|Developed by:||Naughty Dog|
Originally released towards the end of the PS3’s life cycle in 2013, following the release of the PS4, the Last of Us received a spruce up and reissue for Sony’s flagship console, the remastered edition hitting the shelves in 2014.
Following a global pandemic that infects swathes of the population with a deadly, zombifying virus, civilisation collapses as disorder and chaos reign. Fast forward twenty years and the survivors have settled into life of a sort, communities housed in military-patrolled zones, those choosing life in the wilderness finding a harsh environment, populated by thugs, opportunists and murderers. And not forgetting virus-mutated freaks that hunt down the living and rip their guts out for breakfast.
Enter Joel. Cynical, battle scared and wary who finds himself saddled with transporting Ellie, a young girl with a curious immunity to the virus, across the city to rendezvous with a group called the Fireflies.
As one of the standout games of its generation, a litany of lyrics have already been waxed over this BAFTA award winning game. Suffice to say then that, as a Naughty Dog title, this is graphically supreme with a voice cast to match. Indeed I don’t need to spend too much time writing about the deftly crafted world that so effortlessly marries brutality and stark, harsh reality with a sense of wonder and discovery. I don’t need to walk you through the array of gruesome infected that roam the landscapes, from the 28 Days Later-esque Runners to the echo locating Clickers to the bile spewing Bloaters. I scarcely need mention the assortment of satisfying weaponry, scavenged from the environment or looted from corpses, that helps to reinforce the game world as the decaying, broken shell it has become. And I need make only passing reference to the involving narrative that underpins all, the beats of the story a perfectly timed symphony of fast paced action, gentle exploration and moments of quiet character study.
And I’ll spend just a moment to consider the performances of the two central protagonists. Joel and Ellie are the archetypal odd couple; battle hardened, world weary Joel and bright eyed Ellie. Joel has seen it, done it and killed it. He remembers the world as it was and has become calloused to the shell of a world that has been left behind. His cynicism is in direct contrast to Ellie who is experiencing her first taste of life outside of regimented confinement, her upbeat outlook an infection that that is hard to resist. As Joel solemnly marches them towards their goal, Ellie finds time to marvel at posters for long forgotten movies or delight in her ability to whistle for the first time. But their journey together changes both of them, Ellie necessarily developing from innocent teen to full on badass whilst retaining her vulnerability as Joel’s tough outer shell slowly begins to crack as his humanity and compassion inevitably reemerge.
Instead, let’s consider the game from a slightly different perspective.
There’s a weird thing that happens when I approach a new game. Having played Crash Bandicoot back in the day and with the Uncharted series among my top 5 games of all time, I am an unabashed fanboy for Naughty Dog games. With Last of Us built on the same model as Uncharted, this should be an easy tick for me to pick up and play with little mental taxation. And yet not so.
A two fold process develops. Firstly when I approach a well established game or franchise, I find myself in awe of it. I experienced the same feeling the first time I played Metal Gear Solid 4 and, to a lesser extent, Uncharted 4. In each case I felt overwhelmed by the quality of the game, feeling almost as though I couldn’t play it, that I didn’t deserve to as I was incapable of enjoying it sufficiently to do justice to its quality. With MGS in particular it took considerable playing time to demystify the game before I felt that I was capable enough to enjoy the experience.
Secondly, there is an underlying fear of the new, a sense that it will all be beyond me and that I am only capable of playing those games with which I am familiar. It is a mindset that keeps me mired in repeated attempts at launching a successful Football Manager save. However much I enjoy the games, it also feeds my desire for retrogaming, revisiting the comfort blanket of familiarity rather than striking out with something new.
In game, this soon begins to manifest. Control is initially familiar, the 3rd person camera and movement harking back to Drake’s adventures. The first inkling soon arrives as triangle replaces cross as the button of choice but this is a minor change and one soon forgotten. Moving around the environment as the story unfolds I start to ease myself in, the brutal events of the prologue a shock to the senses, a sucker punch to the solar plexes. Into the main game then and I start to feel comfortable. But wait! The first screen prompt arrives, the screen fading out as a series of stills show me how to manipulate a ladder or a plank into position, or the inventory system is explained to me. Soon the game guides me through crafting tools and upgrades and despite being laid out clearly, I begin to feel overwhelmed. The words on screen disappear into a jumble of visual noise, my brain immediately reaching for the panic button. How am I going to learn this? How will I remember it all? Why do I need to craft items, surely I can just pick them up? It seems too much, too complicated. This isn’t what I signed up for. I instantly tell myself that I will dismiss this part of the game, leave the RPG elements to others and just treat this like an action adventure game.
And this mindset ebbs into my initial forays. An early scene introduces the first chance for combat as we go looking for some fiend who has stolen our stash of guns. With his compound guarded by grunts, instructions start appearing, guiding me through stealth kills. Well that all seems far too complicated so I eschew the quiet option, jumping in with fists swinging. I’m dead before I hit the ground. I try again but to no avail. Slowly it begins to dawn on me that this isn’t Uncharted and Joel isn’t Nathan Drake.
Reluctantly then I employ a new strategy. Skulking around boxes and fallen masonry I inch my way round the compound. A squeeze of R1 lets me use enhanced hearing to locate enemy movements and spotting a patrol I grab an empty bottle, throwing it across the room to distract the guard, opening up a path for me to dash through unhindered. But wait! Another armed brute lurks and so I creep up behind him, grabbing him by the neck and squeezing until he goes limp, his mate who stumbles across the party getting a brick to the face before I finish him off by stomping on his skull.
It’s brutal, it’s effective but more importantly, it’s intuitive. Whilst I start with traditional weapons, I soon come to value a more nimble approach. With bullets scarce, stealth pays dividends whilst the bow and arrow offers a silent, deadly and (often) reusable method of death. When I do need to go loud, molotovs, smoke and nail bombs provide more widespread carnage.
There are small niggles. As beautifully realised as the world is, it is jarring to clean out an area of hunters, their bodies littering the streets, only to trigger a chapter ending cut scene and then, after it completes, emerging from a building to find all corpses have miraculously disappeared. This creep of unreality also manifests in the winter season. Unlike in Uncharted, Joel and Ellie’s health is displayed with a traditional on screen gauge, rather than a greying screen fade, any top up by way of food scavenged from the world or health packs crafted from household items. To some extent then it seems a shame that both Joel and Ellie are bullet sponges, able to to absorb a direct shotgun blast to the chest with just a stagger. Also as the season turns to winter and snow settles, Ellie finds herself blindly navigating through the bitter cold. It seems a perfect opportunity for some environmental danger, Ellie’s health being slowly sapped as she plows ever deeper into the wintry wilderness. But despite her frequent references to the bone chilling cold, it seems she is immune from the effects of nature’s wrath.
The supreme narrative beats we have come to expect from one of the finest developers to have ever graced the medium combine with two of the richest, most fully realised characters in gaming history. Simply one of finest, most rewarding games of its generation.