If zombies could, they would rise up in revolt against the video game industry. And you can’t blame them. Almost every game has had the undead, infected or walking dead in one form or another. Usually on the receiving end of a rocket launcher, crowbar or a boot. The next group who would revolt against the video games industry are writers like me who are frustrated of running out of words on what to call these shambling wrecks of flesh, bone and disease (oh, new phrase!).
Enter The Last of Us. You’re Joel. A weathered smuggler who takes it upon him to deliver a girl, Ellie cross-country. Sounds like a walk in the park? More like a walk across post-apocalyptic America fraught with infected wrecks, the army and scavengers, all looking to end each other for one reason or another.
Yes, Naughty Dog’s swansong to this generation is quite apt. Zombies or “infected” as the game likes to call them are central to the premise. In fact some of them can kill you in a single, swift move. However the further you delve into this dark, broken world, you’ll soon realise that this is a tale that’s more nuanced and well-spun than you would like to believe. While the infected and the epidemic they spread make up the reason for your journey, The Last of Us highlights how humanity, family and society function in the face of absolute adversity. Without spoiling much, this is one of the few games this generation that’s had me thinking more than I would have liked to and most of it long after seeing the game’s closing credits in spite certain events being highly predictable.
Nonetheless, plot alone doth not make a game. The gameplay is tight. Joel doesn’t have the swagger of Nathan Drake or the slick moves of Ezio. No. Rather he’s a slight more sluggish, brute of a combatant that hits hard and gets hit hard too. Controlling his movements is a deliberate affair. If you’re used to other third-person affairs such as Batman or Uncharted, prepare to die. A lot. Even at the easiest difficulty , the game highlights how vulnerable you are if you aren’t careful with how you play.
Sticking true to the theme, ammo is sparse, weapons even more so. You can craft bombs, health packs and other such items but you’ll need specific components such as rags and alcohol. These too, aren’t easy to find. Sure you can stockpile a boatload of items if you manage to scavenge and loot every desolate room and area you encounter but as you trudge through you’ll realise that each encounter with the infected or human enemies is filled with the sort of dread that just propels you to move forward instead of hording all the items you can find.
The combat treads a fine line between the slick approach of games such as the Arkham series and the workmanlike approach of earlier Resident Evil games. You can shoot, melee or avoid your foes but all of these require some if not a lot of thought. Before getting into a firefight you’d do well to ensure that all the weapons you have equipped have enough ammo. Switching out weapons during a firefight means death. Reason being, you’ll find yourself taking a break from shooting at enemies to find a weapon by holding down a button.
Compared to other games that let you go through your entire inventory with a tap or two, The Last of Us has you spending a lot more time. Makes sense given you are a 40 or 50-something smuggler instead of a spry young raider of tombs. You can have upto 4 weapons on your person at any given time but since bullets are scarce you’d want to make every shot count before you think it’s a good idea to ruffle through your bag while fending off infected abominations.
In addition to this, melee combat is a simple process of tapping a single button. No complex combos like Remember Me or Sleeping Dogs here. Just a single press. Surprisingly it ends up being the most enjoyable part of combat because the animations are fantastically done what with Joel bashing in an enemies head or taking a boot to their skull complete with blood, gibs et al. They feel satisfying even though all you’re doing is pressing a single button.
Shooting is well implemented too. It doesn’t feel as smooth as other titles. Each gun has a unique feel and kickback that goes a long way in making you feel like an old smuggler and the vulnerability that comes with being one. There’s an element of uncertainty everytime you pull the trigger, even till the very surprising end, you’ll wonder if you’ve lined up your shot well enough so that your foes stay dead, infected or otherwise.
Between frantic bouts of contributing to the demise of the populace, both undead and living, you’ll find yourself exploring barren locales. From sewers that were once home to survivors to entire towns taken over by local gangs, there’s enough variety to keep you from getting bored. Don’t expect some unreal situations or action filled set-pieces, everything in The Last of Us is rooted in reality and wisely so. After all, you can’t expect a ragtag bunch of survivors to suddenly become as competent as Gears of War’s COGs can you? During your journey you will come across pills that would let you upgrade certain stats such as health but you never do feel overpowered, which is a good thing.
One of the game’s early criticisms were directed towards listen mode. This lets you know where your enemies are. It feels a bit out of place in a game that does so well to give a realistic, almost documentary-like approach to situations. But thankfully you can switch it off and get by just fine in no small part thanks to the game’s excellent sound design, every groan, shriek and gun shot is chillingly recreated and does more than enough to keep you immersed. Even more so if you have a solid sound setup.
And on the topic of production values, The Last of Us is one of the better looking games I’ve had the pleasure of playing. Every bit of rubble and character model has been obsessive detailed. There are minor hiccups in terms of texture pop-in and the frame rate does take hit in busier scenes, but by and large this is a very pretty game right up there with graphical heavy hitters like Tomb Raider, Crysis 3 and Metro: Last Light.
As it stands, this is as near perfect as it gets. I use the term “near” simply because the loading times get in the way of what should be seamless experience. On firing up the game on my PS3 I’ve managed to make a sandwich and coffee by the time it loaded up. While I’d like to believe the issue is with my PS3, it seems to be otherwise with other disc intensive titles such as Uncharted 3 running fine. A price to pay for cutting edge, immersive environments I guess.