Survival horrors have long been a genre crying out for something fresh, something different that still gives us the same sense of enjoyment and fear as when the style burst onto the screen with the likes of Resident Evil and Silent Hill. We’ve averted (somewhat) global catastrophes at the hands of super evil mega corporations, rummaged through mist covered streets while being hunted by the evil that lurks within and, more recently, battled horrifying demonic entities across blasted landscapes and broken space stations. That’s not to say that this reviewer hasn’t quivered in fear when dark shadows dart across the screen or god forbid something falls off of a wall, but we’ve done and experienced all this before.
The Last of Us brings a new dynamic whereby, instead of blasting your way through hordes of enemies with an abundant supply of weapons and ammunition at your disposal, you are instead placed into a situation where a length of string and chunk of brick are your only options (you get the idea). This may seem like a restrictive feature, but having your resources limited and scarce really makes you think about each encounter and, instead of charging in guns blazing, you have to carefully consider each of your decisions, which keeps the tension at a great level. Naughty Dog got it right with this game and you will struggle to find something else in the current market that captures the joy and fear on a level we first experienced in the original Silent Hills. Of course, this game is not purely fear inducing from start to finish, but it happens just enough to keep you on edge and at no point does this feel forced.
The Last of Us is set in a very bleak world and Naughty Dog is not afraid to show you exactly how bleak it is. There is gore in this game; how can you have a horde of infected creatures baying for your blood and not involve an element of gore? This game is not ‘Manhunt’ though, nor is it a hack and slash with limbs flying left and right, instead when forced into a combat situation it feels necessary rather than entertaining. You fight and kill because you need to survive in a hostile world, you are in a desperate predicament and when having to attack and kill a survivor or infected alike you are only doing so because there is no alternative. You may be forced to go to extreme lengths to survive but you feel for Joel and Ellie’s plight and although this will shock a few gamers, you will empathize and understand their motives and that’s what truly sets this apart from what we have seen before. Your only goal is survival.
The Last of Us has Naughty Dogs super-high production qualities that we first saw in the ‘Uncharted‘ series and by no means is it bad thing. The PS3’s resident explorer brought a world of vibrant, lush and beautifully rendered jungles and ruins and this game has been given the same treatment. A good portion of this takes place in an open and sprawling land filled with the remnants of society and nature has reclaimed large areas, which is a change from the confined alleyways and labs we normally see, although they are in there.
The only drawback to this is that because of the nature of The Last of Us you notice the exploration-combat-cut scene style narrative that was also in Uncharted, but because Nathan Drakes adventure shot by at a high speeds you tend to forget that you weren’t actually in an open world while the illusion of it played out well; The Last of Us doesn’t always manage that. As with most games you will be in a situation where door B was the one you need to use and you’ll never quite understand why you couldn’t open door A, or you will be in an area where the cover is positioned nicely in order to push you towards the enemies and the end of combat. The combat within The Last of Us has pretty much been cut and pasted from ‘Uncharted’ as well, but the darker and more sinister theme fits the style well. Cinematic fights scenes always made for good viewing in ‘Uncharted’ and the brutal combat of The Last of Us is no different. There are plenty of tricky fight sequences that keep you on edge and the gunplay which is not too frequent as well as the constant lack of ammo makes every situation feel risky no matter what you decide to do.
Don’t be concerned about the slower pace though because the game play and cut scenes integrate together perfectly and you don’t notice load times too much and the areas connect seamlessly.
Ultimately it would be easy to stereotype this as a zombie survival, but although you can draw similarities, it is at its core an entirely different experience. The ‘Non-Human’ enemies you face are infected rather than undead and although they are a consistent antagonist throughout, you appreciate and sympathise with their condition; the ‘Runner’ infected, as an example, is fully aware of what they are doing but is helpless to control itself. The focus though is not on the enemies but instead on an engaging story set in a ruined world with the threat of attack playing behind the scenes; combat is not the focus.
The usual archetypes are present though – a virus has swept across humanity, killing a vast portion and turning others into blood crazed killers. From trailers released it also appears that the virus can spread through bites and life as we know has come crashing down. This has happened hundreds of times before, in small print, on consoles and on the big screen, but what sets this aside is that the writers/Naughty Dog make little to no attempt to explain the source or development of the virus, as these explanations can become quite preposterous at times (2008’s film ‘The Happening‘ I’m looking at you). What Naughty Dog and the writers have done is make a concerted effort to tell the story of the surviving humans and how life continues in the aftermath as they struggle day to day for survival. The best way to generate an image is to think of AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead‘ – the living characters are the focus and the human interaction is the most important aspect on display.
Continued character development is a key feature to telling a great story and the experiences in the game certainly compliment this. Beginning in the modern day world we are introduced to Joel and his life in the first panicked days of the outbreak. Flash forward then, to 20 years in the future and the remains of an all but devastated United States. For spoilers reasons I won’t go into too much detail as the story definitely needs to be played, but a world weary Joel takes on the mantle of guiding a young and naive Ellie across a blasted and infection riddled landscape which makes up the remainder of the game.
This may not seem earth shattering and we’ve been in a similar position with ‘Enslaved’ but the dynamic between Joel and Ellie, his tired and worn experience and her youthful naivety make for a great partnership. This is something that The Last of Us does well, the main characters (portrayed by Ashley Johnson – Ellie and Troy Baker – Joel) feel like people and the survivors they meet and interact with feel just as real. You genuinely feel for these characters; couple this with a well thought-out and executed story and you have a world of survivors and villains that are well-fleshed out and sometimes so disturbing that you will notice and remember when things happen to Joel, Ellie or any number of the supporting cast.
With the general abundance of zombie-survivals available across multiple platforms, you could be forgiven for saying Naughty Dog are merely jumping onto an already existing fan base and making ‘Uncharted: Undead’. However it is clear that those who created The Last of Us have drawn from the best sources when writing and creating this world and have included the best elements from computer games (Uncharted and Fallout) and television (Walking Dead) and although we find comfort in the familiarity of the style we get to experience something which is so much more.
The Last of Us is sure to become a hallmark of the PS3 and with is fantastic visuals, strong game-play, disturbing world and emotion provoking story you will never regret having played this and will remember it as the time when survival-horror made its comeback. Stay Alert, Stay Alive
Preview By; Simon Moore (Si)