The Last of Us is Naughty Dog’s last current-gen foray, and a brand new IP to boot. Set it a post apocalyptic America where a deadly Fungal disease turns those you love into mindless aggressive monsters, it tells the tale of a Man and a young girl travelling across States to try and do some good. The Last of Us has been almost universally acclaimed, but does it deserve all of that praise?
As with the Uncharted games, The Last of Us looks stunning. It’s easily one of the most visually impressive games this generation, although the engine stands up better in screenshots than it does in gameplay. While you’ll see spectacular lighting effects, convincing and subtle animations and some breathtaking vistas; you’ll also see ugly textures, floaty animation mistakes and odd little bits of geometry. Naughty Dog have worked miracles to get this running on the PS3, but it’s hard not to imagine what might have been had they waited for the next generation, or released on PC as well. If you’ve been playing PC games over the last few years the low resolution and framerate can be offputting while the little graphical glitches give it an unpolished look in certain areas. That being said, it’s still deeply atmospheric and a few sequences where you’re plunged into a darkness filled with monsters instantly removes and thoughts of tiny imperfections as you scrabble around desperately trying to survive.
Survival is what this game is about at it’s best. Occasionally reminscent of the latest TOmb Raider, you’ll find yourself combing your surroundings in a convcing way looking for supplies. While the survival aspect is nowhere near as deep as anything like Stalker or even DayZ, it’s convincing enough to have you searching cabinets and bars for what you need. Naughty Dog have avoided the problem of collecting identical items in unrealistic places by simply categorising the things you need. So all the blades you find go in one pile, the alcohol in another, the rags in another. Putting them together it’s believable that you could make the improvised explosives, health kits and shivs that you need to progress. By making ammo scarce in most of the game you feel a real need to use every single weapon available to you, and as the game progresses you’ll make good use of every tool you can find. The lone exception is the smoke bomb, which is a good idea but rarely necessary unless you’re desperately low on health or playing on one of the harder difficulties.
Combat in the game is a mixed bag. At times the enemy AI seems surprisingly smart, creeping up behind you to take you unawares, or retreating at believable moments. When you’re pinned behind a car with your last few bullets and you managed to take out a group of vandals with a well-thrown nailbomb, it feels great. However, when you’re creeping through an abandoned subways, making your way past all manner of monsters and looters, and then Ellie cheerfully jogs right in front of them, the atmosphere is diminished somewhat. I can see why Naughty Dog decided to not have your companions affect the stealth aspects, but it’s immediately immersion breaking as she strolls around right in front of everyone. Initial videos made out that Ellie would be a useful companion in combat, with you two working together in fights to take out the bad guys. In reality this only happens once or twice, most of the time she’s relegated to hiding somewhere and occasionally throwing you ammo. Once or twice she took care of someone who had got the drop on me, but in combat I felt alone most of the time, and forgot about whatever she was doing.
This is a fairly long game by modern standards, coming in at about 14 hours but over that time combat can really begin to drag. There’s essentially four types of enemy through most of the game, and you’ll fight them over and over. There’s humans, who are smart and quite dangerous even in small groups; Throughout the early game I relished the opportunity to fight against them as it’s possible to really play with them and try your best to take everyone out with the minimum of wastage, it’s pretty compelling. Then there’s the infected, compromising of blind but mindlessly aggressive walkers, who tend to run in a straight line at you and grab hold of you; clickers who insta-kill you if you don’t have any shivs to hand, but can be walked past as long as you don’t make too much noise, and then bloaters who take a lot of damage but do surprisingly little to you unless you get close. With the exception of a couple of tense darkness-filled or ‘last stand’ style sequences, fighting the infected was dull. They come in waves and you pick them off with what ammo you have. In the first five hours I died repeatedly (even on normal) but there’s so many checkpoints it was just a matter of doing the same things again and again with minor changes to find a tactic that worked, or until I got lucky with whatever my companions were doing. It wasn’t interesting or satisfying, and rarely was it scary, it just took a long time and each area I went into where ‘spores’ were present, meaning infected, I couldn’t wait to get out of there again.
Pacing is done quite well, and has always been a strength of Naughty Dog games. Each time I started getting bored of the game, they changed it up in some fairly dramatic ways. While there are definitely sections that outstay their welcome, it rarely feels like your stuck in one place for too long, or doing one thing. It’s repetitive, with the same few puzzles repeated over and over, and many of the environments playing in extremely similar ways, but there’s at least enough visual variety and the story to keep you going. The few really amazing scripted sequences make me wish they’d kept up the pace of Uncharted’s set pieces, but sadly they’re few and far between, with the mundane combat or scavenging for items left to fill in the gaps.
Much has been made of the story, and while it’s definitely a notch above most other games, it’s not life-changing. The real strength of The Last of Us comes from the characters. Playing as Joel you see him make some difficult decisions, and while you have no agency in them, you tend to agree with his reasons. You form a relationship with Ellie over time, just as Joel does, and it’s hard not to care about her by the time the credits roll. That being said, many of the themes and ideas aren’t particularly original and much of the depth in the story is told through optional pickups, with pieces of text or audio logs that you must go through a menu to access. In these sections there’s some wonderful tales of survival, but it doesn’t seem like the most engrossing way to get these across.
Throughout the game there’s a theme of choice, with many characters pointing out that everyone has a choice. Funnily enough, you have very little. You definitely get to choose how you approach combat, with stealth being the implied ‘better’ option, but regularly going to hell and leading to all out bloodbaths, but within the story, you have to do what you are told. You don’t get to choose who lives or dies, you don’t get to decide which faction has the right idea, you simply do as you are told. This could be an interesting comment on the futility of free will in desperate times, or could be a reflection of how difficult it is to put meaningful choices into a game. Sadly Naughty Dog have written a story that begs the player to think about what they are doing, but never lets them decide for themselves.
The multiplayer side of the game is much better than your average third-person shooter, but it is competing in rather a crowded market at the moment. While there’s still a community going it can be a lot of fun with levelling up and loadouts and real sense of weight to the proceedings as brutal fights play out and often result in hand-to-hand bloody combat by the end. It does however highlight some of the shortcomings of the game, particularly with melee combat as it’s surprisingly hard to turn around and punch someone who is standing behind you. It has frozen on me a couple of times mid-game but hopefully that’ll be patched out before long.
For all of my criticisms, I really enjoyed The Last of Us, it’s just not the masterpiece I was expecting. Weighed down by current-gen hardware, a lack of player choice and some repetitive gameplay it’s a fun ride; but it’s not something to go back to once you’re done. It is however a fine example of a good story set in a beautiful game with enough polish to make the whole thing a solid experience.