Please note, whilst we’ve attempted to ensure no spoilers are present in this review, we suggest that if you’ve managed to stay clear of anything about the game so far, try to keep it that way and avoid any reviews that might spoil the story. The Last Of Us is a singular, one off tale that deserves to be played through without any knowledge of what happens if at all possible.
Are you ready?
When The Last Of Us asks you this question, approximately fifteen minutes or so into the game, it’s already a pivotal, weighty moment with much riding on your decision, your palms a little sweaty from the chaos. Not that you really have much say in the outcome – and thus your pre-determined answer, three hurried taps of the square button, is you sealing the deal, locking you in for the ride.
This turning point, a deliberate, measured role reversal from a scared observer to something altogether more paternal, is one of many but it’s one that – through Naughty Dog’s ability to pull the rug from under you when you’re least expecting it – nobody saw coming.
Then that’s you – protector, decision maker, and your world comes crashing down.
And yet, despite a developer keen to keep you on your toes, guessing until the very end, this isn’t a game of tricks. It’s a pulpy, slightly scattered story with an endless desire to push forward, but it’s not one that ever does something for the wrong reason. Indeed, the subtle intelligence that permeates The Last Of Us is hugely refreshing and rewarding: a game not to be played lightly and in return, one that doesn’t treat you like a child.
Instead, here the developers have carefully pieced together something rarely seen in the industry – a considerably more substantial, meaty take on the saturated third person adventure genre, and one that surprises at every turn without wrong-footing a player ready to invest serious time and emotion into the project. A real achievement, and one that respects you as an adult.
But it’s one that expects you to commit. To the story, to the characters, to the eventualities of such a desperate tale involving a human race on the brink of extinction. It expects you to commit to being a father figure, too, because after all, as a child who do we rely on the most?
So, are you ready? Then thud. Like a kick to the chest, the game starts with one hell of a kicker – a tunneled, frighteningly palpable and expertly constructed opener. It’s the sort of opening that had me rushing to find someone to discuss it with, because if Naughty Dog could do pull off something like that in the game’s first section, then there’s no telling where they’d stop to tell this story.
And make no mistake, this isn’t an Uncharted 3 thrill ride with rapid-fire quick time events providing most of the adrenaline – instead, Naughty Dog’s second team, for want of a better phrase, have mastered the art of ensuring the player is fully conscious of and is behind every action in the game. Yes, there are a scattering of cut-scenes, pre-rendered using the same game engine, but they’re used mostly for exposition, not crucial pulls of the trigger.
Every shot you make, you make because it’s the right thing to do. And the game never flinches. It’s unnerving, bloody, noisy and brutal, but it’s real, and it’s almost always on your hands.
The Last Of Us also features a two-mode multiplayer mode, which you can read about in our earlier impressions here. It’s presumably intended as a complement to the single player rather than anything particularly expansive in its own right, although our time with the multiplayer with limited.
So whilst the player never truly knows what’s coming next, The Last Of Us faithfully sticks to a handful of carefully considered rules. There are enemies, but they have logic and purpose; there are friends, and they’ll actually help you out when you need them; there are puzzles, although they’re hardly brainteasing; and there are scares, but never without a reason. But you won’t ever be able to predict the path of the game – even the final few seconds will have you staring at the screen trying to guess what happens – and that’s crucial to how The Last Of Us plays out.
There are shocks and twists throughout, then, and don’t be mistaken, The Last Of Us will make you jump once or twice, but this is a strangely singular, flat road trip in the sense that the game ebbs and flows naturally rather than building to some epic crescendo, with a difficulty curve that subtly grows with the player and the available arsenal and ability set.
There isn’t a wide range of enemies (infected or otherwise) to worry about or spoil – it’s more about where you are in the game’s world and what foes you’ll face – and not about worrying about an end of game boss or similar.
This works in the game’s favour. The Last Of Us’ plot is focused on an outbreak of a deadly fungal virus, and is set twenty years after the initial spread. With America torn to pieces and Mother Nature starting her gradual reclamation of the planet, humanity is forced into survival mode. There are militarised areas and checkpoints; there are small groups of like-minded survivors struggling to get by and there’s a somewhat mysterious collective of people known as the Fireflies.
And, of course, there are those less lucky. The infected, and their various stages of degeneration. From those recently bitten or scratched (with almost super-human speed and deadly aggression) to those further down the line (blinded by fungal growths, but capable of killing with a single bite) the infected are usually confined to specific areas.
These could be spore-riddled tunnels, or trapped inside a building, or even wandering the streets, but given the carefully woven interactions between humans and infected, with particular reference to the heavily armed groups that have formed up alongside the outbreak, you’ll rarely see the zombie-like co-existing with those untouched by the infection.
And because of how the story is written, and the intelligent way the game introduces new elements, the leap of faith required for that all important committal is less than you might think.
It’s grounded, sensible and actually ultimately believable, and crucially, as everything interacts and interlocks, whilst the adventure is linear by design and there are mechanics and strict borders in place to keep the game flowing, it never feels like you’re working through levels under somebody else’s direction, regardless of who you’re currently fighting against.
Naughty Dog’s ability to craft a cohesive world you want to explore has never been more apparent. Little is rushed, and little is skipped over.
The Last Of Us’ spooky infected are actually grounded in reality – you can read more about how fungal infections can spread to certain insects and animals here in our special scientific look behind the scenes of the game.
The real blessing is that whilst you can’t influence the key events in the story, you’re free to tackle most of the encounters in a way that suits you and your current situation best. Stealth plays a major part in the game, but you can – at least on the lower difficultly levels – attempt a more direct route.
There are times when both tacks are necessary, and times when they overlap with devastating results, but the open nature of each pocket of combat is most welcome. Joel’s not a great shot, but he’s handy with a ‘modified’ baseball bat; he’s not the quietest sneaker, but he can sprint when needed. And mercifully – your AI companions (of which you’ll encounter more than one throughout the game) always wait on your word – they won’t just rush in firing if you’re not doing so but they’ll back you up to the death once you swing the axe or pull the trigger.
It’s in the more considered, structured moments that The Last Of Us really shines. It’s when you figure out the best way to take down seven frantic infected in a single swift, decisive move. It’s when you manage to find a way to sneak past five ‘Clickers’ – the infected who rely on sound to hunt – in a pitch black hallway. It’s when you think of a solution to a problem and the game lets you do it.
And then when it turns up the pacing, frequently but generally temporarily, it never once adjusts the rules already set in place. There are moments of terror here – panic-inducing dashes away from insurmountable odds; running low on ammo when surrounded by foes both human and infected; when a stealthy attempt to circumnavigate a pack of docile enemies goes awry. It’s all here throughout the game’s lengthy campaign, and they’re handled superbly, with the rule being that (unless you’re just about to trigger a cut-scene) you’re still always in control.
The player’s fight or flight decisions trigger instantly, and you’re left to deal with the consequences regardless, any barriers – both in terms of physical borders and typically stringent game rules – are largely hidden well back from view.
Here’s the truth: The Last Of Us’ story is exciting and constantly evolving, but it’s level-headed and rooted, and whilst the actual subject of the game might be the stuff of somewhat fanciful writing the exposition and screenplay is exemplary and very much real, crafted by perfectionists and no doubt tweaked and pored over for months.
As a result, there’s an air of completeness and an almost tactile, real quality to the game, the events balanced perfectly with the abilities granted to the player. Compared to Uncharted (especially the more recent ones) The Last Of Us is definitely more open, more freeform, and (although there’s an oddly protracted segment half way through the game that lasts a little longer than it should) it never feels like you’re being asked to slog through enemies for the sake of it.
And so whilst the enemies you’ll face fall into a few specific types, the settings you’ll fight them in are dramatically varied. Not least because the adventure takes place across a decent slice of the United States, but also because the myriad outdoor locations and buildings never repeat themselves. It’s an extraordinarily rich visual landscape, with no specific theme to fall back on.
Indeed, the graphics are some of the best this generation of consoles has ever produced, the scope impressive enough but the attention to detail is incredible. Whilst close up, textures might not be as high resolution as they are elsewhere, Naughty Dog have managed to stream a world far more diverse than the one seen in the Uncharted games and it’s one that segues between internals and externals with a fluidity rarely managed so well.
The draw distance is huge, the lighting superb, the number of incidental touches (there are often entire rooms and corridors unused, just there to build a sense of reality) really impressive, but it’s in the animation where the game pushes the boundaries.
The soundtrack can be previewed above, try listening to it whilst you read the review.
Joel’s physicality is so good it even reacts to Ellie’s presence when crouched behind a barrier (he’ll move his arm over her when he shifts sideways, for example) or he’ll put his hand out to touch a wall as he brushes alongside it. We’ve seen elements of this with Nathan Drake, of course, but here it’s on another level entirely, with the lead characters seemingly aware of everything around them, with motion captured routines kicking in all the time.
There are a couple of minor issues visually, though – some effects trouble the PS3 in terms of frame rate and resolution (smoke is a good example) and there were a few times where the animation would stutter and break, leaping quickly from one pre-canned segment to another. Likewise, on two occasions I accidentally subverted the normal flow of the game, and found two Clickers circling each other waiting for me to trigger their next line of script.
Thankfully, there were no such issues with the vocal work, which is outstanding from the very start until the very last line spoken. It has to be, because there’s so much weight behind most of the screenplay that a less than perfect delivery would have really spoiled the show. Thankfully, everybody from the principal actors through to the lesser parts are cast brilliantly, and there’s real passion and conviction here.
Joel and Ellie’s constant interaction is a particular delight, as you might expect – it’s so rich and yet contextual, the two of them playing off each other regularly but never more than would be tiring, and in combat (at least, after about the half way point) they’re a real asset to each other, with Ellie even picking up some of BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth’s more useful traits, although much less regularly.
The sound design is impressive throughout – the balance is superb (with gunshots understandably making the most impact in the audio mix) and the options to select between various home theatre setups is most welcome. A special mention to Gustavo Santaolalla’s perfectly suited, drifting, melancholic soundtrack, too – it fits the game so well it’s hard to imagine it without it.
In terms of control, there are obvious cues here from the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog’s previous titles having a heavy emphasis on how Joel moves and reacts to the environment. There’s no dedicated jump button, X is used to leap and climb but you won’t be asked to make many daring Drake-like clearances; and Triangle is used to interact with elements like ladders and planks, as well as picking up items like ammo and guns. Otherwise The Last Of Us controls like most modern third person adventures – left stick to move, right to turn and aim.
The interesting addition to the genre is Listen Mode – by holding down one of the triggers Joel slows to a crawl and anything that makes a sound (within a defined range) draws a visible outline. Listen Mode can highlight enemies through walls and is incredibly useful for scouting ahead, although it’s entirely optional and can be switched off in the options screens if you consider it cheating.
The way weaponry is handled echoes the game’s choices between outright combat and stealth, with the ability to mix in melee combat when needed. You can carry multiple weapons, but they’re stored in your backpack, with just one small gun and one large gun hot swappable at any time. You can pull other guns out when you’re out of ammo or need something a little quieter (like a bow) but it takes time – and the game doesn’t pause when you do anything like this.
Groups of human survivors represent some of the more interesting portions of the road trip, although they don’t always turn out for the best.
Instead, the game is heavily based around collectables. These range from skill points that you can use to bulk up your own abilities (like being able to heal faster, or increase the range of Listen Mode) through to ‘crafting items’ that you can use to build bombs and health packs and the ability to occasionally (you need a special table to work on, much like in the Dead Space games) enhance your weapons, should you have collected enough equipment.
You can focus on a single weapon, or opt to augment your entire range, and whilst you can’t magically make any weapon more powerful, you can improve reload speeds, or range, and these tweaks make a considerable difference in battle. Upgrades are limited – don’t expect to fully upgrade every weapon on your first run through and there are ‘level’ locks in place too. Finally, you can discover ability pamphlets, which immediately improve a specific ability or skill, or make a weapon more useful.
The above might make it sound like The Last Of Us relies too heavily on collecting items, but the game’s end of days storyline only really encourages scavenging: it’s a rewarding, enriching process because every last bit really helps, especially with regards to ammo which can be extremely limited, doubly true if you opt to go in heavy handed most of the time.
Whatever your chosen method of getting through the game’s so-called “wide linear” structure, one thing’s for sure: at some points you’ll need to stand and fight, and at some points you’ll need to turn and run. The Last Of Us doesn’t let you stick to a single formula, its mechanics rigid but its inhabitants less so, and only those practised with every style of combat (including the close range ‘shiv’ attacks that prevent you from the Clickers for the briefest of moments) will make it through to the end.
On Easy, The Last Of Us barely challenges, allowing all to pass freely without much strategy. Normal balances things out nicely, and the hardcore can turn it up one or two more notches if they want a truly challenging, lengthy campaign. But on all difficulty settings The Last Of Us offers an engrossing, impressively robust storyline and a set of characters that’ll remain with the player long after the credits flash by. The Last Of Us is a big game, with plenty of bite, but it’s over all too quickly.
- Wonderfully crafted road trip, with superb writing and vocal work
- The interaction between the characters, all of them, is top notch
- Often beautiful graphics and animation
- A haunting, delicate soundtrack
- A sensible, sensitive script, with some really touching moments
- Staggering scope and ambition
- Amazing introductory section, hugely affecting conclusion
- There are slight issues with pacing in the middle for an hour or so, which feels oddly padded
- Very occasional animation and scripting issues
Nobody doubted Naughty Dog’s technical expertise – and there’s no question that The Last Of Us pushes the aging PlayStation 3 hardware well beyond what we might expect of it in terms of visual fidelity – it’s in the game’s storytelling and scripting that the real surprises lay. Joel and Ellie’s story is a sprawling, often desperate struggle for survival against insurmountable odds and a series of increasing bad rolls of the dice, and it’s expertly told.
But there are moments of beauty in the tale, both physically and emotionally, between a mismatched duo that end up relying on each other far more than either thought they might. The bright moments are overwhelmingly powerfully so, the innocent ignorance of Ellie’s upbringing slotting perfectly between Joel’s dark, barbed decades of his own private hell, and those they meet on the way.
There’s one fleeting, momentary respite near the end of the tale as Ellie stares out onto a rich green field, Joel at her side. It’s quiet, poignant, delicate and shows an element of nature untouched by the disasters around it. A reminder that not all is bad, not all is lost, and, after everything that’s happened, it’s hard to fight back the tears. These things you can’t help but carry with you long after it’s all over, and few other games can have that kind of hook, that kind of reaction.
The Last Of Us does. Several times. Just be ready.
Replaying The Last Of Us, a day or so after the above review was written, is a strangely warming experience. The crucial scenes still play as strongly, the interactions between the varied cast just as tightly knitted and believable as they were the first time. The Last Of Us stands up to another run through – that much is certain – and it’s possible that you’ll discover things on a return visit that you glanced over or skipped entirely on the first.
The game’s New Game+ shows promise (although didn’t really work in the build I had), offering up the chance to ensure all the boxes are ticked and the collectibles are stashed, but it’s testament to the developers that the game – as expansive as it is – still feels fresh. Of course, equipped with a bolstered knowledge of your foes and the environment certainly helps, but the chance to tackle things differently only highlights how successful Naughty Dog’s multiple methods of attack really is.
Let’s not pretend that a 10 score is perfection, or in any way suggests that The Last Of Us is free from flaws or issues. It’s not – there are a few bugs (you can’t drive a car stood up, Joel) and some areas of the game do drag on, but taken as a whole, as these things most definitely should be, this is a superb game and one that comes as highly recommended as I can possible try to project it can be in 3,000 words and a handful of bullet-points.
This demonstrates two things, then: that Naughty Dog are capable of creating a universe in which the player can attach themselves, connecting solidly to the principle characters; and encapsulating those personalities is a set of mechanics that are adaptive, responsive and consistent, never feeling stretched no matter what the situation. A single arbitrary number means little, but The Last Of Us lingers, well past the credits, and weaves its way into your thoughts – tomorrow and the next day.
And that’s surely the highest praise a game can achieve.