The Last Of Us is a Sony exclusive from Naughty Dog, makers of Jak & Daxter and Uncharted. It may be the most important game of the next generation, despite being the swansong from this generation.
This is going to be a two part review of sorts. We’ll start with the game itself and avoid spoilers, then give you a score, we’d suggest only reading past that if you have finished the game.
What you have with The Last Of Us is a game that does the gamey parts really well, but intertwines them with a story in a way that has never been seen before. This is in part not only to fantastic game design, or movie standard writing, it is mainly down to the fact that Naughty Dog are treating the audience with a huge amount of respect. They don’t feel they need to spell out every little mechanic of the game, or explain why we must approach parts in a certain way. They assume intelligence, rather than a lack thereof.
This is evidenced in the way the game approaches combat. It is part cover shooter, part stealth, but at the same time it is neither of these and at times very much both at the same time. As said, the developers assume intelligence, they believe that the audience given a particular situation will work out their own way through. So when the game throws up a set piece, it doesn’t immediately say… “this is a stealth section” or “this is where you expend a few bullets”. Why would it, if you put yourself in a situation like Joel will often find himself and Ellie in, you would likely want to avoid interaction that could lead to potential death, engaging would only be a last resort and that is how you approach any potential volatile situations here.
There isn’t a specific stealth mechanic as such, you don’t have to press any buttons to enter cover. All of this is handled naturally, by crouching down you are moving slower, edging your way around the environment, whether you are facing combat or not, if you are walking by an upturned table, walls, filing cabinets, desks, etc then you will see Joel naturally move around them, touching them to maybe steady his balance, that sort of thing.
So because you don’t need to make any special inputs to go stealth mode, or find cover it leads to a really interesting way of approaching combat. If you are behind cover, then you are behind cover as simple as that. If you are in a spot where you should be hidden, then you are hidden. It adds a degree of tension to scenarios that haven’t felt this natural before. It also means that should your stealthy approach go wrong and all hell breaks loose, then it isn’t a forced try again, or pretty much game over. You adapt and survive, even if it means turning round and running for your life.
The AI on the enemy side is fairly clever too, if they know you are around, they are on alert, they will hunt you down, so even if you manage to run away and get hidden again, the dynamics of that battle have changed completely. You can still sneak around and try to take out enemies quietly, but you know now that they are also hunting you. No two fights are ever really the same, even if they come across as similar.
There are some AI issues, namely with any partners you have. They can often pop out of cover, or make a lot of noise and they simply won’t be detected, the enemy AI too can sometimes be oblivious to a sudden lack of buddies around them who were there all of five seconds ago. They also will not really notice the dead boy that suddenly appeared. This is an issue with games going back a long time and it is a minor indiscretion that can be forgiven as it isn’t game breaking and happens a lot less than you’d think when you look back at the experience you have had.
So that’s the combat side of things, it is pretty damn good because it doesn’t follow any of the tried and tested methods. Exploration whilst being a bit more in keeping with what we are used too, still feels fresh and the game almost forces you to want to go off the beaten track of what is essentially a very linear journey. You see, thanks to a system that has you foraging for useful things, you feel that as you do move through the game, you need to find those essentials. You need to find ammunition, or you have no choice but to stop for a moment and see if you find the items needed to make a molotov cocktail, or a health pack.
This has been done to death though, so what makes it work so well in The Last Of Us? This time it is an understanding of the real world. Everything you collect weapon wise needs to be carried, so you look at Joel and you’ll notice every weapon he has is attached to him in a fashion, whether it be holstered, or attached to his backpack, or even inside of that backpack. Swap out an available weapon for another and Joel will have to stop, take his pack off, open it and swap. It’s a little touch, but it means you have to be prepared at all times.
This real world logic also means that items you find can only be carried to a finite number. You can stock up on health packs, home made bombs, shivs and such, but not to an endless amount. Why should it be endless? You take only what you can carry, which is hit home during a moment in the game (we’ll touch on this in the spoiler section) to great effect.
This leads to some clever and well thought out difficulty curves. It isn’t a game that starts off easy and just gets harder. What happens in The Last Of Us is the story drives the difficulty of particular situations. There are some really easy parts where you may be suddenly stocked up to the eyeballs, taking out small pockets of enemies (either human or infected) with comparative ease, when all of a sudden a change in the story sees you come out of another encounter with literally nothing, having expended all your stocks just to survive. This in turn will leave you on edge, hoping and begging that the next encounter isn’t right round the corner, because if it is… well then you are screwed.
Good gameplay and a great story (we’ll get to story soon) aren’t all that is needed to make a game stand out as one of the greatest ever. It is the little touches, the love and care from all involved to add the attention to details that bring everything to life. The characters don’t just interact during cut-scenes, they do so throughout gameplay too. Which in itself isn’t anything new, but the attention to detail on how they interact is what makes it truly special.
The characters not only talk to each other with some recorded dialog, which never feels like it is canned chatter, they also talk with body language. If Joel is making a point about something, he will use his arms, much in the way we would in natural conversation. As Ellie and Joel become warmer to each other you start to notice their body language towards each other change. Ellie goes from arms folded and nervous to a lot more open as the game goes on. You also hear how the voices change over time. Joel’s voice being colder and more abrupt with characters he meets and doesn’t trust yet, compared to warmth reserved for other characters. Mood also plays a part, if there are moments of quiet reflection the body language and voices are different to if there is a moment of panic.
It is the same with the attention to detail of the world around. Nature has started to reclaim the planet and the mix of the world we know being eaten up by nature is a sight to behold, but it is the things you don’t immediately notice that make it so special and done so right. Light is so natural that you don’t sit there and comment to yourself just how well done this is. You don’t notice as such that the game cuts off huge areas of the world, if it doesn’t want you to go somewhere, there seems to be natural blocks that you as a single human being will not be able to get past, so you happily leave it be without questioning the stupidity of not being able to get over a knee high wall.
The Last Of Us as a game in its own right is sublime, the mix of combat, exploration, setting and story telling are mixed together in a way that we have never seen before, not to this level anyway. Naughty Dog have raised the bar to new heights that likely have other developers quaking at the prospect of meeting these new standards. Hopefully though it is a dev team laying down the gauntlet that others will try to emulate and eventually beat.
The Last Of Us is a game that will go down as one of the most important of all time. Why? Because it is honestly the first time a game has handled adult themes and stories in a way that as we said about the gameplay, assumes intelligence. It doesn’t descend into cheap tricks in the writing. Adult doesn’t all of a sudden mean nudity, sex, violence and swearing for the sake of having nudity, sex, violence and swearing. It doesn’t contain some of those things, but it contains them with the right context.
The ‘No Russian’ part of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was cited at being adult content by some. Yet this was frankly an embarrassment to the idea that games could tell an adult story in an adult way and set back public perception a fair way. Other games have also tried and always seemed to fall short, often failing at the same hurdles, why does the character need to do this, why are they acting in this way. The Last Of Us takes cues from TV, Movies and Books and sticks hard and fast to the concepts, fitting the game around the story it wants to tell rather than making the story fit the game and having things happen for the sake of action.
We have an opening that is quite simply one of the most emotionally distressing I have ever witnessed in a game. Yet these are characters we don’t even know yet. Hell one of them isn’t even the character we thought we’d be seeing. Who is Sarah? We know she is Joel’s daughter, but isn’t this meant to be a about a girl called Ellie? Yet here we are controlling Sarah before even Joel. What we know is something bad is going to happen, we expect it to happen, yet still it pulls at the heart strings, you feel the tears coming as Joel holds his daughter in his arms as she dies, not attacked by the infected, but shot down in cold blood by a soldier… It is shocking and already you emotions have been pulled all over the place.
It is the very next scene though that shows a level of maturity that is new in gaming, yet is a trick used in film and TV… 20 Years Later…
Twenty years have passed since Joel lost his daughter, we haven’t witnessed what happens in those twenty years how he dealt with her death and why he is where he is now. Other questions are also raised, what happened to Tommy? Is he alive? Dead? All those thoughts happen in a few moments before we are introduced to… Oh, not Ellie, but Tess. You expect to be off to find Ellie in some fashion instantly, but instead you are fighting a cause that has nothing to do with Ellie, it does leave you a bit confused, but you roll with it anyway.
When you do finally meet up with Ellie, you start to get a handle on how Joel dealt with the death of Sarah, he is cold towards this kid, he sees her as a package. We have a man that is emotionally shut off it seems and will reluctantly do what he has to do for the good of the cause. This leads to a moment where a life is laid down to protect the greater good, yet it isn’t Joel doing anything for Ellie, in fact he is still indifferent to her, in fact he would rather not being doing what he is doing. Yet Tess having become infected herself is willing to lay down her life to allow Joel and Ellie to escape.
It not here though that the bond between the two characters starts to form. There is a lot of resentment on both sides, Joel especially as he clearly doesn’t want to get close to someone who reminds him of his daughter, someone who has (albeit indirectly) been responsible for the death of someone else he clearly cared about.
There isn’t really any one moment where you can pinpoint as the moment Joel changed towards Ellie, it is something that happened naturally over the course of the game, with much of it happening in the chunks of time cut from the story, where things are left a little to our imagination. There are two exceptional standout moments where this is done to great effect.
One is after meeting Henry and Sam. These are two people who have a relationship that is clearly a lot stronger at the time than Joel and Ellie. As evidenced when Henry can either save Joel, or run and keep Sam protected. He choose to protect Sam, yet here we see Ellie and Joel’s bond has come on somewhat from the first meeting. Ellie could have run, but she stays and fights. Later they do meet again and the reactions of the characters to what had happened previously is real totally how you’d expect it to be handled.
Anyway, the huge cut of time happens immediately after a touching moment between Sam and Ellie. Sam is infected and turns, Henry is forced to shoot his brother to save Ellie. You know exactly what is coming next as Henry becomes emotionally unstable in an instant and turns the gun on himself and pull the trigger… Cut to black…pause for a moment… FALL.
It is clear a period of time has passed and rather than immediately have to see the characters deal with what had happened, by extending the cut scene and having to mix that with gameplay that would need to have them continue to talk about it, or enter into battles that would seem out of place. The writing basically moves the story ahead a few weeks leaving us to fill in the gaps.
Another moment is just after Joel is critically wounded. Ellie does everything she can to save him and help them both escape the immediate danger. We are left knowing that Joel is weak and basically bleeding out, with little to no hope of being able to save him with the supplies on hand. We hit a moment and then fade to black… WINTER
We are then controlling Ellie and have no clue what has happened to Joel. He’ll still be alive, he is the main character. Yet the way Ellie is talking to herself, he is dead isn’t he. Yet there is no time to dwell, you need to start hunting a deer. Ellie needs to survive and it is clear a fair amount of time has passed again, she is a lot more skilled than she previously was. Maybe Joel is dead? Yet without doing a bit reveal Ellie makes it known that Joel is still alive in her first meeting with David. It is subtle yet very cleverly done.
Winter is one of the standout levels of any game ever made, the change in the mood is well handled and David will go down as one of the all time most evil characters in a game. Yet he isn’t evil for the sake of it, the world he is in has driven him to where he is and his desperation to have Ellie whilst dark and disturbing are clear. The writing has handled the character of David in a very mature fashion. Again a cut is used from Winter to Spring for us to fill in the gaps, yet this time the mood is different.
As the Joel and Ellie get closer to there goal there is something very somber about their attitudes and rather than having a cut-scene where the characters have a heart to heart, they instead use a moment of normal gaming mechanics to convey there is something up, as Ellie usually quick to help with a ladder is sat with her head somewhere else completely. This is then offset by one of the most beautiful moments of the generation. Up there with crossing to Mexico in Red Dead Redemption, or coming out of the Vault for the first time in Fallout. The parading giraffes is a moment of pure tranquility, one that just worked to perfection to set up what was to come, one last moment of peace.
The ending of the game too is not one you’d expect from a game. After shooting your way to Ellie you are confronted by a surgeon and a couple of his assistants who are about to perform the surgery on Ellie that could find a cure to the disease that has all but ended the world. Yet here is a man that is a broken emotional mess. Whose actions on the surface come across as entirely selfish, caring for his own needs over the greater good.
This is a man who by saving the one person he didn’t want to get emotionally attached to, has betrayed the one person he had possibly loved in the twenty years since he lost Sarah. Tess knew the importance of Ellie and gave her life to do her part. Yet her is Joel, having killed a surgeon, who as far as we are aware, is doing a good thing by finding a cure, just so doesn’t have to feel the pain of losing someone else he loves.
He goes from killing to survive, doing so on instinct, to acting in what appears to be a more cold blooded nature. Coming from the lift, he shoots Marlene stone dead and again another cut as we come to Ellie coming around in the car, as Joel fills her head with reasoning as to why he has saved her. Then the moment she asks Joel whether he has been lying and the look in her eyes as the response comes back. Such raw emotion in a scene that is totally out of the blue for a video game.
There was no violence for violence sake, everything felt like it was done with perfect context. The writers and those that acted in the game all deserve a lot of credit, it was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had with a controller in my hands.