If art reflects the society in which it’s created, then we should probably worry about the sheer volume of apocalyptic drama that’s dominating modern media. From The Walking Dead to The Road via Fallout and now The Last Of Us, this recent fascination with decaying societies, rampant human destruction and devastating disease isn’t a particularly subtle representation of the perceived state of Western living. And it’s providing some of the most thoughtful and considered writing and storytelling in any kind of fiction.
Jumping straight to the premier league of this fictional trend, then, is Naughty Dog’s outstandingly bleak The Last Of Us. This is the studio’s first venture outside of the technicolour world of Uncharted for some eight years, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it might step tentatively into new territory. The reality is anything but – The Last Of Us is an astonishingly brave but lavish production; a big-budget and big-ideas marriage of world class storytelling and fierce action that will now surely cement the creators of Crash Bandicoot as masters of their craft. Simply put, The Last Of Us is astounding.
It begins with a bang, too. While the opening hour is light on traditional action, it feels like Naughty Dog flexing its stylistic muscles. A heady blend of gameplay, cutscenes and pure drama, it places you directly in the middle of the apocalypse, letting you experience the sheer terror and confusion for yourself, before ending as abruptly as it begins. Truly powerful stuff. The easy route then, narratively speaking, would have been to continue directly from there, but The Last Of Us instead moves the action a whole two decades forward, and while it uses minimal exposition to explain what has happened and how it has affected the world, you can fill in the gaps yourself.
Playing as Joel, a man in his late forties or early fifties, a man with a speckled grey beard and world-weathered skin, who has lived through it all and seen even more, your journey through this lengthy, sprawling adventure is as much about what happens as it is about what has already happened. It’s quickly established that Joel is a smuggler, and lives in a quarantined zone of Boston. His latest project – smuggling a young girl called Ellie out of the zone and to the mysterious anti-government group The Fireflies. And in order to do so, he’ll be accompanied by his partner, and is-she/isn’t-she girlfriend, Tess.
That’s where the story begins, but that’s most certainly not where it ends. For its 16 hours (and that’s a proper 16 hours, played mostly on Hard but finished on Normal), The Last Of Us takes players across the country and through an entire year, across all manner of stark, broken down locations and even more broken down people along the way. During that time, you’ll bond with the marvellously well-written cohort Ellie, although Joel is a far more reluctant and unrepentant character than we’re used to in gaming. It’s been 20 years since the breakout of the infection 9a Cordyceps strain that affects humans, turning them into cannibalistic zombies and eventually disgusting, spore-spewing abominations that line the floors and ceilings of the world’s more unpleasant dwellings. And in those 20 years, Joel and the rest of the game’s characters have had to acclimatise to a world where the rules just aren’t the same as they once were, and where death and killing are simply part of the fabric.
It’s why Joel doesn’t flinch when he first chokes out an assailant – this isn’t his first rodeo. It’s the reason he’s still around. It also means that The Last Of Us’ gameplay (which, fear not, still makes for the vast majority of the experience) ties into its narrative far more successfully than Naughty Dog’s jarring but wonderful Uncharted games. Joel is as much of a killer as Nate Drake, but he’s not cracking wise in cutscenes after doing the deed. And those deeds are pretty regular. The Last Of Us trades in a stealthier approach to action, but it’s action nonetheless. Whether you’re struggling against the infected, the military or bandits, you’re not going to get very far without putting a few bodies in the ground. However, with ammunition and supplies in short shrift, you simply cannot go out guns blazing and play the game like an ordinary shooter. Joel is too fragile, for one, and you’ll run out of bullets before you can say ‘mushroom-headed guy chewing out your trachea’.
So, The Last Of Us asks you to tread carefully, to use Joel’s focused hearing to scope out enemy positions and movements, to scavenge for supplies that you can then craft into offensive and defensive tools. You’re both the hunter and the hunted, strangling human enemies or tiptoeing past infected as you perilously creep en route to whatever exit or beacon of hope the game skilfully directs you towards. It’s gameplay that has been done before, but the beautiful animation and oppressive, tense atmosphere elevate it above your usual stealth fare. Just as death is inevitable, though, so too is discovery. The Last Of Us makes stealth hard and accidents easy, and the real game happens after you’ve been spotted. This is where the combat systems really come into play, where the choices you’ve made in your crafting, your current loadout and your sheer ingenuity must all team together in order for you to survive. Bullets hurt in this game – Joel can only take a few shots and so can his enemies, and there’s no recharging health.
This results in frantic, gruesome melees that often end in a pile of bodies and the heart-pounding knowledge that you survived by the skin of your teeth. And that’s just against the human opponents. One memorable encounter saw Joel and Ellie being spotted by a lone guard inside a decrepit hotel. Joel missed with his bow and arrow, but Ellie (AI controlled, brilliantly for the most part) hurled a brick at the assailant’s head, giving Joel enough time to charge him, smash his head into the far wall, and grab his shotgun before being set upon by his friends. A mad dash to cover and seclusion later, and the encounter morphed into a predatory hunt, with Joel picking off his foes one by one before leaving his final victim in a hysterical state. And then very, very dead.
You rarely have to deal with human enemies and the infected at the same time (for the entirely believable reason that humans wouldn’t hole up in an infected zone), so when you do work against the infected, the tone shifts significantly. They come in two main forms – Runners (think 28 Days Later) and Clickers (think hell on earth). Runners are typical zombies – they can see, they sprint towards and overwhelm you, and require quick and deliberate action. Clickers, though, are different. They can’t see, and instead use a horrendous clicking sound as an echolocation. If they grab you, it’s instant death. They can’t be strangled and they’re very resilient to bullets. When there are Clickers about, you have to move silently and with extreme caution, otherwise you’re going to die. Nastily.
Again, none of these systems are particularly groundbreaking or innovative, but the way The Last Of Us builds its tension and the way these scenarios often pan out (every player will have their own stories – the emergent behaviours make for amazing, gruelling and ultraviolently unique tales). But it’s the relationships that really make The Last Of Us. It’s a technical marvel, a true triple-A with best-in-show production values, but it’s the beautiful combination of performance and story that elevates it clearly above the competition. In the PS3’s dying light, Naughty Dog has crafted one of this generation’s true marvels. If scores are your thing, then know that this one was about as close to full marks as you can get (a few more combat options and a few less sticking points away), but regardless, like BioShock Infinite, this is something that will live long in the memory and even longer in the discussion.