Naughty Dog has plowed to the top of the hottest developers index this generation, but with The Last of Us the veteran Californian studio trades Hollywood motifs for Cormac McCarthy flavoured survival horror in what will likely be the PlayStation 3’s swan song. One last hurrah?
The Last of Us is such an unflinching triumph – the likes of which we see only a handful of times per generation – that it’s exhausting just thinking about where to begin. On a fundamental level, its successes are all born from a restrained and adult script, its two leads and a credible world. But it’d be disingenuous to suggest there’s any great dissonance between story and mechanics here. Rather, The Last of Us’ great mechanical accomplishments owe a huge debt to the resolutely human tale of survival Naughty Dog hang all else from. It’s a remarkably cohesive game from explosive opening right the way through to gut-wrenching end; its many cogs working in lockstep to create one of the most haunting games of the past seven years.
A survival-horror at heart, with the awkward and bullysome combat to match, The Last of Us places you in the tattered shoes of Joel. Set twenty years after a fungal infection reduces vast swathes of humankind to hollow-eyed madmen, it charts the journey of Joel and stoic fourteen-year-old Ellie as the pair venture across eastern America – from Boston, through Pittsburgh, out to Salt Lake City – in pursuit of a guerrilla cabal known as The Fireflies. Naughty Dog present their apocalypse without frills, relying on a string of conventions to give the story its backbone and little else besides. This is very much a character piece, The Road to Uncharted’s Indiana Jones, and as a result you grow heavily invested in the plight of the two leads.
It’s very much a journey, too, and Naughty Dog do a first-rate job of disguising and shirking the trappings of modern videogames to meet that end. There are no explicit objectives, no grand villains, no conventions loaned suspiciously from genres then bolted to the side. Absent are loading screens, save for one introductory whir. There’s little in the way of HUD, no sign of percentile progress, trophies are issued with delightful infrequency. The world doesn’t pause as you stoop to craft an item, nor when you’re reading a note. Once you’re in, you’re in.
Perhaps of greater importance are the persistent landmarks in place of waypoints; a canny means of drawing you into the world. Movement of time is also handled in such a beautiful and assured way (no fades or voiceover screens disguising transitions, just snappy cuts and dramatic segues through the four seasons). The result is a credible world and a genuine focus on the micro that allows you time to sympathise with the characters.
Joel makes for a compelling lead, yet he’s no Nathan Drake, sharing little with Uncharted’s quick-witted hero but a silhouette. Whereas Drake sidled through his world with the phlegm of a megalamaniac, Joel is altogether more dubious. You’ll come to rely on ladders and planks to bridge even the most modest of gaps (a ledge eight feet away here is not secret-code for an inhuman leap) and Joel’s lacking combat prowess betrays his status not as the superhero star of a thespian thriller but of a resolutely normal human struggling to survive in the throes of catastrophe. His flaws as a character are fascinating – the all-important ingredient to any good apocalyptic fiction – and set up a thought-provoking final act.
But Ellie steals the show. A marvel on both a technical and artistic level, her awe and wonder at the world outside of her City 17-like home is infectious and her evolution as a character under the surrogate parenting of Joel riveting. She has the capacity to tug at the heartstrings with little more than a look or a line of dialogue too, Naughty Dog working Pixar-level magic to imbue their leads with grit and emotion through exquisite facial animations and quality voice acting. Other characters come and go throughout the course of the game as well, and it’s a testament to the quality of writing that you’ll come to care for those you’ve known only for ten minutes, or through a series of well-placed diaries or environmental cues.
All of which find home in a world that has been poured over with pathological scrutiny. Levels are sweeping in scope and intricate in design, and though not strictly open-world, you’re handed an intimidating level of freedom to roam and dictate the flow of the game. You’ll want to rummage through the apocalyptic wastes, too. Every ransacked house tells a different story. Scattered text entries are put to surprisingly good use, allowing you to stitch together the puzzle pieces provided through environmental cues and sparing dialogue.
Naughty Dog romance the senses as you’d expect, and they’ve probably pushed the PlayStation 3 to near breaking point. But The Last of Us is enchanting on an artistic level as well as a technical one; the developer serving up one delightful scene after another. Certainly, this isn’t a game guilty of reneging on the sterile, grey factory two-thirds of the way through.
The rolling topography also aids the deft pace maintained throughout. There’s never being any sense that the developer is coercing you on to the next thrill. Naughty Dog juggle moments of nerve-shredding tension with prolonged stints of quiet to masterful effect, evoking memories of halcyon survival horrors. But that also allows the developer’s trademark humour the occasional and welcome outlet, and it’s the many moments of unswerving intimacy that compel you on.
It’s not all exploration though, and encounters with other human characters, as well as the infected, are rarely pleasant. It shouldn’t be too surprising to hear Naughty Dog’s unassured gunplay has found a natural home in The Last of Us’ baleful world, where the frosty heft of a shotgun feeds neatly into the overarching sense of vulnerability.
Combat is a healthy blend of gunfights, melee and stealth, with emphasis placed squarely on the latter. Husbanding ammunition and resources (Joel’s single-use shivs and jerry-rigged explosives) is imperative, so you’ll come to rely on his knack for strangling unsuspecting enemies. Which means drawing in uncomfortably close.
Few games can rival The Last of Us for the unbridled fear that comes with any attempt to sneak by the infected. Some of them operate on line of sight and are predictable, others snuff you out through sound alone and are not. Stumbling around drunkenly with no regard for geometry, they’re impossible to anticipate.
The result is a series of electric stealth encounters hinged on tactical, on-the-fly decision-making. Do you risk alerting an entire pack by strangling an outlier, or rush in guns blazing (a gambit that almost always ends in tears)? Do you craft a firebomb at the cost of a first-aid kit, or a smoke bomb at the cost of a nail bomb? Chance stumbling into a Clicker while creeping by or fritter precious ammo taking it down from afar? Abandon Ellie to fend off a horde of Runners while you cower behind a school bus tallying up pistol rounds or play protective father?
Every move in combat is a measured decision – evoking further memories of classic survival horror games – yet it’s precisely when a plan goes awry that The Last of Us excels. Because there is nothing measured about what happens in the throes of fumbling hysteria. Once rumbled it becomes a manic attempt to either break line of sight or engage in out-and-out warfare.
Guaranteed, you’ll waste precious ammo either way – sending bullets screaming off into foliage or a pockmarked wall out of sheer, hotheaded desperation. Elsewhere, hand-to-hand combat – the last line of defence – is wincing in its brutality, reinforcing even more that convincing air of despair: a fist to the jugular; a head crushed against a bus; an iron pipe to the brow of a kowtowing body. That feral savagery is teased out further by a camera that labors over every swing and connect. Not nearly enough games grant power to the act of ending a life, but in The Last of Us you can sense the red mist desperation charging every do-or-die punch or frantic squeeze of the trigger.
In what is certainly one of Naughty Dog’s finest accomplishments, the combat is made intense by your affection for the characters, and in turn that affection grows as you survive more hostile scenarios. Violence in The Last of Us is given genuine meaning, justified through the story and through the actions of Joel and Ellie. As a result, it’s home to scenes of true, emotionally powered violence, far from the hollowness of a Grand Theft Auto or a Call of Duty and more in line with the greats of literature and cinema.
Everything in The Last of Us, from its affecting and understated characters to its touching soundtrack, its wincing combat and tormenting stealth, its exciting level design, rich atmosphere and devastating violence, it all points back to a script that, in its unceasing restraint, breathes life, power and credibility into every facet of the game. Its successes all stem from the fact it’s a post-apocalyptic game in which people are the lynchpin, not the event. Because it’s not the apocalypse that sparks our imaginations, but the way real humans negotiate the morass left behind.
The Last of Us is an indelible example of such a work. Dizzying in its humanity, unrivalled as an authored story and by turns devastating and enchanting, it is a true survival-horror masterpiece and the yardstick by which all authored videogame stories will surely be measured going forward. In the Last of Us, Naughty Dog has delivered the antithesis of the modern-day blockbuster and, if it is indeed the PlayStation 3’s last hurrah, it’s one hell of a note to bow out on.