We’ll cut to the chase. With The Last of Us, Naughty Dog has created a late PlayStation 3 classic to equal Uncharted 2 and 3; a story-led action adventure that delivers on all technical, narrative and gameplay fronts, though sometimes less upfront about pushing the console hardware to its limits. Funnily enough, it’s also a reaction to Uncharted. Where Uncharted looked to the Hollywood blockbuster for inspiration, glibly mixing drama, romance and violence, there’s nothing glib about The Last of Us. It’s a dark and brutal game – even more so than, say, this year’s Tomb Raider reboot. There’s something hard and uncompromising in its world and in its combat that says “this is still entertainment, but stop, think twice about what you’re doing. How does it feel?”
Watch The Last of Us launch trailer:
The world it presents is ours, but twenty years after a disease has infected the majority of the world’s human population, transforming them into weird fungal mutants who feast on human flesh. Those of us who remain live in barricaded cities controlled by totalitarian government forces and scratching a living however we can. Joel, the game’s hero, has become a gunrunner and drug smuggler, sometimes working with a resistance group, the fireflies, yet not in any way allied to their cause. While taking vengeance on a duplicitous criminal gang leader, Joel and his partner, Tess, become embroiled in a plan to get a young girl, Ellie, out of the city. The story tracks what happens on the way out, and then what happens when it all goes wrong.
It’s not hard to spot the big-screen and small-screen inspirations – in terms of content and tone this is The Road meets The Walking Dead meets 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later and Day of the Dead, with touches of Children of Men and Stalker. Gameplay-wise, there are elements of Uncharted in small sections of platforming or the third-person gunplay, but The Last of Us owes just as much to stealth and survival horror as the action game.
Looking at it coldly, you could break the whole game down into chunks or encounters. Joel and his current companions have to get from A to B, and there are infected or human aggressors in their way. You can try and sneak past them, crouching behind cover and flitting from one obstruction to another, or you can try and shoot it out with pistol, rifle, bow and shotgun. You can sneak up behind your enemies and take them down one-by-one with a stranglehold or shiv, or you can try setting traps to overpower them.
Frequently Plan A breaks down into Plan B before all plans go out of the window, in which case you’ll be manically attempting some mix of all of the above. Eventually you either work through the encounter or die and start again.
Naughty Dog skilfully breaks up this basic template by varying the enemies and the situations, and by giving you such a rich set of tools to do your work with. Stealth, ranged and melee weapons all play their part, and some need to be crafted or upgraded using scavenged supplies. Some crafting can be done in the field, while more serious weapons upgrades need a workbench. Meanwhile you’ll be battling through part-flooded wastelands, the graveyards and backyards of deserted small-town America and the grim urban hideouts of the most degenerate survivors. It’s no picnic, unless you like the smell of decay and the taste of rust and blood.
Cleverly, the need to scavenge adds a nice risk/reward structure to the mix. While each chapter is actually quite linear, there are always buildings and outhouses to explore. Doing so always nets you more supplies, but it also raises the threat of attack. Meanwhile, there are minor puzzles to solve, usually involving shifting planks to cross rooftops or skips to reach high ledges, though with things sometimes complicated by threats in the immediate vicinity.
The important thing is that all these elements work seamlessly. The stealth controls are simple, intuitive and predictable. Surprise attacks and grabbing moves come naturally at the tap of a button. Holding the R2 button makes Joel listen, darkening the area and highlighting the position of approaching enemies. Crafting and healing work slowly enough to make you avoid doing either in the heat of combat, but fast enough that you can break away from enemies with a quick sprint, then pop into a corner and get yourself patched up or your baseball bat more deadly.