With the exception of GTA V, The Last of Us was my most anticipated game this year. It should have been a day one purchase, but a certain Bioshock: Infinite and an embarrassing Steam backlog put The Last of Us on hold. Having finally got my gangly, spider-like prehensile mitts on the game it’s time to discuss what all the fuss was about. Or should that be ‘what was all the fuss about?’ Oh how I love thee Lady Rhetoric.
The Last of Us tells the story of Joel and Ellie, two survivors in a post-apocalyptic United States in 2033. It’s Joel’s responsibility to escort Ellie to The Fireflies, a resistance group who believe Ellie is the key to finding a cure, ending a rampant Cordyceps fungus pandemic that has infected much of the US population. Those that are infected become ferocious monstrosities devoid of any humanity that once existed within the host. With the streets now reduced to either predatory ‘Clickers’ or small pockets of survivors, often with their own nefarious agendas, Joel and Ellie must rely on survival instincts and efficient use of scarce resources to reach their destination in one piece.
As expected, the majority of the game is set in what is practically wasteland, peppered with relics and monuments that tell of a once flourishing human civilisation. But interweaved between a seemingly inhumane environment is a noticeable sense of place and tangibility to those who once lived and prospered. Just when the world seems unbearably futile and void of any future, reprieve surfaces as you read a parent’s diary of their last days, or enter a child’s bedroom to find posters and toys in perfect condition, almost as if they persevere for a reason; a purpose.
Taking the time to appreciate and explore the incredible world Naughty Dog has created, you begin to comprehend and rationalise the decisions that people make in a moment of weakness; in fear of a more hellacious alternative. You open yourself to the dreams and aspirations families and society had before the infection took hold. You’ve never met these people, but you gain so much from the games subtext that you often can’t help but wish to have met them, finding the opportunity to console them in this humanitarian crisis. In a world that’s practically lost all sense of humanity and reason, it’s ironic that The Last of Us turns out to be one of the most moral and emotive pieces of entertainment ever created, subtly encouraging the player that there is hope of a new beginning no matter how feral man has become.
Ever since The Last of Us was first announced it was hard to believe it was actual game footage. Well, the truth is it wasn’t, but rather a pre-rendered in engine cut-scene that basically shows what Naughty Dog’s engine is capable of. Having said this, it’s often hard to discern between the pre-rendered and real-time cut-scenes/gameplay, a testament to how incredible The Last of Us looks. It still has an ‘Uncharted’ vibe which is hard to shake – apropos nonetheless given the inimical territory you must traverse to persist – but Naughty Dog’s approach to a post-apocalyptic United States is exquisite in its fidelity and realisation, successfully marrying both focus and diversity to craft one of the most convincing game worlds to date.
The Last of Us excels is in the fluidity and startling authenticity of its animation. Minutiae such as accurate reactions to obstacles and hazards are realistic, with transitions from circumvention to assault being totally seamless. The jerking and unstable Clickers are a particular highlight, lending themselves perfectly to a heightened sense of tension and volatility when the odds are ostensibly against the player. Main and supporting human characters are incredibly life-like thanks to impeccable motion capture that goes beyond just lip-sync. Every raised eyebrow and painful grimace is captured in startling detail with an uncanny accuracy that it’s impossible to think of the characters as simple works of fiction.
Exemplary minimalist composition effortlessly oscillates with the course of the narrative. Voice-acting is best-in-class, adding further conviction and gravitas that can’t go unignored. Human tragedy and subsistence have never been presented with such exactitude and sentiment. With a fixed platform, Naughty Dog has fully utilised every iota of power the PS3 offers, and it shows. Bar some frame-rate dips during frenetic shootouts The Last of Us is an incredible technical feat and truly is of Hollywood standards cinematically; a fitting Swansong for this generation indeed.
As a narrative exploration of sacrifice, morality and the human condition, The Last of Us unquestionably sets new standards. From a technical perspective, it’s practically flawless. You’ll probably be asking yourself then ‘why the initial rhetorical, when nothing but eulogy has been heaped on the game thus far?’ Well, the reason for such discourse is because the game all but collapses in the area it matters most: gameplay. It pains me to admit, but The Last of Us was far from a joy to play and, bar a few sublime moments, was an exercise in frustration attributed to poor game design rather than any individual ineptitude.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist’s excellent level design and finely tuned gameplay mechanics were fresh in the memory, and while I wasn’t expecting an experience as nuanced, the least I wanted from The Last of Us was opportunity for experimentation that rewarded you sufficiently. On the surface The Last of Us ticks the necessary boxes: stealth takedowns, using objects as means of distraction, and crafting of ‘homemade’ weaponry certainly open up the possibility to test a wealth of gameplay styles, though circumvention should still be of priority given that ammunition is scarce and The Last of Us is predominantly a survival-horror experience. More often than not however, these sound fundamentals are broken when the game design is so flawed.
Your introduction to Clickers and other ‘not so far gone’ infected agents is the first instance of the above issues. A confined corridor with a few adjacent rooms suggests there is nowhere to hide should the proverbial shit hit the fan. Your only realistic means to cross this divide is to eliminate your foes silently with precision. A well designed game would allow for this approach, with fair, adequate challenge and a great sense of satisfaction upon triumph. However, I was regularly penalised for adopting what seemed the natural approach to the situation: remain covert. Too often I found myself scratching my head; I could not work out how it was even possible to successfully continue in this vain. Whether I was motionless, inaudible, undetectable or all three, it was more often down to sheer luck as to whether an enemy would notice me or not. Conversely, there were times I completely messed up, exposing myself in broad daylight that should have triggered an infected swarm all over my imminent carcass. However, these purported terrifying nemeses would often ignore me, impartial to the fact that I just gate-crashed the Clicker party.
This is just one of countless examples where the opportunity to play stealthily can be nigh on impossible. At the normal difficulty setting, The Last Us is one of the most punishing games in recent memory, all for the wrong reasons. As someone who loves challenge in games, the go-to example, Dark Souls, encourages the player to learn from their mistake, retracing their steps and developing a solution to pass that particular obstacle. It’s about mastering the environment, your enemies and, more importantly yourself. The Last of Us is the very antithesis, punishing the player for unknown reasons in situations unable to be resolved through greater planning or understanding. All games should provide a basic set of principles that allow you to play in a certain way, with the player then taking it upon themselves to perfect these principles to progress. The Last of Us contradicts itself at almost every turn, providing conflicting messages that ultimately chastise the player through no fault of their own.
Such inconsistencies manifest throughout the entire campaign and spoil the experience. Ironically firefights, while naturally less rewarding, are the most reactive and predictable moments in the game. Of course this is wholeheartedly counterproductive to the game’s intentions of remaining inconspicuous; engaging your foes front and centre should be a last resort. When the gameplay is balanced and AI reacts accordingly, it’s so gratifying to clear an area with nothing but your bare hands and well placed diversions. Unfortunately these moments only occur a handful of times and, regrettably, only serve to emphasise how unfair and downright tedious the game is as a whole.
It has to be said that the second half of the game is an improvement thanks to more consistent game mechanics, yet it merely papers over the cracks of rudimentary issues that eradicate much of the enjoyment playing The Last of Us should have been. Perhaps the only real consolation is that every other aspect of The Last of Us is so good that you’ll endure the gameplay to witness Joel and Ellie’s conclusion, which in itself an intriguing topic of discussion.
The Last of Us is very much a Jekyll and Hyde of the Gaming industry. It excels in all but, in my opinion, where it matters most: the gameplay. The experience of playing the game was substantially beneath the quality of the narrative, presentation and emotion the game conveyed. When The Last of Us comes together, it’s an experience that takes the medium to new levels, but such instances are sadly too few and far between, marred by some shoddy A.I. and game design that is unbalanced and does its best to derail what The Last of Us represents. It’s still a great addition to anyone’s PS3 catalogue and one of the most important releases for the industry in terms of cinematic production and narrative expectations, but because of the aforesaid issues I can’t rationalise The Last of Us being hailed as one of the greatest games of this generation, let alone all time. The Last of us may be gaming art, but it’s not the art of gaming.