Bodies rot in gardens, streets, hospitals and quarantine zones, others are hunched over steering wheels in vehicles they inevitably had hoped would lead to safety. Their cars litter roads and highways, clogging exit ramps, choking escape routes, exemplifying without words an unspoken tale of surrender.
The Last Of Us Beginning
The land of The Last of Us is irrevocably stamped with what once was and never will be again. Twenty years on from a devastating fungal disease that brought America to its knees, the world is now different. Sinews of trees and plants creep between rubber and steel. Offices, in some places little more than piles of glass and rubble, now ring with birdsong rather than telephones. The echoes of loss lie everywhere, from decaying prom banners to overturned computer screens and discarded coffee cups.
Everywhere is death. In the homes, the cars, the streets, the sewers, the “safe” zones. You’ll pick your way through a family’s once-treasured belongings. Rooting through cupboards in rooms still housing colourful cribs and mobiles, lounges still displaying family snapshots, kitchens still cluttered with last meal dinner plates. I never acclimatised to it. Whilst it is indubitably a question of survival – of scavenging and stealing and sneaking around just to get through the next five minutes alive – it never feels wholly right. But with rations and supplies choked by militia and hunters, you’re left with little choice . . . right?
The Last Of Us Gameplay
And that, my friends, is what lies at the heart of The Last of Us. The uneasy tension of good versus evil, of survival versus death, of love versus surrender. You will rarely feel safe. The game’s tense, cloying atmosphere unrelentless right up until the credits roll. Where you might hope for a time-out, you’ll be ruthlessly pursued; and when you can barely draw breath with fear, you’ll find yourself able to creep around temporarily unheeded. You’ll burst from chokingly claustrophobic subways into blinding sunlight with palpable relief, unaware of how unsettled you are until you break free of the dark.
A stark opening prologue offers brief context to the tale before we’re thrown into the main narrative, the story set in a fractured future lying in the post-apocalyptic shadow of society as we currently know it. The story focuses on Joel, a gruff, rough smuggler charged with escorting 14-year-old Ellie to the Fireflies – a vigilante-esque movement formed to fight martial law oppression – in exchange for the return of his (stolen) goods. The story takes you across a handful of states, several months and many friendly and not-so-friendly encounters, and it’s throughout this journey that you’ll bear witness to what the sufferers – and survivors – of the disease have become.
Those unfortunate to have been exposed to the fungal toxins – or bitten by the infected – have morphed into grotesque marionettes of humanity, their battered, bloated bodies now roaming in search of … well, you. Clickers – named as such for the unsettling sound they make as they navigate using bat-like echolocation – will take you down with one putrid bite, whilst the Runners will scream a (nightmarishly grim) alarm to their brethren, overwhelming you in seconds should you be unlucky enough to be discovered. You’ll learn quickly how best to manage your enemies but you’ll never be smug; there’s just too many variables to ever be complacent and just because you were able to distract a foe with a well-placed bottle throw last time, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll successfully manage the same technique again.
Worst still, the infected won’t be the most horrifying thing you’ll encounter on your journey.
The story itself is a little ways from unique, so if some aspects feel familiar – post-apocalyptic lawlessness, scavenging to survive, weapon crafting, tool benching, zombie killing – you’ll be forgiven, although you can take comfort in the fact that the game pulls inspiration from some of horror’s most acclaimed offerings. But whilst TLOU does draw on outside influence and mechanics, it’s presented with clean, crisp coherence and just an unsettling sprinkle of realism.
I’ve seen the word “grizzled” equated many times to TLOU’s anti-hero Joel, and it’s a fitting adjective. Wounded, wary and weary, he epitomises the perfectly imperfect protagonist to fall on just the right side of cliched. Devoid of humour, spirit and even humanity, he is a survivor with seemingly very little to survive for. You won’t relate to him, just as Joel won’t care to relate to the survivors he encounters during his journey; flawed and floundering, his decision-making is at best dubious and at worst horrific. Thankfully, you won’t have to agonise about those tough calls yourself – The Last of Us is no RPG, and Joel makes all the hard decisions for you.
Even those you wish he hadn’t.
Ellie, on the other hand? Born in the aftermath of disease, she knows not of the world Joel remembers. Her innate optimism and pragmatism makes her a curiously well-rounded character, and instantly more likeable than her reluctant escort. Never burdensome, you’ll find her confidence and skills develop along with the storyline, moulding her into a competent and efficient companion, particularly so when she learns to handle firearms. And whilst her colourful language and feisty attitude speak of a backstory rich in loss and growing-up-quick-ness, Ellie’s throwaway quips and wonder-out-loud monologues frequently serve to remind you – and Joel – of her tender years and spirit. You’ll learn to savour her company, and miss it when she’s not around.
There’s plenty of variety. Each environment brings its own unique dimension to the gameplay, forcing you to constantly scan and adapt to your surroundings. Environments, seasons, combat strategies and enemies all change as the story progresses, ensuring that the gameplay remains fresh and focused, with only one or two spots of recycled repetition. Combat will feel familiar and only rarely cumbersome, with crafting/upgrading that should also feel organic thanks to an intuitive control scheme that you’ve no doubt played before.
Level design might indicate combat hotspots before they happen – oh, look, what a convenient waist-high shelf to duck behind! – but on the whole it’s slick, polished and successful, and even the most seasoned zombie hunter will be challenged, particularly when you’re forced to attack in a confined space. You’ll be able to choose your assault on the fly – jump in all guns blazin’, or creep around the outskirts, perhaps? – and it’s a credit to the level design that neither approach is particularly better than the other. That said, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Ammo is sparse, and with real-time bomb and health crafting offering no respite from the on-screen action, you need to be quick if you’re going to make it through unscathed.
If this is the Playstation 3′s swansong, I can’t help but lament that it just might be singing too soon. Never have we seen such razor-sharp visuals offered on a console, enhanced further by exceptional light, shade, texture and atmosphere. Sound, too, is horrifyingly brilliant, with the script and voice-acting unmatched in realism, emotion and potency. It’s the sum of these parts – and Naughty Dog’s aching attention to detail – that really does conspire to bring us one of the most hauntingly memorable games ever made.
Those outside of gaming may look at our past-time and think of fun and frivolity. The Last of Us? It isn’t fun, and it isn’t frivolous. It’s dark, deep and wholly disquieting experience, and one you’ll scrape through with barely more than a handful of PS3 achievements to show for it. This is immersive interactive storytelling at it’s incredible, terrifying best.