightly to flick it back on. It’s little touches that draw you in.
I had initial doubts over a survival horror game that pits you with an AI companion, but Ellie is actually pretty decent for an AI companion. Even with a constant follower, the atmosphere remains and Ellie manages to be helpful, too. She occasionally gives you ammo or supplies, though not often enough to make it seem unnatural or too easy. She’s able to save Joel too, throwing a brick or bottle at an enemy or even shooting them. Ellie manages to seem both capable and vulnerable, both during gameplay and in the overall story. If I had to name any flaws, however, it would be that on some occasions enemies would clearly see Ellie as she headed to my cover spot, yet they wouldn’t react – luckily this didn’t happen often and didn’t actually bother me or break immersion too much. As for the enemy encounters themselves, there is usually multiple ways to proceed through areas and stealth plays a bit part as foes get very tough on higher difficulties, and Joel often finds himself outnumbered and outgunned – mostly because ammo is pretty scarce in this game. The amount of times I found myself in crouching in a dark corner, avoiding patrolling hunters, with only a round or two in my pistols and a molotov cocktail for comfort… This makes it feel like a proper survival horror game, leading to intense moments of stealth and combat. Joel can pick up scraps, like rags and scissors, and craft them on-the-fly, making makeshift weapons and shivs that can open locked doors or quickly take down an enemy if stabbed into their jugular…
Despite the varied enemy encounters, weapons and the frantic-yet-fluid combat when spotted, it might not be as action-packed as some people like. There are sections where minutes at a time are spent simply exploring and travelling. To counter this the game manages to retain an air of atmosphere even when nothing is particularly happening. Those looking for a third person shooter may be put off by this aspect, but The Last of Us never pretends to be anything else than it is, and makes it easy to enjoy the slower pace and building atmosphere. In fact, The Last of Us rewards those who take it slower to explore each corner, and intrepid explorers who put the effort in are rewarded with collectables and items hidden away, like parts and tools that Joel can use to upgrade his weapons at workbenches, and manuals that upgrade skills such as the explosion radius of molotov cocktails, for instance. With a new game plus mode carrying on weapons and upgrades, optional conversations to discover, a harder ‘survivor’ mode to unlock, and more, there is tons of replayability to be had.
As well as the single player story, The Last of Us also contains a multiplayer mode where players join factions and fight for survival in team deathmatch modes. It plays a lot like the single player gameplay, with players able to collect parts and craft makeshift weapons to take down enemies, and lends itself well to stealthy players. There’s also perks and weapons to unlock to use, as well as headgear for your character. It would have been nice to have some more customisation over the character, and possibly some more game modes, but these may come with later DLC and aren’t a major issue. It’s refreshing to play a team-based deathmatch that favours tactics and teamwork, with non-regenerating health and every player having a motion-sensor ‘radar’ mode. It’s not as fast or fluid as, say, Uncharted’s multiplayer, but fits in with the overall ethos of the game.
Ultimately, Naughty Dog have outdone themselves with The Last of Us, from cutting-edge graphics and engaging gameplay, and the compelling storyline that often bloody and brutal, and yet other times heartwarming and intriguing. It’s a game that’s incredibly hard to put down, and pushes the boundaries for storytelling and video games.