In The Last Of Us, life is expendable. It’s a bargaining tool in a kill-or-be-killed world. Civilisation has been on the brink for two decades, although it lacks the moral fibre that had otherwise separated humans from dogs. It’s not an easy ride but for some, like Ellie, there’s still wonder in the world. Humans form fragile relationships often shattered by the need to survive, but Ellie is special. She is the glue that holds society together, and she epitomises The Last Of Us’ subtle social commentary. Bounded by the bond with the older, wiser and stronger Joel, she is the strength that has for centuries always helped the human race prevail in the toughest of circumstances. And her wonder drives the outstanding The Last Of Us’ experience.
Here is a game hardly restricted by dysfunctional expectations of the survival genre. It is the definitive survival game, years in the making on a piece of hardware that took far too long to hit its strides. But The Last Of Us is finally upon us, and it’s a tough ride. Joel and Ellie are eloquently written, separated by their distinctive differences, yet brought together by their own dilemmas in post-pandemic U.S.of.A.
The opening stanza sets the scene for the something special. Like something out of a ’70s horror flick, the uncertainty and fear of a young child — Joel’s daughter, pre-pandemic — initiates a wild ride of intrigue and terror as the world crumbles around them. Here we are introduced to a resilient, confident and spontaneous Joel, thrusted into a bed of power who, 20 years after the outbreak, is one of humanity’s final hopes.
Fascinatingly, The Last Of Us stands alone as a masterpiece despite initially lacking the narrative drive to power the characters. Joel’s partner in the first hour or so, Tess, presents an interesting alternative to our anti-hero’s sheer brutality, but she’s hard to care about with such limited backstory. Once Ellie enters the fold we finally start to generate some steam, and the game world’s careless and unsympathetic survivors seem like realistic interpretations of post-pandemic people. It’s not until Joel’s lacking moral compass is countered by Ellie’s innocence that The Last Of Us appears confident in itself.
As Joel and Ellie trek through an infected, and seemingly dying, world, we delve a little deeper into their psyche. Joel bares the grunt and brutal force necessary to survive, while Ellie is the warmth and resilience lacking in such a terrifying world. Violence is not recommended but is inevitable, as the infected and uninfected equally share a taste for human blood in exchange for a feed or resources respectively.
It’s easy to mistake The Last If Us as a return of survival horror in its traditional sense, but it’s more a tense tale of survival than anything. Action is excruciatingly violent, necessary in a world where the infected — of which their are multiple stages with increasing aggression — move with such precision, speed and force. Strangely, and part of what makes The Last If Us so special, is that humans present just as much danger, built with a formidable level of AI intelligence that keeps Joel almost always outnumbered, outflanked and out of options. This is survivalist gaming at its most unforgiving.
Combat is refined in such a way as to make it a tough gig: aiming with Joel’s gun is clunky, and the added weight of limited ammunition makes accuracy a matter of life or death. This is where the game’s survivalist tendencies shine through, as resources are scarce and stealth sometimes necessary to avoid uneven contests with unfriendliness.
It’s not perfect, but then again The Last Of Us is not a shooter. It doesn’t want you to go guns blazing, and if you absolutely must, it forces you to hit targets at essentially 100 percent accuracy, otherwise you’re basically wasting valuable bullets. This might deter some people, because The Last Of Us is not quite a “fun” game: it’s merely a challenge. It challenges you to make decisions relative to Joel and Ellie’s situation, with severe, severe consequences if you’re wasteful or erratic with your choices.
This severity of the game world is certainly unbalanced by checkpoints merely seconds apart, making death a gruesome formality but never the powerful end dictated by the game’s depressing arch. This is a game screaming out to approach the world as you would in a real situation, only for actions to lack the stringent consequences dictated by the gory ends. It’s not quite hand-holding, but it’s not on par with the challenges presented throughout the experience. This design choice was obviously to keep the story flowing. You’re not supposed to die, so when you do there really isn’t any other choice but for the game to rely on a loose checkpoint system to power things up again.
You certainly could play the whole game without dying, but you would need to subscribe to the game’s inviting looting and crafting system to keep Joel prepared and healthy. Combat is generally dictated by how you choose to approach an area, although the stealth approach is sometimes impossible seeing as though friendlies often keep the chatter up, even close to infected that rely on sound to hunt for prey. This is why it’s important to always loot for ammunition and the resources to build weapons and the like. Even if you’d rather preserve what you have, sometimes the game pushes you into doing things you’d rather avoid all together.
Similarly to this year’s Hitman: Absolution, stealth combat is fluid but also strangely effective, as you can often taken down enemies — human or infected — in full sight of others without them even blinking an eye. Joel can survey an area using his hearing, a mechanic which highlights potential enemies in the vicinity, but sometimes he’ll be spotted despite not being directly looked at, while other times he’ll go unnoticed while he brutally kills someone in silence.
The entire combat system isn’t perfect, but it’s shaped in a way that keeps the experience grounded in survivalism. At it’s core, The Last If Us is a survival game, with the added action there if you feel so inclined to go down that path. The game just wants you to know that Joel isn’t perfect and that there isn’t auto-aim there to help you headshot an oncoming hoard of infected. That’s kind of the point, so any discrepancies with the game’s combat — brutal force, stealth or otherwise — seems balanced with its powerful notions of survival.
The stringent fracturing of society’s people presents interesting moral dilemmas in the campaign, driving an emotionally jeering tale where actions have consequences, resources are scarce and everyone fears everyone equally: absolutely no one can be, or should be, trusted. This is carried over into the game’s surprisingly entertaining multiplayer, which sees two factions battle it out for survival and resources. It’s slow, challenging and tense, and is a welcomed change from overused multiplayer experiences this generation. The population was small at time of publishing, however.
Visually, developer Naughty Dog appears to have refined its PS3 capabilities, expanding on the already stunning Uncharted series to design a world brimming with death but also bursting with life, a strange combination that ties in well with the game’s powerful themes. It’s a truly stunning game.
The Last Of Us will go down as one of the best survival games made, and probably one of the best games of the generation. It’s not perfect, but it does so much right it challenging the player to make important decisions, always burdened with the consequence of death. Joel and Ellie are two distinctively different characters, yet also two of the more memorable when together as a team. The Last Of Us is a brutal tale, and a fitting way to see off the PlayStation 3.