- Developer - Naughty Dog
- Publisher - Sony Computer Entertainment
- Platform - PlayStation 3
- Release date - 14 June
- Price - £39.99
The Last of Us
It's 20 years since a tropical fungus called cordyceps jumped to humans and turned most of the world's population into violent monsters called Clickers. As Joel, a middle-aged man who lived before the apocalypse happened, you're tasked with escorting Ellie, a 14-year old born after the outbreak, from one side of the US to the other. That's the basic premise for The Last of Us but there is so, so much more going on here.
In the past I've called The Last of Us a horror game, a zombie game, an action game and a third-person shooter. But after playing it through, twice now, I can tell you it belongs to a new genre or at least, a new genre for videogames: It's a character drama.
What Naughty Dog has created is something I don't feel like I've ever played before. The Last of Us is a game written by adults, adults who have read books, adults who understand screenwriting. Neil Druckmann's script plays heavily on the principles of drama, planting elements early on then paying them off later. If a character says they can't swim, eventually they'll come up against water. If someone is reticent to make friends, later, you'll find out why.
All of this is delivered in as few words, and with as much imagery, as possible. A lot of game writers seem not to understand that their medium is visual, and that they can use backgrounds, costume and body language to form their stories. This is why we have long cutscenes and clunky exposition - characters who explain themselves in monologue. Druckmann works with his whole canvass. If something can be implied rather than explained, then it's implied. If something can be said without words, then it is. Druckmann has an understated, toned down style of writing that wouldn't look at of place at HBO. In videogames, though, it's unique; it's the best, ever.
Joel and Ellie
I could write, at length, about every single character in The Last of Us, supporting, incidental or otherwise, and for how many games can you say that? For the sake of brevity, though, I'll stick to Joel and Ellie, who, thanks to Sony's extensive PR campaign, I'm sure you're familiar with by now.
Joel is defeated. It's testament to the quality of The Last of Us that rather than a distrustful marine or cyborg ninja, the game's "man with a past" is just kind of broken. He's quiet and uncomplaining - more or less the only time he raises his voice is when he's been injured. There's a terrific scene where somebody offers him something, a little memento of his life before the apocalypse and rather than saying "I let go of the past a long time ago" or something like that, he just shrugs it off and says "I'm good." Joel's used up. He's the kind of empty people get when they're properly depressed.
Ellie on the other hand is excitable. She likes to whistle and when she can't whistle, hum rock songs. She asks Joel about this and that, about what life was like before the outbreak happened. She wants to learn; she wants to do things. She's still very scared, and intelligent, but unlike Joel, she hasn't decided yet that it's safer to feel nothing at all.
As promised, the two characters form a relationship over the course of the game, a relationship that's interesting and plausible. And The Last of Us absolutely shines insofar as it never telegraphs moments when that relationship is forming. It felt with BioShock Infinite that the game would pause for characterisation, like it held up prompt cards saying "Feel for Elizabeth now." With Joel and Ellie, though, you barely notice the connection happen. It's only when you load back up to start the game again that you realise how much the two characters change.
All of which makes The Last of Us sound dull as chemistry, which it absolutely is not. Joel, Ellie and Druckmann's script form the foundation, but you've never played a game so tense, frightening and evocative. And when I say evocative, I don't just mean it will make you go "wow" and "awesome!" (although it will). The Last of Us will make you feel miserable, sad, threatened. There's a terrific section in the game's first half where, as Joel, you're stranded in the basement of a hotel, up to your waist in water. The air's thick with fungal spores, you don't know where Ellie is and somewhere, in the dark, there's a Clicker. You just want to get out.
That goes for combat the whole way through: Whether it's against Clickers or other people, the fighting in The Last of Us is horrible. Sound plays a huge role. The steady click and wheeze the creatures make is the last thing you want to hear as you creep into a room, beside of course the high-pitched scream which means they've spotted you. And when you're fighting people, they call out to one another ("There! He's over there!") and shoot at you with guns so loud they make you jump.
There's a real urgency to the combat in The Last of Us, a real grit. Like the dialogue, it's tight; nothing is wasted. It's never a case of gunning down Clickers or people. It's a matter of counting every bullet, feeling every hit and constantly being aware of how many are left standing.
The game gets killing absolutely right. You never feel good doing it, or powerful. It's just a survival reflex. I remember when I started playing how vulnerable I felt. Later, when I could take down six men without getting a scratch, I felt awful. I felt like being good at this was something to be ashamed of. I've never felt that in a videogame before.
I'm tempted now to write something clichéd, something along the lines of "aside from Joel and Ellie, the stars of The Last of Us are the Clickers themselves." But Naughty Dog keeps the creatures always at arm's length. They do get screen-time, but only in context, only as a way of speaking to what's happening between Ellie and Joel. As I said, this is a character drama, not a zombie game.
That isn't to say they aren't terrifying. I've mentioned already the sounds they make, but you also fear Clickers because of how powerful they are. One bite from them and it's game over. You'll come across weaker creatures called Runners, people who have only just been infected, and they can be fought off. But with Clickers, once they grab you, that's it.
And this isn't a forced vulnerability; it's not in conceit. Joel's a big guy and a hell of a fighter. Unlike in say, Amnesia, where you're weak and don't have a gun, the fact these things can overpower you - you the most grizzled of survivors - sets a frightening precedent. You can never let your guard down. You constantly have to keep your gun up and your ears open when dealing with Clickers and that's way more frightening than say jump scares, or deliberately inverted mechanics, both things The Last of Us backs away from.
I've been trying in this review to hold off with superlatives. I've been trying, basically, to emulate the dry style of writing that makes The Last of Us so good.
What I want to say is this is the best written game I've ever played, the game with the best central performances I've ever seen. I want to say that, even if you've been playing videogames for your whole life, for 20, 30 or even 40 years, The Last of Us has the most astounding action sequences you'll have ever come across. I want to use the word "ever" a lot.
But in homage to The Last of Us, I'll avoid devolving into clichés. The highest praise I can give, really, is to insist this is something you play. It's not even a case of "a game like The Last of Us only comes round once a generation." Nothing like this has been made, ever. There are dashes of inspiration from Cormac McCarthy, P.D. James and American primetime, but The Last of Us is a real first. As I said in my opening, it's a character drama. It has the sophistication and density of a good novel.
The Naughty Dog staff have proven themselves the most talented developers working in games today. They've taken on this enormous, dense project - an amount of coding, work and systems implementation I can only speculate towards - and created a finished game which feels like the auteured vision of one person. I've never played a game so tight and cohesive, a game which stays so true to its initial ideas. The Last of Us never wastes a breath. To allow myself one big claim, just for the finale, this might be the best game I've ever played.
- Gameplay: 10/10 - Terrifying, lifelike action beats fade into plodding, heavy scenes in negative space. Characterisation occurs as you play. What you do complements the writing and vice-versa. Rock solid.
- Sound: 10/10 - The best performances ever given in a videogame, not just from Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, but the entire supporting cast. Guns, Runners and Clickers are TERRIFYING.
- Graphics: 10/10 - Even in light of LA Noire and its facial mapping technology, The Last of Us feels like the first game to accurately capture emotions and reactions, no matter how slight, on characters' faces. The environments, mixes of natural and articial, are beautiful.
- Writing: 10/10 - I've never come across writing this good in a videogame.
- Replay value: 10/10 - You'll replay The Last of Us for the right reasons, not because you want to find collectibles and unlockables (though they are present) but because the characters and scenarios are so layered that they need multiple passes to be fully appreciated.
- Overall: 10/10 - It's dangerous to believe you can boil things down to a single, seemingly arbitrary number, but it nevertheless feels right that The Last of Us scores the first ten out of ten I've ever awarded. This is something completely new. From now on, there are no excuses.
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