The Last of Us is set 20 years in the future, in the aftermath of yet another zombie outbreak. Not the most original of settings, I grant you. In a slight twist, this plague was caused by the real world fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis leaping from insects to humans. According to the fiction of the game, the fungus is spread via spores or bites (why bites? Well it’s a zombie game, so there has to be biting) infecting the brain and controlling the hosts. Humanity has not done well against the infection, with the majority of the world population dead or infected and the few survivors living in quarantine zones run by the military. Joel & Tess, who remember life before the outbreak, are now scraping together a living as smugglers, moving contraband in and out of Boston. Hunting down some stolen guns, they come across Marlene, leader of the Fireflies – a resistance group trying to break away from the draconian authorities who rule over the small pockets of survivors. A lot of games would have explored this uprising and the chance to “fight the man”, but developer Naughty Dog has no interest in that particular story. We see very little of the Firefly’s and nothing of the authorities; outside of a few over aggressive soldiers. Instead, Marlene hires Tess & Joel to smuggle a package out of the city – that package being the teenage girl Ellie. This “small job” rapidly expands into a trek across the United States. A journey that will take Joel & Ellie several months, meeting various types of monsters; infected and perfectly human as well as old friends and new acquaintances. Yes, Tess doesn’t join them on this trip. No that’s not much of a spoiler. Just look at the image above – who isn’t shown?

The core gameplay is controlling Joel through a series of encounters with hostile opponents which can be approached sneakily or all-guns-blazing. In truth, the latter is rarely an option due to overwhelming numbers and lack of weapons. Ammo is unsurprisingly scarce in the apocalyptic environment while close combat weapons break after a few hits (fortunately in a consistent, predictable fashion). Therefore, stealth is always the better choice. The now standard quiet but slow vs quick but loud takedowns are in place with some incredibly brutal and varied animations presented. With few clear indicators provided, the experience is a little hit and miss and I often found myself being spotted while assuming I was safe. You’re regularly accompanied by one or more A.I. partners during these sections who are completely invisible to the enemy. It’s disappointing to see how badly the atmosphere is broken when Ellie runs past a slavering zombie, leaving them none the wiser but at least it avoids frustrations. Aside from this cheat, the A.I. partners are excellent, providing believable team mates that few games can match. For all the pre-release hype given to Bioshock Infinite, I’d say that Ellie is a far more believable companion than Elizabeth was. All the hard work put into A.I. partners in Naughty Dog’s previous series, Uncharted, really pays off here.

The sparsity of ammo also applies to all other supplies. You find a few items here and there but most are useless on their own. Early on a simple but effective item crafting system is introduced: For example – alcohol and rags can be combined to make a medical kit. The catch is that the same items also combine to make a Molotov cocktail, very useful for clearing out rooms but not so handy for healing yourself. A total of 6 different “items” can be crafted into a similar number of offensive or defensive combinations. Choosing what to make is an important decision, as is when. The game doesn’t pause while your character takes their ruck sack off their back and spends 3-4 seconds making their new toy. Not an issue in the quieter moments but an easy way to get killed during a desperate encounter, although your A.I. partner(s) will try to protect you. Those “quieter moments” also provide for some very basic puzzle solving, usually searching for an item in the immediate area to progress, but they also contain a fair amount of storytelling and world building. Characters will chat to each other while you explore with lots of well-acted, context-sensitive dialogue in place. Only a teenager, Ellie has never been outside a quarantine zone and constantly marvels at how the world seemed to work before the apocalypse. Of course there are the now traditional notes left behind as well as a few recordings, but far more powerful are some of the empty tableaux you come across. The artists of Naughty Dog must have worked flat out to create convincing environments as every location feels unique. They say a picture paints a thousand words, a lesson the creators have taken to heart; one small room in particular is easily one of the most haunting things I’ve seen in a video game, while a late moment of tranquillity is similarly one of the most beautiful.

This fantastic atmosphere runs through every aspect of the game and informs every decision. There’s far less of the dissonance felt in Uncharted where the wisecracking Nathan Drake of the cut scenes is a mass murdering psychopath in gameplay. The body count is admittedly high in The Last of Us but not outlandish, and long sections go by containing little more than Joel and Ellie exploring and talking. In fact, when faced with a choice between a game mechanic and a story element, the designers always go with the story option. There are no significant end of level bosses, no on-rails shooting sections and no forced morality choices to be made. Some will complain that the result is more movie than game, a completely railroaded experience with no opportunity for emergent gameplay and I would agree. But the payoff is a fantastic story, independent of the medium it’s being told in. It skilfully explores themes of loss, survivor’s guilt and parenthood while creating powerful characters throughout. 9 to 10 hours in as Joel & Ellie meet a new group of strangers, I’m wondering what Tess would have made of them. Tess, who we left behind in Boston! There are countless films full of opening act characters that I’d forgot about 20 minutes in, let alone several hours (or days) later. Perhaps The Last of Us would have made a better film. Or a miniseries? That’s something I can’t answer. What I played was a video game. Topped off with an ending that’s equal parts satisfying and original, The Last of Us is a stunning experience first, a pretty solid game second.

JIM

Single player completed in 13 hours, on easy mode Multiplayer mode available but not tested

If you don’t have access to a PS3, here’s the “mini-series” version: all 6 hours of cut scenes & story specific gameplay: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkLPKd-Vs8g – there should also be shorter versions of just cut scenes available. I’d be interested to know what people think of The Last of Us in this format….