How the hell could The Last of Us possibly live up to all the hype?
Well, here's my take to add to the hundreds already out there...
Whilst I would hesitate to say The Last of Us is the best single-player game I have played, it is certainly a contender. The story is rooted in the tropes of the zombie apocalypse that appears to be the sci-fi setting-du-jour right now, but it brings a completely new spin to everything, avoiding or subverting many of the cliches of the genre. The brilliant script is served well by the best voice-over performances ever seen in a game, and manages to be powerful and subtle at the same time. It is by far the most satisfying, engaging and emotionally touching game I've ever played.
In fact this is a game that constantly pulled physical reactions from me as I played it. I shouted aloud in terror, shook with tension, had to put the game away for a while as I couldn't bring myself to face what was happening. I even shed a few tears. Just playing through the 10 minute prologue before the main game starts was one of the most harrowing things I've had to deal with whilst playing a game. And now I have finished it I am still haunted by the ending. I can't stop thinking about it.
The story follows the adventures of an elderly, gruff smuggler named Joel who has survived the last 20 years on his wits and not a little luck. He's tasked with escorting a fourteen year old girl across the United States in search of the Fireflies (a group of rebels who are trying to make a better life), for reasons I won't go into here. At first Joel does not want to babysit the precocious young Ellie, but as the game progresses over the span of an entire year a completely believable and touching relationship develops.
Their journey takes them through many unique and varied environments, pitting them against the infected (the zombies in this game have been created by a mutated strain of the real-life cordyceps fungus), other human survivors and even a group of cannibals.
The infected themselves come in several forms, from basic runners, to lurkers, to the frightening clickers (blind infected who navigate by sonar). If a clicker hears you they immediately (and terrifyingly quickly) attack, killing with a single bite. Finally there are the bloaters, hideous monstrosities fully mutated by the cordyceps fungus that have grown armour-like plates and throw pieces of themselves at you that explode in a hail of fungus spores.
Even the best narrative I've ever seen in a game (which it is) wouldn't mean much if it was just an interactive story and the game play itself wasn't up to scratch. Happily however the game play is absolutely perfect. It flows perfectly, it feels right, and the mechanics serve the game play rather than get in the way.
The combat for example, is perfectly pitched. This is a violent game, but the violence is always a last resort, and combat when it does occur it is brief, scary, chaotic and dangerous. The game never glories in it's violence. You are not playing some super soldier here, just a regular Joe doing the best he can. You could try and play The Last of Us as a third-person shooter, but you wouldn't get far. Ammo is incredibly scarce, almost every shot has to be considered before it is taken.
The combat encourages you to experiment, and I used all of the various weapons at different times during my play through. There is no single weapon that is best for every situation, and the enemy AI is really good, ensuring a constant challenge as they react to events.
Combat is full of small decisions that make up each encounter. I found it best to try and avoid combat all together where I could, sneaking around and taking down enemies as quietly as possible. If I was spotted things escalated quickly, and the end result never felt certain.
You can scavenge for crafting items as you explore, and it is really worth exploring all the rooms and hidey-holes in the large levels for ammo and resources. Crafting does not pause the game, so if you are in the middle of a fight and need to make a health pack or cloud bomb you need to find somewhere safe to do it. You have to sacrifice your manoeuvrability. It's tense as the crafting clock ticks down and you hear the enemy getting closer. What's more do you make a health kit or a Molotov with your remaining resources (they both use the same materials)? A shiv or melee weapon improvement? The best answer may never be as clear cut as it initially seems.
The roleplay aspect is not just confined to crafting, as you can read training manuals to improve your combat, worktables to improve your weapons, and use medicines to improve your abilities. You never have enough resources to pick every upgrade, so it can be difficult picking which to improve.
It all makes for an incredibly tense experience that draws you on, even though you know what's coming is going to be scary and tough.
Part of the reason is the extended quiet periods in the game that break up the tension and move the story forwards at the perfect moment. The pacing of the game is never less than great. It's here that the story shines, and I found myself falling in love with Ellie just as Joel was. Seeing the world through her eyes is fascinating; due to her age she has never seen the world as it was before the fall of mankind.
Towards the end of the game one such quiet moment initially had me giggling at Ellie's delight at something she had seen, but by the end of it I had tears on my face as the beauty of what Joel and Ellie witnessed contrasted so starkly with the horror of the previous 15 hours. I really found it tough to move on and force the pair of them back into the darkness. This scene may not have had the same impact in a movie, but after spending hours in the company of Joel and Ellie, and because like Joel I had genuinely come to care about what happened to Ellie, it hit really hard. It's experiences like this that games can offer like no other media.
The graphics are stunning throughout, certainly the best I have seen on a console. Environments are beautiful and incredibly lit, and varied, meaning I never got bored with any single place. Art assets are varied and virtually never repeated, meaning every one of the many houses I explored scavenging for materials felt unique with it's own ambiance. The animations are excellent, with plenty of nice touches, such as the way Joel touches the walls nearby as he sneaks around. Even more impressive is the sound design. The music is beautiful and minimal, but the actual sound design is superb, even having a major impact on the game play.
Joel's years as a survivor means he can "listen" for nearby enemies. Listening like this slows your movement down considerably, but means you can sense enemies through walls. You can't really tell much other than the vague type of enemy, and occasionally what weapon they may have, but it adds yet another tactical aspect to the game play. Distance and the material you are listening through (a wooden wall or a metal box for example) both have an impact on how well you can sense the nearby enemies, and if they stop moving and go quiet they disappear completely from your listening sense.
The Last of Us is packed with memorable set pieces, all different and all offering a different challenge. The shock of being caught in a mantrap and having to shoot infected as they race towards you whilst you are swinging upside down from a rope is one such. Others include sneaking through a snow blizzard whilst picking off enemies one by one, using a sniper rifle to take out hordes of both hunters and infected as they attack your friends, and sneaking through the flooded basement of a hotel whilst surrounded by clickers.
Despite all of the above praise I did have a few niggles with the game (though it almost seems churlish to mention them). First of all, console controls are bloody awful for 1st and 3rd person games. They don't seem to have moved on since I played Timesplitters on the PS2 over ten years ago! I got used to them after a while, but you just don't get the accuracy you can achieve with a mouse and keyboard.
The various environmental puzzles were fun, but hardly difficult, certainly compared to some of the PC-based action adventures of recent years. It also felt odd that fallen enemies rarely dropped the ammo they had just been using to shoot at you (a mechanic designed to keep the supply of ammo short I'm sure). Finally I did come across one odd bug where a group of soldiers got stuck on some stairs. However, these are minor niggles from an incredible overall experience.
I'm not a big console gamer. PC is my platform of choice for a variety of reasons. What surprised me about The Last of Us was that it didn't feel like a console game at all to me (apart from the horrid console controls). There were no "boss fights", no achievements popping up whenever I scored head-shots or the like, no loading screens, no huge swells of orchestral music. The game's great strength and the reason it was so effective was exactly because it refused to pander to the excesses of the console generation. Almost everything (story, game play, exposition, music) was refined and subtle, and it never compromised on this approach. When the excess did arrive, such as in the brief shocking moments of violence, they felt less cartoony than in most console games, more realistic and more effective.
As we are getting to the end of this post I just have to discuss the ending to the game in a little more detail, as I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. No spoilers here (though I may make a separate spoiler-filled post to discuss it further).
The ending to The Last of Us is unlike any other game I have played. It finishes the story, but doesn't offer a real sense of closure. Nothing I expected to happen did happen. It was quiet, thought-provoking, and disturbing. It wasn't about saving the world at all, and I found it shocking, moving and felt very conflicted (though less so since I've thought more about it and taking my own feelings as a parent into account). I can't really say much more without heading into spoiler territory.
A couple of points to finish off before my summary. The Last of Us has a multiplayer component, which I have heard good things about but haven't tried as yet. Finally, the screenshots on this page aren't mine as I don't have an easy way of grabbing screenshots of my PS3 and putting them on my PC, so I've pinched them from other sites.
So, how do I summarise my thoughts on The Last of Us? It's difficult. I started out thinking it was a good game, but not necessarily worthy of the praise that has been heaped upon it. After a few hours I was sucked in, thinking about it when I wasn't able to play. And then the last third of the game kicked in, and I was completely won over.
The Last of Us is an incredibly confident game than never panders to the expected way of doing things. It's incredibly well polished and the stealth combat game play is the best I've played. It is also a game that has forced me to be emotionally invested in its world, whether through the terror of the tense combat, the connections between the characters, or the heartbreak and confliction of the ending.
It's the best console game I've played, and destined to be viewed as a classic for years to come.