Developers: Naughty Dog
Genre: Survival Horror, Third Person Action/Adventure
The Last of Us is one of those special moments in gaming history which come along only so often; an experience which can shake the rest of the industry out of its comfort zone, and leave audiences world wide wondering why they have put up with such comparatively low standards for so long. With its already well established skill at sophisticated story telling and cinematic character development, Naughty Dog has significantly raised the bar when it comes to writing; at least as far as single player narrative led games go.
Through the eyes of protagonists Joel and Ellie players will witness a global catastrophe and share in the harsh, brutal experiences which come with surviving through its aftermath. On the surface the concept may sound a bit obvious as far as games and zombies go – not exactly a new milestone in a time when this particular sub genre has become such a shameless cash cow – but as with Telltales recent Walking Dead indie game, this post apocalyptic tale focuses more on humanity and the desperate attempts of a crumbling society to cling onto civilisation. The monsters are simply there as an agent of mans fall and little effort is made to explore their origins.
The high quality writing is just the solid foundation of an all round masterful work of fiction. The complex and evolving characters are brought to life through state of the art motion capture animation, the incredibly detailed face’s capable of comunicating the most subtle moments of emotion and hidden meaning, all of which utilises the full extent of the PS3’s graphical abilities. Special mention also has to go to the proffessional and affecting voice acting – so often the bane of well written stories in video games – which elevates the scenes of drama to a level on a par with many of the best movies. It is notable that in The Last of Us even the ancillary characters who only appear for brief sections – be they ally or enemy – are just as well drawn as the poster characters and can have as much of a lasting an impact. It is difficult to think of any other game which doesn’t resort to laughable cartoon stereotypes beyond the playable leads.
But expert story telling is not all The Last of Us has to offer.
Though far from revolutionary, the gameplay is a rich experience of fine tuned balance and intricate level of detail. Essentially a well trodden blend blend of of survival horror and stealth, what it lacks in originality is more than makes up for with thrilling tension and . As with most third person shooters the gun-play is not up to the slick standards the masses have become accustomed to in 3rd person shooters, but within the context of a survival game where the main characters are ordinary folk learning to survive it is appropriately raw, brutally simple and, as a consequence, immensely satisfying.
The approach taken to close quarters melee combat is much more interesting. Fist fights are generally a bad idea as most enemies can fight back and some are even capable of instant kills if they get too close. More often than not they cost an unacceptable amount of damage, which is unfortunate considering it is so bone crunchingly satisfying and there are many context sensitive finishing moves with which to turn your tormentors into meat pulp. Melee weapons can be found scattered around and can be upgraded into brutally efficient implements of cruel death with enough looted equipment but they only last a few hits and need to be held in reserve for last ditch encounters or heavily armed opponents. There is a variety of other tools to help distract, slow down, or kill your enemies from a distance.
Like all survival games the entire experience is heightened by the difficulty setting. Easier settings no doubt remove all of the carefully orchestrated tension and could potentially result in a fairly flat trudge through the action parts, not to mention severely reducing the game time. Switching to Hard upwards radically shifts the dynamic of the game away from simply being a good shot to weighing up each and every decision. There are simply not enough bullets or tools available to allow for aggressive tactics. Impatient rushes and badly timed stealth assaults will result in a Phyric victory or quite often a sickeningly brutal death – and you really don’t want that. Watching Ellie or Joel, characters that have earned your love, having their faces brutally ripped off or burnt to a crisp can stick in the mind surprisingly long.
As with many narrative led games there are plenty of sections which attempt to blur the lines between gameplay and cut scene but often feel limited and frustrating. But The Last of Us usually introduces some wonderful spin on the drama, an extra dynamic with which to heighten the tension to unbearable levels. Some of these actually form the best moments in the entire experience.
On finishing the story, after all of the emotional damage inflicted on the characters (and the player), it is a truly moving experience to go back to the beginning and realise just how far the journey has taken you. These same characters seem so different, so far removed from all the things they are eventually forced to do.
The ending is truly unique as far as the world of gaming is concerned, eschewing most of the conventions even the best narrative led games have felt obliged to stick to in the past (we’re looking at you Mass Effect). It is something which traditionally belongs to art house cinema where the audience is expected to be left thinking long after the experience, challenging their own perceptions, perhaps even being left in state of discomfort. Most importantly it is a perfect and fitting conclusion to what is clearly a new way of presenting story’s to a gamer, and is undoubtedly a true masterpiece.