Zombies. Love or hate them they’re clearly here to stay. Yet some developers, clearly keen to avoid gamer fatigue, are continually trying to do something different with the undead. And with The Last of Us, Naughty Dog have put a surprisingly plausible and fresh spin on the mouldering concept.
Taking their inspiration from the all too real Cordyceps (or ant zombie) fungus, The Last of Us sees a new strain of it infecting humans, turning them into raging aggressors whose bite will transmit the infection. And in a further twist that’s barely been used despite the subject matter, it actually has you play through the beginnings of the pandemic. It’s an astonishing and assured opening that sets up both the gaming world and main character Joel’s embittered and world weary personality when we rejoin him as a smuggler and survivor twenty years later.
Tasked with smuggling Ellie, a young girl with an apparent immunity to infection, out of a quarantined city, this sets up the only real goals of the game – reach your destination and survive at all costs. And survive is right. Capable yet vulnerable, Joel is shorn of the usual trappings of the action genre such as regenerating health or Olympic athleticism. He’s certainly no Nathan Drake with even minor jumps being all but impassable and loaders or helping hands required to scale walls. Likewise, his hardbitten cynicism and pragmatism is in sharp contrast to the usual gung-ho attitudes or cockiness so prevalent in the genre. It’s refreshing to have a central character that’s so down to earth. Yes he’ll kill without mercy or hesitation but only in the name of survival.
Furthering the notion of his vulnerability is the way that health packs don’t work instantly. Instead they have to be applied over several precious seconds. As such, it quickly becomes necessary to know when to withdraw and find a quiet moment to heal. Something that becomes almost unbearably tense when enemies are converging upon you. Similarly, melee weapons lack durability making the management of your meagre resources as well as scavenging for vital components to craft into makeshift weapons and equipment of paramount importance. And since the crafting of these items is done without the game pausing, finding empty rooms and safe spaces is key if you don’t want to find your last shiv snapping just as a Clicker approaches.
For the Infected are relentless. Normal Infected lurk around and will rush in to attack you on sight. Clickers however, blinded by their fungal growths, hunt by sound and the eerie clicks which presage their appearance are genuinely unsettling. Especially since they can kill you instantly. Taking a slow and stealthy approach can circumvent them but since other Infected can see you it makes for some agonisingly tense and heart pounding slow motion sprints where loss of nerve is fatal.
Yet in keeping with all good post apocalyptic scenarios, in The Last of Us it’s the other humans that are the real menace. Requiring a totally different approach to the Infected it becomes a matter of cover based gunplay and brutal close combat. With three Uncharted titles beneath their belt it’s hardly surprising that the combat here is so good. Yet the limited ammo and overwhelming odds makes this feel completely fresh. Since firing any gun will give away your position, they frequently become weapons of last resort or for use when you have nothing left to lose. Instead, it’s your improvised arsenal that you come to rely upon, swinging a metal pipe at a surprised opponent or sneaking up on enemy for a silent (if vicious) takedown. Which all makes the combat a messy and scrappy affair – albeit extremely satisfying and well implemented. For it really does feel as if each encounter is a genuine battle for survival. Particularly since the enemy are so intelligent.
Both human and Infected alike will communicate with their fellows, react to noise and attempt to outflank or lead you into traps. Smart enough to charge whilst you’re reloading or even to hold your attention whilst an ally sneaks up behind you these are clever boys indeed. Even the simple act of calling to each other makes things tricky for you since a squad member who doesn’t respond will raise suspicions. It’s incredibly well done but it’s not perfect. Very occasionally, enemies got confused and ran into walls or stood around with their backs firmly to you despite you firing a gun at their friend. And despite their rarity it still undermined the incredible atmosphere and reminds you that you’re just playing a game.
This is an issue that also besets some of the scripted events. One section in particular sees Joel hanging upside down in what can only be described as a Croftian manner whilst holding off Infected which is thrilling but grants you infinite bullets for the duration despite you knowing that you only have ten in total. Even though other scripted events are less game breaking, they still feel a little forced in comparison to regular encounters. Especially since these encounters rarely play out in the same fashion twice. And that’s before we even consider the existence of Ellie in combat. She’s more than capable of looking after herself and getting out of harm’s way meaning that despite being partnered with her for most of the game it never feels like an extended escort mission. She’s also more than willing to interfere in combat making things ever more chaotic as she distracts enemies or helps out with a brick to the back of the head when you’re caught in a life or death grapple. It’s not something to be relied upon but it feels organic and real in a way that Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth never quite did.
Although your partner can be killed, this only ever occurs when you utterly ignore them when they’re in danger. Even then, it’ll be a while before they die. Whilst some might see this as the game being too lenient, it makes for a much more enjoyable situation since you don’t have to rush in to save them and risk dying as a result. Other games take note.
The Last of Us is similarly forgiving when it comes to stealth with your partner never giving the game away. Again, this feels extremely satisfying since it means that the only times you’re spotted are when you’ve made a mistake rather than at the whims of a cheating or incompetent AI. One thing that the game could do with though is a ‘call’ button. A few exploration sections can leave you separated from Ellie when something catches her eye leading to you backtracking over some particularly vast areas. It wouldn’t hurt to be able to call out and get a response. Indeed, this could even have made it into the combat sections as a distraction (like 2010’s Enslaved – MB).
The growing relationship between Joel and Ellie may not be particularly novel but it feels genuine rather than forced. These are real characters rather than ciphers and their journey together is the emotional heart of the game. As such, Ellie’s growing capability mirrors her emotional development in a way that makes an absolute mockery of Bioshock Infinite.
Yet all characters encountered from allies to enemies feel well developed with their own motivations and desires. And with such a strongly written story, it manages to feel both epic and character-focused simultaneously. As such, it’s difficult to disagree with the actions Joel takes as the story develops despite yourself.
Then of course there’s the astounding visuals to take into consideration – particularly as The Last of Us ranges over a vast area. No post apocalyptic world has ever looked as pretty with tons of incidental details hidden away in houses where some players might never even look. It feels like a real living, breathing world (despite the irony of this being to all intent and purpose a zombie game) and with no invisible walls it feels huge. Which is absolutely true. For despite there being no side quests or backtracking, you’re still looking at a good 18 to 20 hours of play. And it never flags or misfires. Even the few puzzles to solve are less abstract head-scratchers than straightforward ‘how do I reach that window’ queries that are fully enmeshed into the game.
If there was to be one criticism, it would be that the section after the dramatic opening is a little slow in comparison but once the game gets going it’s near impossible to prise your hands from the controller. Both the story and the game itself are so utterly engrossing that hours can easily pass unnoticed.
Simply then, this is an absolute triumph and quite possibly the best game of this console generation. Moreover, regardless of whether you’re a Sony hater or lover you owe it to yourself to play this game.