Other than the extremely successful, and gripping, Uncharted games, many people might not know what else Naughty Dog has worked on. Those individuals can be easily be forgiven, too. Naughty Dog cut its teeth on early consoles, and got a big break with the original PlayStation, where it debuted the Crash Bandicoot games. Fun, addictive, and cartoonish. While Uncharted, is what we’d call a serious game. There are real characters and emotional stories, and the storytelling is Hollywood-good.
Go back in time and tell 15-years-ago Naughty Dog that it would make a game that’s better than most summer blockbusters and you would probably be laughed at. But that’s exactly what it’s achieved with The Last of Us.
First featured at E3 2012 – just on a year ago – it won numerous best of show awards from the media. The company responsible for the superb Uncharted series had, somehow, outdone itself with a new kind of game: a survival horror featuring an older man and a young girl. A new take on an established genre, but with a number of original twists.
The opening minutes set the scene. Joel arrives at home to find his young daughter, Sarah, waiting up for him. It’s his birthday. Despite Sarah needing to be in bed, she’s waited for her dad to get home so that she can give him a gift – a watch. They go to bed. A few hours later, all hell breaks loose. Explosions in the nearby city cause Sarah to wake, and she runs through the house looking for her father. He eventually runs in, from outside, chased by his neighbours. Except they’re not the neighbours Joel and Sarah know. They’re infected. Almost everybody who works in the city is infected. The best course of action, obviously, is to get the hell out of dodge.
These 5 minutes set the scene for the rest of the game: The outbreak. Joel and Sarah on the run, joined by his brother Tommy. The chaos as they get stuck in traffic, break down, and evade an army that’s under orders to contain the infection. Not only do Joel, Sarah, and Tommy have to fear the infected, but also those who are meant to save them from the infected.
Then, something happens. And the real story starts, 20 years after the outbreak.
Joel now lives in a quarantined zone in Boston, far away from his home in Austin, Texas. Partnering with fellow survivor Tess, he makes a living as a smuggler – moving goods between the quarantine zone and the outside. They face gangs of raiders, the army, and hordes infected, as well as areas infested with the fungal spores that caused the outbreak. Life ain’t good – and it’s about to get more complicated, as they have to escort Ellie, a young girl, into the city.
In a way that Naughty Dog has perfected over three Uncharted games, The Last of Us manages to keep you on the edge of your seat for every single minute of game time. From the opening minutes where you’re scrambling to flee explosions, to the tense moments where you have to sneak around and evade detection.
Where Uncharted was more open with its gunplay, TLoU makes you feel like firearms are meant to be a last resort. They make a lot of noise, and noise is what attracts unwanted attention. For reasons made clear in important parts of the plot, you really do not want any more attention than necessary.
With sneaking high on the agenda it’s a huge disappointment that you cannot progress on stealth alone. There are sections where you have to use your skills to kill those you encounter. It’s okay when you’re facing off against some infected: zombies don’t have loving families, nor do they feel pain. However the game forces situations where – even with your best sneaking – you have to strangle, shiv, or shoot the opponents before being allowed to progress.
In an unenviable balancing act, Naughty Dog does manage to make this unnecessary gunplay feel like a last resort. Joel isn’t a champion marksman, with his aim swaying to and fro as he lines up a shot. One shot rarely does the job, and with an enemy charging down on you it’s truly terrifying when you have to take aim again or, worse still, reload.
This does lead to some frustrating moments where you wish you could just run and gun, and it ends up with your neck getting used as a zombie kebab. In one of the game’s more terrifying moments an enemy known as a bloater does unspeakable things to your face.
Taking the pace of the action into your own hands works wonders, though. The AI in TLoU is clever, but can be outsmarted if you slow down to think. Apply some strategy, rather than just trying to mow down opponents, and you’ll emerge both victorious as well as relieved that it’s over. Occasionally your cohorts will join in and help take down villains. Most memorably, Ellie gets her say in a number of battles.
Despite packing nearly 20 hours of single player narrative, The Last of Us never loses its breath. The pacing is perfect. Characters come across as real people. Voice acting is superb. Graphically, it’s both a cinematographic and visual masterpiece; it’s difficult to comprehend that artists and directors had to create these environments along with directing the way it all plays out.
Rather than adopting a sombre, grey palette, like other survival horror games, The Last of Us shows a believable post-apocalyptic world. Overgrown with vegetation, strewn with rusted husks, and dotted with bombed or abandoned out buildings.
The soundtrack is also noteworthy. It’s incredibly poignant, but never once dominates during a cut scene. It fades in, unnoticed, and drives home the emotional drama of each scene its used in. Thankfully, unlike other horrors, it’s never used as a device to predict cheap scares, of which this game has absolutely none. Sound here, in general is breathtakingly good. Walking around in sewers you’ll have plenty of auditory cues that lend to the atmosphere. Get into an gun battle outdoors, and you’ll have an immediate sense for how big the area is. Part of this is just great audio design, and part of it comes down to how heavily sound influences one of Joel’s skills.
Nothing is perfect, though. For every perfect moment, mechanic, and scene, in The Last of Us, there’s are bits that pull you out of a believable world to remind you that it’s just a game. Overused tropes like being left to defend a position while other characters unlock a door, or assisting a partner onto a ledge before they help you up. Even the near-bottomless backpack makes an appearance. Not only have these been used before, they’re also used too often in TLoU to be believable. A little variation on the theme would’ve worked wonders.
Criticising a video game for being a video game sounds dumb, but this is the closest the genre will ever come to being art – for now.
All too often a premature call has been made when it comes to awarding “Game of the Year” to a title, especially with six months to go. This June release might be long forgotten when ballots are cast in November, in the shadow of Grand Theft Auto 5. But, frankly, that game would have to ship with a free moon to take the title away from this.
The Last of Us, by Naughty Dog
Available on PS3
The good: Incredible storytelling, brilliant visuals and audio.
The bad: Some overused tropes, can be frustratingly difficult
Seen here is an ant infected with a fungus called Cordyceps – or more specifically, ophiocordyceps unilateralis. This, it turns out, is the inspiration for the fungus that infects humans in The Last of Us.
Just like in the game, the ants become infected by fungal spores, which then force them to do things they’re obviously not designed to do. And just like in real life, the infected in The Last of Us have fungal growths sprouting from their bodies. Finally, a little bit of science in our zombie apocalypses.
For a closer look at how Cordyceps infects ants, here’s a BBC video with a gorgeous time lapse clip showing everything in action.