Naughty Dog hardly needs no introduction to the PS3 gamer. The much-loved creators of the Uncharted franchise has been thrilling audiences with the derring-do antics of Nathan Drake since 2007. To date, the Uncharted franchise has sold over 13 million copies and Naughty Dog has garnered a number of accolades, including over 200 “Game of the Year” awards for 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
Four years later, and Naughty Dog is back in the spotlight, but this time Nathan Drake isn’t laying waste to the population of a small country. The Last of Us is a new IP that takes us in a different direction, to a much darker time and place. With Naughty Dog’s track record, there is little risk of getting a clunker, so the pertinent question should be, “Just how *good* is The Last of Us?” Find out after the jump.
The Last of Us casts the player in the role of Joel, a survivor in 2033 United States. A fungal outbreak has laid waste to the country, its infrastructure, and its social structures. The years of hardship have turned the remaining populace into ruthless survivors. Much like toilet paper, mercy is scarce around these parts and Joel does whatever is necessary to stay alive, be it thieving or killing. Early in the story, Joel enters into a business agreement to escort a teenage girl, Ellie, across the wasteland. We’re the passenger in this dangerous journey and witness to a relationship that evolves as the world continues to crumble around Joel and Ellie. Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he remarked that “Man is the cruelest animal.” Not to spoil anything but Naughty Dog has created one of the best, most emotionally charged gaming experiences in recent history. The characters are so broken and tragic, and you’d have to have ice in your veins not to feel empathy for them and the terrible situation that they are in and find themselves in as the story progresses.
The Last of Us is certainly grittier and more realistic than any of the Naughty Dog games that have come before it. Resources are in extremely short supply and as such requires you to re-evaluate your play style, especially if you’re used to the run-and-gun tactics from the good old days of Uncharted. There is no rolling away from a gunfight in The Last of Us. That has been replaced with a quick 180-turn-and-flee action. Even though game says you can choose to be stealthy or go out shooting, there really isn’t much of a choice. Given the scarcity of bullets, parts, pills, and med-kits, being stealthy is the predominant and most prudent way to play. It is also incredibly satisfying to travel through a level in a “leave only footprints” kind of way. Stealth kills are brutal, whether it be a cold shiv to the neck, or as Joel strangles the life out of an enemy.
The gun mechanics in The Last of Us are a little fuzzy. Joel isn’t the most accurate shootist and there is a fair amount of gun sway. Reloading is painfully slow, as is changing weapons. These are all done in real-time, there are no pauses in action and can make a panic-filled situation even more frantic. It pays to use the quiet moments to craft what you might need for the challenge ahead. The crafting mechanic enables you to make melee weapons, shivs, molotovs, and bombs using a combination of blades, bindings, rags, alcohol, and explosives that you’ve rooted out by thoroughly exploring an area. These items can be crafted at any time, but you can only upgrade your weapons at work benches placed at a few junctures in the game, as long as you’ve collect enough of the requisite parts. There are no fancy laser sights and or night scopes. It’s rudimentary enhancements to reload speed, fire rate, clip capacity, and range. You’re initially restricted to a small selection of handguns, and you’ll be deep into the campaign before you finally find a shotgun, assault rifle, or flame thrower. But the thrill of using these long-barreled guns is tempered by the scarcity of the ammunition. If (when) you run out of bullets, then you’re forced to your fists. The close quarters combat is brutal. Blood plasma splatters onto the screen as Joel can shivs and bludgeon enemies with whatever he can find or make.
So far, so realistic. Except for Joel’s “listen mode”, a heightened sense of awareness that enables him to see the silhouettes of hostiles through walls and other barriers. Also, the enemy AI is a little off. You can easily creep up to two baddies barely a metre or two apart, and strangle one while the other stands there, oblivious. There are some sections that have you traverse areas patrolled by Clickers, infected humans that have lost their sight but make up by extraordinary sensory awareness. Emitting a creeping click sound, they are attracted to the slightest noise and can only be killed with a shiv. These sections must be traversed in one go, there are no save point in the middle, and sometimes, your AI companions hinder more than they help. Accidentally or otherwise, they make their presence known to the enemies, and blowing your stealthy passage through the level, and precipitating a restart. The checkpointing system could have been a little better.
Graphically, The Last of Us absolutely astounds. Naughty Dog has always been able to push the PS3 hardware just a little further than most, and amazingly they still continue to do so even with the console that is closing on the end of its cycle. From the guarded quarantine zones to the lush, overgrown forests, to the eerily abandoned towns and cities, the environments invite us to explore, not just for the sake of collecting supplies but for a look into a believable post-apocalyptic vision of the future. The story takes place with the change in seasons, so you greet the snow as it covers the landscape and witness the blooming of the flowers in springtime. The co-dependence between the Joel and Ellie goes through changes too, and superb voice acting from the cast brings this relationship to life. The musical accompaniment is stellar, too. Oscar-winner and Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla provides an exceptional soundtrack based on the acoustic guitar. It is low-key and sparse at times further giving the player the sense of isolation. It changes to uplifting notes when you encounter new areas, and turns to rather frightening riffs when your life is in danger.
After the story is complete, players can return to The Last of Us in a new game plus mode. And there is the multiplayer, the details of which Naughty Dog kept under wraps for quite a long time before announcing that only two competitive modes would be available. The review copy we received from the local distributors didn’t include the requisite network pass to access the multiplayer, so aside from knowing that they exist, this reviewer cannot comment on how the multiplayer modes actually play. Sorry.
As expectations go, Naughty Dog has not disappointed. The Last of Us is yet another example of how adept Naughty Dog is at combining a rich, mature narrative with gorgeous visuals and solid, but slow, gameplay. If there are any imperfections, it would have to be the AI and checkpointing system. The 10 to 16-hour experience is a roller coaster of emotions and provides some of the most memorable and jarring moments that I’ve experienced in a game. It’s a masterpiece and a shining (if not the shiniest!) gem in any PS3 gamer’s library.
Final Score: 10 clicker prawns out of 10
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PS3 (reviewed)