Current Release Game review: The Last of Us
The Last of Us is a very personal journey through a post apocalyptic America, it evokes comparisons to classics in this genre like Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ and ‘The Walking Dead’ graphic novels. But through its clever mix of gameplay styles and by taking it’s time to establish its story and the characters that inhabit this world it becomes wholly its own. My journey took me just over seventeen hours on my first playthrough and it is one well worth taking.
Beauty in the breakdown:
The game world is beautiful, though the narrative and the gameplay are both dark and violent the world of The Last of Us juxtaposes this with a bright colourful world (reminiscent of Ninja theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the west) where twenty year after the original outbreak of the Cordyceps virus, as humanity’s influence on the natural world has dwindled nature has reclaimed it. Skyscrapers in the city teem with plant life: a tree intrudes into a block of offices and water from a newly formed spring cuts through the remains of a hotel lobby. The range of places that that you’ll visit in The Last of Us lends the scenery a sense of variety, starting from a safe zone in Boston the player makes their way westward across the US. The changing seasons of each episode also help to give a distinctive feel to each new place you visit so that you never feel as though you’ve seeing the same building twice. Buildings and houses offer intriguing insight into the lives of their former occupants and the level of detail in all of the environments impresses, whether it’s a family picture that’s fallen of a desk in an abandoned office or a pack of dogs that have survived in the wild. All of these nuances create a believable game world, not far removed from what we recognise in our lives today. These details can equally add a darker hue to the world, passing by a sign warning of infected inside the building or finding a rotting corpse in a bathtub next to a suicide note are stark reminders that through the world outside the safety of the quarantine zone may be beautiful it can also be dangerous.
The design of each level is well thought out and while this is a mostly linear game (gameplay consists of fifty percent of the time engaging in combat and puzzle solving with the other fifty reserved for player exploration and to expand the narrative) the best way to progress is left up to the player. This isn’t a game like Deus Ex with multiple routes, but getting from point A to point B becomes a puzzle in itself with tense games of cat and mouse played out against the infected and other survivors. It’s here that all of the aforementioned minutiae of the environments gives the player ample scope when deciding on the best course of action and most of all it all feels natural. You never get the sense that a chest high wall or abandoned car was placed specifically for you to hide behind as you see in many action games, it is all very much in keeping with the art design. I did encounter a problem in two sections of the game where I’d managed to sneak past all of the enemies only to find my progress halted because I was supposed to take them out with no real indication prior to this leading to a few reloads breaking the wonderful pace of the game.
That attention to detail shows in the character design. Characters are beautifully rendered in both the in game engine and in cutscenes, during some of these I felt as if I was watching real actors. This is due to the expressive faces of the characters, they are able to convey emotions realistically which is so important for a game that is driven by its emotive narrative. Character movement is equally realistic and manages to feel natural as Joel climbs over the limb of a fallen tree or when fleeing from a group of infected, even when the characters take cover instead of sticking to the surface characters move in and out of cover naturally without a button prompt and this suits the fluidity of the games combat. All of the characters feel unique, this is done through a combination of the writing, the voice acting and their design. Each has his or her own style, regardless of the changing seasons you’ll notice that Joel and Elle tend to keep to the same colour pallet. Even in this post apocalyptic vision of America, holding on to your individuality is important.
The soundtrack to The Last of Us-composed by Gustav Santaolalla- perfectly complements the mood and setting of the game. The main theme entitled ‘The Last of Us’ is a dark and moody string piece, its laconic and slow burning nature conveys a sense of isolation (a theme that seems to pervade the soundtrack). More upbeat pieces like ‘Vanishing Grace’ provide emotional respite on Ellie and Joel’s journey, with its softer tone offering the player a sense of hope, encouraging you to keep moving forward with the mature story. One of the more urgent tracks in the game ‘Infected’ reflects the feral and visceral nature of your enemies, it combines industrial sounds with pounding drums and showcases the use of music to create tension in the game.
The games sound design has been expertly composed, most notable is the games use of ambient sound in creating a realistic environment. Immersing the player in the world. Exploring a derelict office block, you hear the wind rustling the leaves on a tree as you gaze down on the scene through a collapsed wall, the silence broken occasionally by a birds call. Its these natural sounds that make this feel like a very different gaming experience. Upon entering an abandoned building the first thing you hear is silence pressing in on you, followed by the sound of your footsteps echoing off the walls as you tentatively begin to move forward, it’s this silence that creates a palpable sense of tension during exploration, broken intermittently by the brief conversations between Ellie and Joel. The comfort these conversations bring is contrasted by the fear felt from hearing other human voices, footsteps and voices increase in volume as they get nearer helping to locate and evade enemies. The most terrifying and unique sound in the game is produced by “clickers”, these blind but powerful enemies use echo location to find their prey emitting a mix of clicking and gurgling noises that keep you on edge and If spotted the clickers issue terrifying screams as they rush towards you.
Troy Baker puts in another amazing vocal performance as Joel and Ashley Johnson is equally engaging as Elle. I also thought that the voice actors who portrayed Tess and Henry were outstanding, but voice acting is collectively great with each of the supporting cast managing to convey their characters motivations and provide a compelling back story. You can tell that a lot of time and effort has gone into writing the dialogue and as I mentioned previously, this is just another part of what makes the characters feel unique.
The Last of Us:
Neil Druckmann’s masterful script is one of the most well crafted narratives of this generation. It manages to present a dark, violent and compelling story while its focus on character development provides greater emotional resonance. Though there are plenty of games and other mediums that deal with zombie outbreaks (and the Last of Us certainly uses some of the tropes from the genre) it manages to avoid cliché by providing fresh twists to the formula. The narrative blends seamlessly into the gameplay with cutscenes advancing the story while ambient dialogue, optional conversations and collectables are used to flesh out the world.
After a prologue set during the outbreak of a pandemic-A fungal infection called Cordyceps that turns its victims into hyper aggressive flesh eaters-that has since ravaged America (this opening sequence is one of the most immersive experiences of this generation and sets the tone for the rest of the game). We take on the role of Joel, a survivor living in the relative safety of the Boston Quarantine zone who is tasked with smuggling a teenage girl called Elle out of the city for an anti-government militia called the Fireflies. With such a narrative driven experience talking about anymore of the plot would be doing a disservice to the game, I made sure to avoid all reviews and media before the games release and the experience was so much better for it.
It’s the direction that really sets this game apart from its contemporaries. Relying on the nuances of the script and strong performances to convey a mood or a feeling, the game is full of subtle touches that help us to get a sense of the characters and show the changing inter-personal relationships: it could be as simple as a character pausing to look fondly at his wrist watch (momentarily softening his rough demeanour), or two scared children debating whether the infected have a soul. Combat is visceral and brutal, yet feels so deeply tied to the narrative to the point that it never seems gratuitous. So much effort has gone into making conversations feel organic, even the ambient dialogue feels natural. When you explore an abandoned record shop Ellie will start to leaf through the vinyl albums commenting that’s sad it is that no one will listen to this music again, through ambient and optional dialogue (when investigating certain objects a speech mark will appear over a characters head and by using triangle they will converse with you) we learn more about characters, seeing another perspective on the world is interesting and it really helps in fleshing these characters out.
The collectibles in The Last of Us are a throwback to older survival horror games. You find notes, newspapers and tape recordings that all add just that little bit more information about the world of The Last of Us. These collectables are constantly engaging (as soon as I discovered another one I would find myself reading it almost straight away) I actively sought to collect them all. After you pick up a collectable and read it the characters will comment of the contents of it, I haven’t seen this done in many games and yet this is just another subtle touch that allows us to better understand these characters.
Survival Horror evolved:
The last of us uses recognisable staples of early survival horror games and incorporates both stealth and the over the shoulder gunplay seen in modern third person shooters. The player rarely has much ammunition and on the harder difficulties you’ll recall the sense of fear that the original Resident Evil instilled in players as you desperately search for something to get you through the next encounter, a feeling that seems to have been lost this generation. Do you want to sacrifice a shiv to open a locked door? Or do you hold onto the shiv, vital in defending against clickers. It’s the fluid way that all of these mechanics combine that makes the game feel fresh.
The controls will be familiar to anyone that plays third person action games. The left analogue stick controls the characters movement, while the right controls the camera. Using L1 takes the player into aiming mode where a reticule appears on screen enabling greater accuracy when shooting or an ark depicting where thrown objects will land. Accuracy decreases if your attacked or if moving whilst aiming (this causes the reticule to widen), causing a would be head shot to go wide of the mark and the R1 button is used to fire. The guns are stables of the survival horror genre: handgun, revolver, shotgun and hunting rifle. Each can be upgraded at a work bench increasing their stats like ammo capacity or reload speed, or gun specific upgrades like a scope for the hunting rifle allowing for ranged combat. Upgrades to each weapon are done in tiers and can only be accessed once the relevant tools have been found, there are five levels in all and it certainly makes the player pay attention to their surroundings as these upgrades can be the difference between survival and death. Weapons are upgraded with parts that are scavenged from around environments, promoting exploration of the semi-linier levels they are enticing rewards and feed into the risk reward dichotomy that the game revolves. Guns are not your only offensive weapons, as you progress through the game new crafting options become available allowing the player to make Molotov cocktails and nail bombs (which can be thrown at enemies or alternatively placed acting as a trip bomb).
Melee combat and this forms a big part of the game, it is hugely dynamic reacting to not only what weapon the player has equipped (and these range from wooden boards to the more substantial baseball bat) but also the environment. If you engage someone next to a wall Joel will often push them up against it or slam their head into it. All of the combat is brutal, visceral and sometime shocking but it makes it feel all the more desperate and believable. All melee weapons degrade over time, the weaker weapons may only be good for a few blows whereas others can deal out more before they finally break. Handily on the HUD it displays the amount of hits it weapon can take and this carries over to weapons that you’ll find in the environment allowing you to easily decide whether it’s worth picking up or leaving behind. One of the most interesting adjustments is the way that The last of Us deals with the harder difficulty setting, instead of just making enemies harder, it not only lessens the resources available to the player but redistributes what is available. On normal difficulty when you have your first encounter with a room full of infected you find an iron pipe which can withstand five blows, but on hard all your given is a wooden board, forcing you to change up your strategies
The stealth element is most reminiscent of the PS2 game Forbidden Siren 2. Instead of the ability to sightjack (allowing the player to see through the eyes of the enemy) The Last of Us utilises a mechanic called listen mode. By holding down the R2 button Joel can listen for noise, this could be footsteps, people talking or the shouts and screams of the infected and this plots the enemies in the environment with a white outline. This outline can be seen through walls and floors allowing you to plan a strategy on how best to take them on or sneak past them entirely. This mode starts off with a limited range and so you need to check enemy placement regularly as enemies on the periphery may not show up to begin with and later in the game this can be upgraded with Joel’s other attributes like heath and the speed at which he can craft. In line with the scale of difficulty this mode is disabled on the hardest setting (or can optionally be disabled in the menu). Items like bricks and bottles can also be utilised to distract enemies moving them around the levels to your advantage. By sneaking up behind an enemy and pressing triangle Joel can perform stealth take downs, by pressing square he will can choke them although this option takes time and produces more noise than using a shiv which will instantly kill enemies (this is the most effective method for killing clickers) but uses valuable materials. The cover mechanic is most resembles the mechanic seen in Tomb Raider; Joel will automatically take cover next to an object without the need for a button prompt. This gives stealth a sense of fluidity as you can transition from cover to cover seamlessly and can be broken by simply moving away. One aspect of the game that seems jarring though is the way that your AI companions are ignored by enemies, the first time Ellie ran out in front of a clicker my heart was in my mouth. While it does take you out of the experience I can understand that this was a preferable decision to making the game one long escort mission.
Crafting gives the player the ability to create offensive and defensive items, thought some items can be found they are few and far between even on the easier difficulty settings and so this mechanic becomes integral to progressing. By pressing the select button Joel will go into his inventory, this displays what items you have previously crafted and also the materials that you have available (these are collected through exploration of the environment). Materials like alcohol have more than one use, creating either Molotov’s or first aid kits. Like the use of bullets this feeds into the survival aspect of the game as the player must choose which out of the two they need more. Like in Dark Soul’s crafting is done in game removing the safety of a pause screen. Tense situations arise as you desperately try to make a first aid kit as enemies bare down on you. All of the items you craft can be upgraded once you’ve found the corresponding manual, increasing the area of effect for a Molotov or the durability of a shiv.
Human enemies in the Last of Us have amazingly smart AI and provide a real challenge for the player. They behave realistically: aggressively hunting you down pressing their advantage of greater numbers. To attacking from long range with firearms able to flush you out into the open with Molotovs, rarely will you see them mindlessly rushing at you. Enemies range from well equipped government troops to ramshackle communities and bandits that inhabit the world outside of the Boston quarantine zone. It does seem a bit strange that violence is always the first course of action , having a mechanic where you could converse with people and attempt to work out their intentions for yourself would have been neat (but perhaps not in keeping with the linier narrative).
Players will also come up against the zombie like infected. Runners are weak and can be killed pretty easily but can overwhelm you with increased numbers and once spotted will alert other enemies to your presence. The more advanced stages of the infection leave the victim blinded as the fungus sprouts from their faces. Known as clickers, compensating for their lack of sight by using echo location they are much stronger than the runners and if caught defenceless their bites are one hit kills (these are my faveourite enemies of this generation). This leads to an interesting cat and mouse dynamic as the infected appear in mixed groups the player has to work out who poses which enemy poses the greatest threat. One element I would have liked to see was the inclusion of areas with both human and infected enemies where the player could play them off against each other just expanding the on the strategic element of combat.
Multiplayer in The Last of Us offers two variations on team deathmatch: the aptly named Survivor mode where players only have one life per round with the winners the first team to take four of a total seven rounds and Supply Raid the traditional team deathmatch mode where each team begins with twenty respawns and killing the enemy team reduces their total to zero. I would have liked to have seen a few more modes, especially ones that included infected enemies; whether in a horde type mode or a player verses player mode (hopefully this will be released later as part of promised multiplayer DLC). One nice addition is the ability to turn teams off in the matchmaking lobby, this allows for more balanced games giving players new to The Last of Us a less steep learning curve.
By collecting resources (these can be found in stashes around the maps, looted from the corpse of an enemy you killed or awarded for completing objectives) the player levels up. In doing so new equipment, survival skills and items unlock for you to further customize your character. This system should be familiar to anyone that’s player Uncharted 2: Among thieves online, but it’s the way that the developers incorporate mechanics from the single player campaign that sets this apart. Listen mode makes the pace of games much slower as players carefully manoeuvre around the maps. The tension derived from cat and mouse games played out across entire maps is something rarely seen in multiplayer. Resource management is also important, guns come supplied with limited ammunition so resources have to be scavenged from around the map which can then be turned into additional items through crafting (this works exactly the same as in the single player campaign and takes place in real time). The most compelling part of the multiplayer is a survival meta-game. Starting multiplayer for the first time gives you a choice between two competing factions: the hunters and the Fireflies. You and your group have to survive twelve weeks, with each match representing one day. As you continue to play matches your group needs more resources to survive. If the player can collect the required amount (helpfully displayed before each match and also in the menu screen) people will join the group, if you fail members of the group will begin to go hungry or fall ill. If there is a hundred percent mortality rate you begin from week one day one again (this doesn’t reset the players level).