Had Naughty Dog closed its doors after Uncharted 3 and decided there was no way it could top what it had accomplished, its legacy would be secure. But news of The Last Of Us held such incredible promise because it represented a blank slate for one of gaming’s all-star teams. Naughty Dog takes full advantage of that fresh start, removing the few lingering constraints that held the Uncharted series back from masterpiece status.
As daring as Uncharted was in terms of figuring out how to deliver the spectacle of Hollywood cinema without completely hijacking interactivity, the setup built on established foundations; it’s Indiana Jones with a prettier star and a different set of ancient treasures on his to-loot list. The Last Of Us operates within an equally well-established genre – the post-apocalyptic milieu of films such as Children Of Men and I Am Legend – but its creative decisions are far riskier and, as a result, deliver much higher emotional payouts.
For one thing, you won’t find a terrorist psychopath boasting about pushing the red button on this game’s apocalypse. A species of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus – perhaps the closest thing the real world has to a zombifying agent – has mutated, and is now capable of infecting humans as well as insects. Mere hours after the fungus takes up residence in the body, people turn into something monstrous. Their heads deform, assuming a variety of clefts and reef-like protrusions. Fungal stalks push grotesquely through fissures in skin.
You’re cast as Joel, a stoic but likable Texan who in the two decades since the outbreak has migrated to Boston. Joel who? Just Joel. The Last Of Us pulls off the game equivalent of throwing summer blockbuster volumes of cash at a film production and casting not Brad Pitt but some no-name actor who doesn’t even come up in an IMDB search. Naughty Dog’s vision for this apocalypse demands a believable everyman, not a plainclothes superhero like Nathan Drake.
The Last Of Us doesn’t just tell you that you’re playing as an Average Joe, but reinforces it on a mechanical level. There’s none of Drake’s cliff-scaling athleticism; if you need to get to an out-of-reach perch, you’d better start scouring around for a ladder. In early combat encounters, you’ll find yourself skulking about behind cover trying to pick off stragglers. You’ll scavenge for stray bricks and bottles that you can toss against walls to lure combatants to concealed areas of the map. The strangling execution that follows takes a few arduous seconds for Joel to carry out, reinforcing the sense that he’s no UFC prize fighter. And the boozy sway of your aiming reticle – stabilised through upgrades later on in the game – means the chances of squandering a precious bullet is high. Joel’s a survivor, but that doesn’t make him a firearms expert. In short, the game tastefully avoids the ludonarrative dissonance that arises from Drake being presented as a friendly treasure hunter while asking players to pile up hundreds of bodies wherever he sets foot. Joel kills because he has to, and there’s no winning smile when the shooting stops, just overwhelming relief.
The tension of confrontation is only heightened by The Last Of Us’s realtime crafting system, which requires you to hunker down in corners making health kits while your terrifying enemies shuffle past mere feet away. Just as nail-bitingly, when you want to heal yourself, you’ll have to watch helplessly as Joel bandages his wounds. Resources dotted around the map are achingly, wonderfully scarce, and many serve dual purposes: the alcohol and rags that combine to make a health kit can also craft you a Molotov cocktail.
While this is not an open-world game in the textbook sense, it feels remarkably dense for employing such spacious environments. A typical slice of unbroken space might incorporate a street, several alleys and a variety of multistorey shops or dwellings. This approach to level design gracefully serves the game’s narrative context: when an apocalyptic event knocks out the structured routine of law-abiding society, you’d expect there to be more latitude in your decision-making.
The world of The Last Of Us is big enough to get lost in, and without the aid of a minimap, we did on several occasions. Whereas Uncharted often felt like walking down a scenic but clearly delineated hiking trail, The Last Of Us prizes deep, meaningful exploration. You’re constantly looting for supplies, not just for ammo and upgrades. You’ll also find handwritten letters, voice recorders and journal entries. The Last Of Us has a linear tale to convey – Joel’s smuggling of a 14-year-old girl named Ellie to a revolutionary group called The Fireflies for reasons we shan’t spoil – but makes its tale feel less prescribed than Uncharted’s by letting you play the role of amateur detective. The result is a story-driven game that begs to be played, not observed from the couch.
Joel and Ellie soon depart from Boston and their trek across the country is equal parts The Road and On The Road. There are bleak moments in abundance, but there is also scattered levity of the sort that would make Cormac McCarthy spit in disgust. The complications that propel Joel and Ellie to far-flung regions of the continental United States enable Naughty Dog’s art team to serve up the sort of wide-ranging visual buffet it all but perfected while bringing Drake’s globe-trotting to life. Ellie grew up sequestered in the Boston quarantine zone, and seeing the wider world through her unjaded eyes makes you appreciate the subtle details. There’s a steady parade of sights to marvel at, such as a purple-pink sunset illuminating a ruined skyline, the glisten and ripple of waist-deep water as you wade down a flooded street, and the way the visual depth of field noticeably shifts when you hoist your weapon to aim. This is the work of a studio that has got the best out of PS3 by pushing it to its absolute limits.
Just as the game rewards you with a steady, unmistakable sense of character progression, it offers
a dazzling sense of geographical progression as well. Without picking out the exact map markers on the pair’s travelogue, your surroundings morph from the drab brick and mortar of quarantine zones to foothills, mist-covered peaks, rivers and woodland.
The journey feels like a reconciliation of sorts. Nature introduced the fungus that brought about all this mess, and as you move toward your goal, you’re forced to step deeper into the natural world and learn to depend once again on its capacity to sustain life. The Last Of Us feels like an open-hearted love letter to America in its most primal form. The traditional folk instrumentation of Oscar-winning Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Babel, Brokeback Mountain) adds to the earthiness of the game without stepping on the toes of every moment of calm Joel and Ellie get to savour between outbreaks of violence.
It’s a game of remarkable character, too. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson’s performances as Joel and Ellie breathe poignancy into the grace notes of the script, but there is emotion even when the game is completely silent. When you crouch behind cover as Joel, he’ll instinctively steady himself by resting one hand against the wall; position yourself close to Ellie and Joel’s arm stretches over her shoulder like the wing of a bird shielding its young.
If given too much screen time, the infected assailants could easily distract from this sensitively cultivated human drama, but the game’s biggest threat is used sparingly. The sonar chirps of the so-called Clickers, who stumble slowly about in blindness listening for your footfalls, will make your heart race, not least because they will kill you instantly if they get their hands on you. If you want to grab them, only a shiv will take them down; they can’t be choked like humans. Runners, meanwhile, will sprint straight toward you, bobbing and weaving to make sure you burn as much ammo as possible. Ammo and resource shortages deftly force you to employ the whole range of your arsenal instead of merely picking a favourite gun and running with it all the way to the finish line. And even on the lower difficulty settings, this is no easy journey. Just because The Last Of Us is a game about survival doesn’t mean it necessarily wants you to get accustomed to surviving. We watched Joel and Ellie die screaming with alarming frequency – little wonder we saw so few human beings on our travels.
The Last Of Us strips away the geek-centric fan service so commonplace in contemporary games. For every highbrow idea explored, developers seem compelled to throw in a lowbrow one to counterbalance it. The Last Of Us resists such compromises, and does so without disappearing up its own backside. Naughty Dog has delivered the most riveting, emotionally resonant story-driven epic of this console generation. At times it’s easy to feel like big-budget development has too much on the line to allow stubbornly artful ideas to flourish, but then a game like The Last Of Us emerges through the crumbled blacktop like a climbing vine, green as a burnished emerald.
The Last Of Us is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.