The Last of US

The New year has come and gone, with it a slew of new games announcements and news comes along. One such piece of news is the upcoming story based prequel DLC for The Last of Us titled ‘Left Behind‘ coming to the PS3 sometime later this year. With the prospect of a new journey for me to take in the bleak, post-apocalyptic world of the Cordyceps infested. I decided to look back at my 2013 game of the year.

The Last of Us is a game developed by Naughty Dog, the fantastic developers of the acclaimed PlayStation exclusive ‘Uncharted’ series. When I first started the game, I went in knowing almost nothing of the story, which I believe is the best way play. With that in mind, I won’t include any story spoilers, just a brief, broad-strokes overview, nothing more than what you can take away from the various trailers of the game.

The Last of Us is set in a world 20 years after the outbreak of a Cordyceps fungal infection that has infected humans; mutating them to grow disgusting fungal protrusions from their bodies and turning them into aggressive zombie-like ‘infected’.

The outbreak has whittled down the population of humanity to a just a fraction of its former glory forcing survivors to take shelter in scattered quarantine zones.

You play as Joel, a hardened middle aged survivor of the outbreak living as a smuggler in the Boston Quarantine Zone. Early on you meet Ellie, a precocious 14 year old, whose experience of life has been defined by the world post apocalypse, with no real frame of reference of life before (in her words) “It all went to shit”.

The Last of Us is ultimately story of Joel and Ellie battling to survive as they travel west from Boston encountering survivors and infected along the way.

From the outset, I knew that the game would be impressive on a technical level, and it certainly does not disappoint. The characters move with silky smooth animations, you could spend hours marveling at realistic lighting, extremely detailed environments, the great water effects, sound design et al. The fact that Naughty Dog managed to bring out such a polished gem – on what is now – a seven year old system is in itself praise worthy.

As you travel in-game you’ll see broken-down abandoned buildings, crumbling rooftops, peeling walls, deserted cars and houses accented by creeping weeds, unkempt grass and sprawling vines. All adding to the impression that with no humanity to keep it back, nature is trying to claim back its dominion.

The soundtrack by Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla is used to great affect – whilst it is used sparingly – the sparse acoustic melodies heightens the tension during enemy encounters, provides extra emotions during cut-scenes and perfectly reflects the bleakness of the world and the progression of each character.

“Do you use stealth to strangle an enemy; wasting precious seconds knowing that another lookout could come round the corner at any time?”

The combat is one in which Naughty Dog challenges you less in terms of enemy count and more on your ability to make fast choices. Do you use stealth to strangle an enemy; wasting precious seconds knowing that another lookout could come round the corner at any time? Do you use a shiv and take out the enemy  with a quick, silent puncture to the jugular; leaving you with one less resource to use against the games terrifying infected ‘clickers’? There is no right or wrong way to deal with enemy encounters, whether you shoot, stealth or run away. The point is you survive. Survival and its cost is one of the main things you take away from The Last of Us.

The Last of Us also stands out from many other games in the way in which the story is told, not only through cut-scenes, but through in game dialogue, optional conversations and environmental pick-ups. In fact, at one section of the game, a tragic – heartbreaking journey of a survivor is told to you entirely through these optional pick-ups.

The excellent script of creative director Neil Druckman and superb voice acting of Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson as Ellie really give gravitas to the characters and make them so believable its hard not to feel a tangible bond between them and become immersed in their journey.

“The journey you take with The Last of Us is not one that is ‘fun’ in the traditional sense. It’s bleak, sad, depressing and real”

The Last of Us is a mature game in every sense of the word. It is violent and brutal, as Joel you have to survive. In this world resources are sparse and everyone is out for themselves infected and humans alike. Showing kindness is weakness and weakness gets you killed. That being said, each enemy you kill has a real emotional weight to it, you never feel as though your just killing a nondescript computer generated enemies, but real human characters trying their best to survive just like you.

Conclusion

The journey you take with The Last of Us is not one that is ‘fun’ in the traditional sense. It’s bleak, sad, depressing and real. It is a journey through the downfall of not just humans as a race but humanity and the qualities we as humans share. It makes you question what it means to survive and how much you are willing to sacrifice. It is punctuated by a truly emotional, daring and perfect ending. One that may leave you with both questions and answers.

For me – like TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead did in 2012 – The Last of Us has set a new bar of emotional narrative and mature themed games. It showcased the best of what is possible on previous generation systems . It is a game so well executed and emotionally compelling that every PS3 owner should pick this up for themselves, and with the announcement of Sony’s PlayStation Now service, PS4 owners will be able to enjoy this Game very soon.