Name: The Last Of Us
Genre: Survival Horror / Stealth
Price: £39.99 from Amazon
Horror, stealth, action and cinematic storytelling combine in Naughty Dog’s latest PS3 exclusive, The Last Of Us. A completely different beast compared to the development team’s award-winning Uncharted series, can Joel and Ellie’s long-awaited road-trip live up to the standard set by Nathan Drake’s globe-trotting adventures? Read our full review to find out!
Survival horror is dead, right? Resident Evil has gone off the rails and the last couple of Silent Hill games were barely better than the recent movies (which were, you know, bad). They are franchises which have lost their patience with the moody, spine-tingling scenarios they used to set up in favour of epic Hollywood set-pieces and Rambo-like shootouts. It’s a trend that was arguably in part triggered by the Uncharted series, the Indiana Jones-like japes that The Last Of Us developers Naughty Dog wowed all PlayStation 3 fans with across this console generation.
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Those expecting The Last Of Us to be like Uncharted are in for a shock. If anything, it’s the closest we’ve come to a truly next-gen survival horror game since Resident Evil 4 shook up the genre, and it’s a triumph of smart game design.
But to call The Last Of Us solely a survival horror game is to tell only part of its story. Naughty Dog have proved themselves to be incredibly adept gaming and cultural magpies, mining all sorts of influences (both gaming and otherwise) to create a game that constantly surprises, horrifies and delights. There’s a slice of Splinter Cell here, a scene ripped out of Cormac McCarthy’s novel ‘The Road’ here, and indeed a fair helping of Uncharted’s all-out-action too. There’s more variety in an hour of The Last Of Us than some third-person adventures manage in their entire playtime.Pulling all of these disparate parts together is a story that plays out like a post-apocalyptic road movie. A worldwide epidemic has turned the majority of the planet’s population into fungal monstrosities, with spores floating in the air that first turn humans into raging animals and then, over time dull all their senses except for hearing and cause them to deform with large mushroom-like growths. The few who have managed to avoid infection live out their lives in high-walled police state cities, barely eating enough to survive. A mysterious freedom fighting force named the Fireflies aims to bring balance to the hardships of city life, but for many the relative safety behind the walls is far more preferable than the dangers beyond. Urban life as we know it is irreversibly changed; in the 20-odd years since the infection took hold, skyscrapers have crumbled, cars rust in piles on motorways and nature has reclaimed the land, growing over the concrete monoliths of civilisation past. Only wildlife and the roaming, screaming infected remain.
You take on the role of Joel, a middle-aged, gruff smuggler who is both feared and liked in equal measure. Though just as likeable, he’s no Nathan Drake; Joel’s past is touched by tragedy, and he has done questionable things in order to survive in this harsh new world. He’s tasked with smuggling Ellie, a young girl born after the outbreak of infection, beyond the city walls for mysterious reasons. It quickly transpires that she is the most precious cargo Joel has ever cared for, and the pair embark on a journey that takes them across the dark heart of the deformed American wasteland.Click here for more images
The Last Of Us is survival horror in the truest sense. Joel and Ellie will constantly be scavenging, always on the verge of running out of ammunition, always looking for the means to incrementally improve their meagre arsenal. Every shot fired not only runs the risk of alerting deadly enemies but takes away resources that may be truly hard to come by in the future.
Such low supplies not only makes each encounter with the infected tense and frightening, but also truly challenging. There’s no “one-approach-fits-all” to fights, and you’ll have to think on your feet in order to survive. Sometimes it’s a matter of patience, crouching quietly behind cover and listening with Joel’s focus ability (think of it like a spider-sense for the ears, allowing you to hear – and see – enemy movements through walls) in order to get a grasp of the numbers you’re facing and the places the infected are hiding. Perhaps you’ll need to quietly strangle a few, or throw a bottle to cause a distraction to sneak past them all entirely. Other times there’s no choice but to face them head on, but even then a well-designed arsenal of weaponry forces your approach to combat to be a thoughtful one.
This sense of variety is aided by the enemy and level design. From 28 Days Later style-runners that swarm Joel to the creepy, blind Clickers that use sound waves in order to hunt and shamble towards your position, to putrefying Bloaters with ranged spore attacks and armoured plating, each feels a vastly different foe. And when they combine forces to attack Joel all at once, it can be a chaotic battle to make it out alive. From tight, pitch-black corridors to wide open spaces, some with plenty of cover spots and some with next to none, some with the chance for attacks from on high, others where your best bet is to take a low-down path, your surroundings keep you on your toes as much as the monsters.Human enemies will also attack Joel and Ellie from time to time, be they military forces on the lookout for the runaways or scavengers whose morality has been dashed with the struggle to keep on living. They’re a truly devious challenge, often attacking in numbers and changing patrol routes regularly, with an uncanny ability to communicate your last known position and eventually surrounded you. Though you have a flashlight at your disposal, the shadows are often your best friend, and The Last Of Us’ stealth sequences are right up their with the best moments the Splinter Cell games managed.
As well as a spot of bare-knuckle boxing (taking the best bits of Uncharted 3’s interactive environments to use as on-the-fly bludgeoning spots), Joel has access to a number of bats, clubs and handguns, a shotgun and rifle, a bow and projectile consumable weapons including molotov cocktails and nailbombs, as well as shivs that can be used to sneak-kill enemies and unlock some doors in the game. Scavenging parts littered around levels will let Joel craft new projectiles, while weapon benches can be found to upgrade your guns. Supplements can also be found to improve your skills such as the range of your focus listening and maximum health. Though it’s not full of space-age weaponry, each offensive item in the game serves a unique purpose in combat, making their varied use a necessity to survival. By comparison, in Uncharted I spent 90% of all three games just using the pistols. Do that here and you’ll die a lot. Neat touches, like seeing a molotov smash on a runner enemy, only to attract Clickers that in turn burst into flames as they stand over the source of the splintering glass sound, is as satisfying a combat moment as I’ve had in any game. You’ll also sometimes enlist companions who can cover your back out in the dangerous world.Click here for more images
Puzzles play their part too in progression, and, like everything in The Last Of Us, feel carefully considered so as to feel a natural part of the game’s world. You may have to find and place sturdy planks in order to bridge otherwise impassable gaps in the world, or find a makeshift raft in a subway to help Ellie across a flooded track she cannot swim against. They’re never too taxing, but add a layer of believability to the many hardships and conundrums a world like this would throw at you.
What’s more challenging is uncovering all the game’s collectibles, deftly hidden throughout the densely detailed world. Notes and diaries reveal more of the harrowing events leading up to the game, and Naughty Dog have done well to make their collection more than just ticking boxes on a checklist. Characters react to the findings and discuss their meanings with each other, giving their discovery purpose and grounding in the world of the game rather than being just an arbitrary treasure hunt.
And it’s this attention to detail that makes The Last Of Us truly outstanding. This is a living, barely-breathing world, full of believable relationships and stories of survival. You’ll wander into conversations on someone’s lost ration card, or witness a brutal police execution, just by chance, or by lingering around a point of interest just a little longer than the average gamer would. Though it’s less set-piece heavy than Uncharted, when Naughty Dog do flex their directorial chops, they prove themselves to be masters of the medium. The opening sequence in particularly is one of the most finely scripted scenes (both mechanically and in terms of writing) that I’ve ever played through, with surround sound audio cues and dramatic events drawing the players attention in a natural way that cinema’s cuts and transitions could only ever dream of. This is interactive fiction at its best.
As you’d expect from Naughty Dog, voice acting and animations are top drawer. Ellie and Joel’s voice actors are among the best we’ve heard in any game ever, and their slowly-forming friendship rivals even that of the superb one found between Bioshock Infinite’s protagonists. In-game engine conversations seamlessly merge with pre-rendered cutscenes, with the quality of the game’s visuals so high as to make the transition barely noticeable.
Honestly – The Last Of Us looks every bit as good as every next-gen PS4 or Xbox One demo reel we’ve seen so far. Levels vary from murky tunnel systems to crumbling buildings, lush woodland to imposing military checkpoints and dilapidated interiors, each littered with details that bring the world to life. Wade through a stream and lilly pads will float with the ripples; a flashlight’s beam casts chequered illumination through a punctured wall; tree roots protrude from high within the ruins of a tower. It’s incredibly detailed, and it carries over to the delivery of each character’s lines – from a barely-noticeable raise of an eyebrow or widening of an eye to some of the most stomach-turning death animations we’ve seen for some time, it’s all masterfully executed.The Last Of Us is a magnificent achievement, one that weaves exciting, varied gameplay challenges naturally through an engrossing, expertly delivered story in a visually arresting world.
Does it top the Uncharted series’ best moments? That’s a matter of taste – the quality of The Last Of Us is not in question, and in terms of polish is every bit its stablemate’s equal. What will be to be decided is whether you prefer the pulpy, colourful action-flick thrills of Nathan Drake’s outings, or The Last Of Us’ visceral, more studied and thoughtful challenge. Thankfully it’s not an “either/or” choice – Naughty Dog have proved themselves Sony’s premier first party exclusives developer, and The Last Of Us proves that their range knows no bounds.
At the time of writing, The Last Of Us multiplayer servers have yet to be switched on, meaning we can’t truly judge what it will involve at the moment. As such, the final review score is only reflective of the single player campaign (we’ll update it if the multiplayer somehow proves awful enough to drag it down).
We can however share what we’ve learnt from scouring the multiplayer menus, which may give you some sort of indication as to what to expect. Multiplayer in The Last Of Us is called “Factions” and sees you siding with either the Fireflies or the Hunters. Winning multiplayer matches will see you bolster the number of members in your clan, and the clan’s survival appears to be tied to your ability to collect supplies littered around maps and scavenged from the bodies of fallen foes. Helping your clan survive a set number of days will unlock new weapons and customisation options, while hitting a 12 week milestone looks set to introduce new challenges to the mode and unlock the top-tier rewards.
Two match modes look to be included, titled “Survival” and “Supply Raid”. Both seem to be team deathmatch variants, though the only differentiating factor that the menus give away at the moment is that Survival mode doesn’t allow for respawns. Much emphasis will be on scavenging supplies at the start of each round, enabling you to craft on the fly weapons that will be vital to your success.
As is now customary in online multiplayer, you’ll be able to unlock player customisations through play, including new hats, masks and emblems. As well as customising weapon loadouts (with your arsenal again bolstering as your play), you’ll also unlock one-use perks for your teams as you play, that include everything from boosted ammo supplies to reduced armour crafting costs.There’s also Facebook integration included in Factions. We’re not sure how deep it runs yet, having not been able to access a multiplayer game, but in the menus at least it throws your pals’ profile pictures together with a line of text describing what they’ve been up to in the world of Factions. Seeing my girlfriend’s aunt’s picture pop up along with a line saying she was currently distilling ethanol definitely made me laugh.
With the servers set to go live shortly, we’ll update this review with a full verdict on the multiplayer mode once we’ve had substantial time with it.
I’m not a massive fan of stealth games, and even less of a horror fan, so for The Last Of Us to have so thoroughly won me over, even with its developer’s pedigree behind it, comes as a surprise. Though sharing the production values and superb execution of the Uncharted series, The Last Of Us is very much its own adventure, a sombre and engrossing tale that’s both harrowing and warm, set in a world both beautiful and horrific, throwing surprising gameplay challenges at you around every turn. A majestic swan-song for the PlayStation 3, where developers Naughty Dog can go from here is anyone’s guess.