Okay, sorry. I meant to have this up a few days ago, but the problem is – this damn game just didn’t want to end! That’s not an excuse… well, okay, it is, a little. But I thought you’d like to hear it for one very particular reason. I got my copy on Wednesday and I started that night, played it all through the long weekend, and still had to stay up until 4:00am every night until Thursday just to get through it. Not a good idea when you’ve got a day job – but my point is – that’s a lot of game right there.
I logged over 20 hours. Okay, I was playing on the hardest available setting so I died a fair bit, but if you subtract, say, five hours for redoing tough sections over and over – that’s still a huge amount of time for a non-open-world action game, the average being around five to maybe seven hours if you’re lucky. It really stood out for me that a game of this quality could go on for so long. You’ll definitely get your money’s worth for sheer game content alone, but how about the rest of the game? Does that measure up too? Well, let’s break it down.
The Last of Us is set in a post-apocalyptic world, 20 years after an evolved form of fungus turned 60 percent of the world’s population into mindless killing machines. Players take on the role of Joel, a grizzled man who has become emotionally dead, self-interested and violent due to losing his young daughter in the initial outbreak. Now he lives in a quarantine zone in Boston eking out a hard living as a smuggler.
The tone of the world has shifted drastically into a cutthroat, survival-of-the-fittest mindset – hell, the very first mission we undertake as Joel is a torture and revenge killing. Yeah, I’m not kidding. During this mission, Joel and his partner are approached by a rebel faction called the Fireflies and asked to deliver a package in exchange for an arsenal of guns. The package turns out to be a 14-year old girl named Ellie. Joel wants nothing to do with this, but his partner convinces him that the payoff is worth it. Of course, things don’t go quite according to plan, Joel’s partner dies, and Joel ends up escorting the kid a lot further than he’d planned – and he’s not happy about it.
This is basically what you’ll be doing for the entire run of the game: escorting Ellie to the headquarters of the Fireflies. Joel and Ellie will have to make their way through the open wilderness, crumbling buildings, sewers, power plants, abandoned towns, you name it. The problem is that there’s a whole world of danger between them and their destination. The most obvious threat is the “infected”, people who have breathed in the spores of the deadly fungus, which invades their brains and causes them to become aggressive.
There are several types of infected, each one representing a more advanced stage of infection. The standard runners are mostly human and can see and hear quite well. The ones called “clickers” are blind, but they can see via echolocation, just like bats, and they’re tough and fast and like to drink blood. They’re a real pain in the ass, trust me. But the scariest and thankfully rarest are the “bloaters” – huge, tough, fat bastards that can lob poisonous spores at you and will tear your jaws apart instantly if they get close.
In addition to that there are the military factions, who don’t like smugglers or the Fireflies, but you don’t see that many of them. And of course there are the bandits and murderers – people who thought the world could do with a bit more suffering and hardship. Unlike the infected, these guys know how to use weapons and can act intelligently in combat – using cover, staying out of your sights and flanking you or flushing you out of cover with explosives if they can.
Now, here’s the thing. You could be forgiven for thinking this will be a trigger-happy adventure similar to Uncharted – just with different enemies – but you’d be entirely wrong there. You can engage the enemies in big firefights if you want, but you’ll quickly find that to be a bad idea. Firstly, guns and ammo are extremely limited, so you have to make every shot count. A lot of games say that, but they almost never mean it – except for The Last of Us. Only a handful of times in the entire game did I ever have a full clip for any of my guns.
If you engage human enemies like bandits in open gunplay, they’ll hide behind cover and return fire quite accurately. Joel takes a lot more damage than in your average shooter and he doesn’t regenerate health. He has to use health kits to heal himself, and it takes him a few seconds to apply them – making them difficult to use in a heated combat situation. And if you open fire on a group of infected, they’re all going to hear you and sprint balls-out right at you – and since even the weakest of them takes a few bullets to kill, it’s practically impossible to take them all down when four or five of them are rushing you.
Stealth is the best option most of the time. Sneaking around and taking enemies down quietly by strangling or stabbing them is much safer and more efficient, but you don’t have to kill every enemy – sometimes you might want to avoid combat altogether if you’re really low on ammo and out of health kits. I often sneaked through entire rooms full of infected just to avoid wasting my last few bullets and health kits dealing with them. To aid him in stealth, Joel can go into listen mode, which will reveal the enemies within a certain radius, even through walls. He can also pick up and throw bottles or bricks to distract enemies – standard stealth stuff. In general, as long as you take out most of the enemies in an area stealthily, it’s not a train smash if you accidentally alert the last few. If you screw up right in the beginning, well… it’s not impossible to survive, but it’ll probably cost you a lot of precious ammo and health.
Luckily, Ellie doesn’t get in the way much. The enemies will seldom target her and the infected don’t seem to hear her, even when she’s running full tilt right past them. If you’ve played Bioshock Infinite, she works much the same way as Elizabeth. She stays out of the way and lets you get on with it. You don’t have to worry about her, which is good, and she’ll sometimes find items or ammo for you.
The game is actually fairly linear, but there’s a huge berth for exploration, and you’ll want to do plenty of that to find ammo, crafting items that enable Joel to make supplies and upgrade his weapons at workbenches, and supplement medicine that allows him to upgrade his innate abilities, like his health, listening distance and aiming stability. And you’ll have to explore every nook and cranny, because most of the time you’ll find sweet nothing. Sometimes you’ll come across a door that requires Joel to jimmy it with a shiv – a small, breakable, lethal weapon he can create. Make sure you always have one available, because these locked doors usually contain a fair amount of items, tools that allow Joel access to better weapon upgrades, and manuals that make his weapons more effective.
And that’s most of the game, really. Exploration, crafting items and dealing with enemies. But what makes it really memorable is the simultaneously gritty and heartwarming story. Over the course of the game, you’ll be really rooting for Joel and Ellie to develop their surrogate father-daughter relationship. Ellie was born when the world had already gone to pot, so she’s a bit tougher than kids were before, and she’s got the kind of potty-mouth you’d expect, but she’s basically a good kid. She constantly wants Joel to tell her what the world used to be like, but he’ll have none of it, at least initially. However, she slowly chips away at his emotional defenses, and they eventually learn from each other. Joel teaches Ellie how to survive and not to be so naive when it comes to dealing with strangers, and Ellie teaches Joel how to be human again – and all this happens while they go through some of the nastiest, grittiest stuff you can imagine. You probably won’t believe Naughty Dog went that far in some cases.
It doesn’t need to be said, but the graphics are simply amazing. Naughty Dog has clearly pushed the PS3 as far as it will go with this one. If they can do this with the PS3, I can’t wait to see what they’ll be able to do on the PS4. Also, if you’ve got a nice surround sound setup, you’ll get your money’s worth in the stealth sections, because it’ll be really handy for hearing exactly where your enemies are.
We all knew The Last of Us was going to be good, and it turned out every bit as good as we’d hoped – maybe even better. It’s a huge adventure with exciting, tense, explorative gameplay, and an enthralling narrative with characters you’ll genuinely care about. If this sounds like your kind of thing – and it should be everyone’s thing – then you have to play this.