Naughty Dog’s apocalyptic epic “The Last of Us” has received huge critical acclaim since it’s release on the PS3 back in 2013. After playing the game to completion, I can see why – it elevates gaming beyond anything else I’ve experienced. Some games – Halo for example – have a backdrop that would make a great basis for a film (a Halo film has been mooted for years now), but you could make an Oscar-winning film from TLOU simply by filming shot-for-shot remakes of the cutscenes and game scenes with real actors. The quality of writing really is that good. The characters are complex, carrying huge emotional baggage and their moods perfectly suit the theme of the game – a study of human behaviour during a desperate struggle for survival.
Is it a zombie story? Well, of sorts. The Cordyceps fungi (which is real but thankfully only affects insects in real-life) mutates and infects humans. Growths in the brain quickly affect behaviour, turning people into extremely aggressive zombie-like killers. In the opening scene of the game, society disintegrates rapidly as the the outbreak takes hold. At this point many modern games would start with bombastic scenes of terror and explosions, but TLOU knows how to build up tension. It starts with you controlling a young girl who has just woken up in the middle of the night and is searching the house for her father. Something is definitely wrong – there’s a distant explosion and as you move downstairs an ambulance races past the house. Move into another room, and Joel (the father) leaps in through a patio door and slams it closed. An infected neighbour bangs against the window a few times and soon smashes through. By now Joel is armed and shoots him dead. Shooting someone means very little in the hollywood-style opening scenes of games like Call of Duty, but here it has real impact.
Once the opening credits have finished, it’s 25 years later and very bleak. Think of the worst urban decay you’ve seen in an inner city – and imagine everywhere looking like that. From now on, the main part of the story involves Joel escorting Ellie across country. It’s a mix of exploration and the most nerve-wracking gun battles ever seen in a game. There’s always too many baddies and never enough ammo. On the infected side, there’s a number of variations which differ by the severity of their affliction. Clickers are blind and search by sound alone, and this is where the stealth element comes into play. Press the right trigger and Joel goes into stealth mode. Everything turns black and white, and the location of enemies is overlaid on the screen based on being able to hear their movements. Creeping through areas overrun with baddies is heart-poundingly tense, but it does suffer from one of my frequent annoyances with the stealth element of gaming – creeping around is frustrating when you’re not sure where you’re supposed to be going.
If there is a problem with TLOU, it’s that it cannot really be described as fun or enjoyable in the sense that many games are. My resolve as a gamer was definitely tested – at 55% complete I was (like the characters) starting to ask myself whether it was just too hard to keep struggling on. After a few days off, I returned to the game back in a difficult sewer section and got killed repeatedly. The answer to this – for me at least – turned out to make a real difference in my experience of the game. I turned on aim assist and dropped the difficulty to easy. Shameful I know, but at least it gave me the resolve to keep fighting. In easy mode there’s a few less baddies in each section, and the aim assist means you can get on with the job of blowing opponents away instead of struggling to line up a cross hair with the Dual Shock stick.
As you might expect from a Naughty Dog game, TLOU is a close technical relative of the Uncharted games, which is of course a good thing. Even on the PS3 there’s enough polygons on screen to impress a PC gamer, as well as some gorgeous lighting effects. The PS4 remake ups the visual quality and runs it at 60fps which makes an enormous difference to responsiveness. I found with the PS4 version there was no need to drop the difficulty or use aim assist.
TLOU is like one of the best films you’ve ever seen, except you get to play the main character throughout a story that runs to something like 15 hours. It’s gruelling, touching and the final scenes will linger in your memory for a long time to come.
If you’ve not played it yet, I highly recommend it.