Game Review: The Last Of Us [PS3]
I’ve been sat here all day trying to think how to start this review, but since I finished The Last Of Us, the words to appropriately articulate the sixteen hours spent with it, are proving difficult to draw out. That can happen when you come away from a game that didn’t feel like one, when something forces you to fully interact with the entire production, it becomes much more than the sum of its parts. Something that any creative person strives for in entertainment, an unforgettable experience.
Naughty Dog are no strangers to making well received games. The Uncharted series has been lavished with huge acclaim over the years, and rightfully so. All three games receiving very high scores, Uncharted 2 still remains one of the highest rated games of all time on Metacritic. So it’s fair to say, that I sat up and took notice, when The Last Of Us was announced back in 2011.
But does it hold up to their level of excellence? Well, I’m sure you have already looked at the score, but just allow me to elucidate the very reasons that I choose to call this, the best interactive experience I’ve had, in 30 years of being a gamer.
How many times have you heard the phrase “I did what I had to do”? I’m sure most of us will have witnessed someone rationalise their actions this way. Does that make it OK though? Is there a point where, no matter the the reason, their acts can simply not be justified? It’s a tough concept, especially as many of us won’t have been placed in such a dilemma.
This “law of the wild”, has moulded the characters you will meet, for better or worse. It’s a brutal and unforgiving world that Naughty Dog invite you to join, the bleak and sometimes insurmountable fight to survive, is thrust upon the player throughout your journey. Some may find the content disconcerting, possibly even upsetting, but that’s the experience you are offered, and the onslaught is persistent and unforgiving.
To survive in The Last Of Us, means scavenging, in the truest sense of the word. Other than guns, anything you wish to use against the infected or other humans, must be crafted out of assorted oddments that you come across. The guns themselves and their ammo, is also something you will have to search for, and they are very scarce. I played on hard setting (which I heartily recommend), and I didn’t often find myself with any more than about 15-20 shots collectively. That may sound OK, but given the nature of the combat, especially with the way the infected move, it doesn’t really give you that blanket of safety you would expect from carrying a gun.
However, this feeling of constantly scrambling for supplies, is something that truly ingratiates the experience. You genuinely have to think about about how you will engage your opponent. I had several occasions where I needed to avoid combat altogether, as I simply didn’t have enough armaments to take anyone head on. But don’t take this as a negative, it projects an aura of fear and panic in combat. You are not a super soldier, you don’t have regenerative health, and more than two opponents in your face, means you either run, or become dinner.
It’s something that takes a little bit of getting used to. Countless times in shooters, you can brute your way through waves of enemies, making mistakes means you just whip out a bigger gun. In The Last Of Us, it means you die.
That realisation drastically alters the gameplay, and for the first time since playing Dark Souls, actually made me fear my adversary. It injects that mad scrambling feeling you see portrayed in horror movies, it’s backed up perfectly by the panicked noises Joel makes as he fights for his life.
As I mentioned before, there is a stealth option to the combat. You have means of causing misdirection too, throwing bottles or bricks can pull away guards, allowing you to sneak by. Joel can grab hapless soldiers from behind and perform a choke hold for a silent kill, you can even use a shiv for a quicker, quieter death. The animations during the choke hold are nothing short of perfect, the incensed victim flails and fights, trying to grab on to his last moments, the facial expressions really show the violent situation for what it is.
The flawless animations transfer to every aspect of the game, the context of fist fights can lead to Joel bashing someone’s head in to a wall, or maybe a nearby cabinet, it works seamlessly, you never get any awkward shifts from the characters to move them in to position for a brutal finisher, it just flows as if you were controlling a movie. All of this fits in with the survivalist theme in the game. There is no fancy military training, no martial arts, just people doing what they have to do.
It’s not just the main characters that are in a struggle though, everyone you meet of any significance is doing the same, and the world around them has suffered for it aesthetically. Visually, the game is a treat, every environment you move through is beautifully crafted with every intricacy. The aforementioned character models are superb throughout, even in the smaller parts. There are some rough edges and the frame rate does chug at times, but on the whole, it’s one of the best of the generation.
The soundtrack is equally impressive, upon starting the game, you get a very bleak sounding ambience, the different accompaniments compliment the pace and tone of the game, and even the situational music is spot on. From a variety of intensely evil sounding tracks, to lonely, dreary ballads.
Despite everything that is right with this game, there are a few things wrong with it. It may shock you from what you may have heard here thus far, as well as elsewhere, but the game does have its problems. The largest of these is the AI. Don’t misunderstand, it isn’t a constant shower of facepalm inducing incompetence, not by any means. The enemy AI is generally very smart, they don’t stay in one spot playing whack-a-mole. They communicate, flank and search for you once discovered. There are however, occasions when it seems like their brains have dribbled out through their nose.
That isn’t the main problem with the AI though. The real issue is with follower AI, you are accompanied by Ellie for the majority of the game, and unfortunately, there are a number of instances, where she will stand in plain sight of enemies, and they will obliviously walk straight past her. I can imagine it’s a tough job coding AI to react dynamically to your movements, but it really does tear you right out of your immersion. It was in fairness, less than a dozen times, but being that the rest of the game is so engaging, when it does happen, it’s like a huge slap in the face to drag you back to reality.
There are a couple of other hitches, having two or three infected trying to eat your flesh as Joel walks casually through a door (yes I was running away don’t judge), not being able to climb out of the water to a platform that was easily reachable. These things though, are minor, as they were only once each respectively throughout the entire game.
This is in all honesty, the only reason the game does not get a perfect score, the latter problems I can overlook, but the AI is really an issue for me. There are some that might argue the game uses some very tired gameplay, and that it becomes somewhat formulaic in later stages, I think though, this is just personal preference, and I don’t see it as being in detriment to the experience.
Possibly the games strongest point, is the storytelling and characterisation. The voice work that I very briefly touched on, is possibly the best I have encountered. Troy Baker, who you may remember as Booker DeWitt from the recent BioShock Infinite, gives a faultless performance as Joel. Ashley Johnson is equally superb as Ellie, and the dialogue that is bounced back between them is wonderful. If you recognise Miss Johnson, it’s because she also appeared in a small roll in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble.
It isn’t just the cut scenes that are impressive, simply walking through the echoes of the city ruins sees the two casually banter about sights and sounds. It’s done very naturally, and the two quickly become very endearing, despite Joel seemingly forcing his cruel detachment. Ellie, like Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite, is impossible to dislike, her fear of abandonment and need of anybody to rely on is charming to say the least.
The narrative never feels forced and I found myself walking through the game slowly, so as not to miss any little gems. A particular couple of pieces with a book of puns was a favourite of mine.
I have a feeling the ending may divide people somewhat, it’s fairly abrupt and it takes a little processing with everything you go through, but the more I think about it, the more I like it.
I often feel that great games are defined by doing the basics well, then expanding on that platform, with some great story telling and involving mechanics. However, I would also argue that it is the little touches that can change a game that ticks boxes, to something you will never forget. Having to shake the controller to stop the flashlight flickering, an underwater animation that shows how truly difficult it is to swim with clothes on, crafting items that actually show visually on the character. All these things add up to put an incredible amount of polish on something very special.
I’ve said in previous reviews that I would never be willing to award a game 10/10, and whilst I haven’t done that here, it has changed my outlook on that perspective.
The antithetical chasm between the personality of Joel and Ellie balances impeccably, added to the host of others you meet along the way, you have an overabundance of damaged psyches, that often make a self righteous claim to “doing the right thing”. It’s hard to decide where right and wrong come in to it, if at all. Naughty Dog seem to have created a world where there is no more morally black and white areas, only grey.
The atmosphere that this game projects is crushing and bleak, most of the characters are unlikeable and do horrific things, even considering their circumstances. You quite possibly won’t appreciate their actions, or the individuals they are. You will come to fear people and the environment that they, and you inhabit. That’s what The Last Of Us is, a difficult experience, a grind, but in a good way. I found myself sat open mouthed at times, unsure of how to process the narrative or brutality on the screen. It isn’t a perfect game as I have explained, but it comes damn close to it.
It’s been said that violence is creatively “too easy”, on the contrary, The Last Of Us makes every encounter meaningful. With every muffled protest Ellie utters after Joel dispatches unaware obstacles, every gargled death throe you hear, it reminds you that this game perfectly embodies, the most basic and powerful human instinct of all. Survival.