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The Last of Us - Review
Openings are important. They grab your attention and pull you in. Developers Naughty Dog understand this and so the first twenty minutes of The Last of Us are brilliantly set-up. Sat in the back of a car for a good portion of it, you're forced to watch as the world around you falls apart. Many post-apocalyptic stories struggle with the "fall of civilization" aspect and so many avoid it, skipping ahead, usually by putting their protagonist in a coma. Even if the rest of The Last of Us was awful it would have been memorable just for that opening. Fortunately, the rest of the game is pretty darn good as well.
Set twenty years after the initial outbreak, the story follows Joel and Ellie, an unlikely pair as they attempt to cross a huge chunk of America in order to reach a group known as The Fireflies. The disease that has decimated the world is a human strain of Cordyceps fungus, an actual real world disease that infects insects. The best science fiction is usually grounded partially in reality, and by using what is quite possibly the closest thing we have to an actual zombie disease, Naughty Dog is capable of cranking up the horror aspect.
And make no mistake, this is a horror game. In fact if Naughty Dog have achieved one thing it's to provide a genuinely modern interpretation of survival horror. Supplies are limited and ammo is scarcer still. To make things even more difficult, Joel's aiming bobs and roams all over the place as you attempt to line up shots, and the first gun you acquire takes an age to reload and shoot. It makes for a very different pace within a third-person shooter title; a lot of the time you'll feel rather disempowered and find yourself avoiding conflict rather than engaging in it.
Added to all that is the fact that Joel's no super human. In my review of World War Z, one of the main issues I had was how Brad Pitt was some kind of superman and not an ordinary guy. In contrast, not only is Joel an average bloke, he's also way past his prime. For the most part, he never runs, only jogs, he has none of the dexterity that Nathan Drake had in Uncharted, and his choke hold when he sneaks up on an enemy takes several seconds to pull off, as they flail their arms around trying to get him off.
Combat with enemies; both humans and infected, is a tense, sometimes frightening affair. Not only can you not take all that many hits, healing and crafting items is done in real time. What's more, you can only have several weapons equipped at once, meaning to swap them out for others means rooting around in your bag, leaving you vulnerable. It makes for a much more strategic kind of gameplay that rewards preparation as much as it does good aiming, which is as it should be considering this is a game about survival.
Meanwhile, the infected come in two main varieties; Runners and Clickers. Runners, much like the zombies in 28 Days Later, will dive at you the second you're spotted. On the other hand, Clickers can no longer see due to the disease's progression, and so rely on echo location. The series of chittering clicks, signalling that they're close by, will make you panic whenever you hear it, since one bite from a Clicker is game over. It results in some interesting encounters when both Runners and Clickers are both thrown into the mix as you work out which threat to prioritize. It's also a bold move from Naughty Dog to have such dangerous enemies turn up so early on in the game.
Whilst sneaking is a viable, sometimes necessary, alternative to bypassing enemies, there's the odd moment where it's not always clear whether or not you can creep past or are explicitly required to clear out the area. It's never a major issue though, and for a game that has so much else going on, it's surprising just how robust the stealth mechanics are. Even if you're spotted, finding a new hiding spot will cause enemies to have to search for you; none of that telepathic nonsense where everyone locks onto your position the moment you've been caught. The "levels" are really open too, an area can include a whole street, or several buildings. It's a big move away from the disguised corridor mentality of a lot of games, and even the Uncharted titles were mostly well-crafted linear paths.
I've skirted around the plot through this review because it's a story that deserves not to be spoiled. Few games are able to conjure up the ambiguity and emotion that Naughty Dog achieve with The Last of Us. The developers have managed to cherry-pick the best elements from the likes of The Road, The Walking Dead, I Am Legend and The Day of the Triffids, not to mention countless others, whilst also creating something entirely new. In terms of altering the way videogames approach story-telling, it's comparable to Silent Hill 2: none of its characters are blatantly good or evil, and there's no right or wrong answers. The ending meanwhile, will leave you dwelling on it for days. Naughty Dog manage to tell a compelling and engaging story without sacrificing the game itself and turning the whole experience into an interactive movie.
In this era of AAA blockbuster games, it's easy to be cynical and think that nothing intelligent and original can ever be made, at least not on those budgets. Then a game like The Last of Us comes along and proves us all wrong. Quite simply, a masterpiece, and a game that everyone should play.
The Last of Us was released worldwide on June 14th.
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