There’s always been a separation in video games between story and gameplay. In an effort to make their tales more cinematic, game developers sacrifice player immersion and hope nobody notices. But we do… like a crowd of protective mothers notices a lolly-pop wielding pedophile inside an all-female primary school. The distinction between the two elements is jarring; one feels like you’re watching the tale of a young and beautiful survivor, the other pressing you to commit regular acts of genocide. How does this relate to The Last of Us? Because Naughty Dog’s latest is arguably the most consistent game world created in the history of the medium. From the chaos of a zombie outbreak to the narrative’s closing scenes 17 hours later, The Last of Us’ individual elements – atmospheric sound, tight engaging narrative, incredible cast of characters, brutally satisfying combat, expertly crafted world – seamlessly combine to create one of the greatest games of our generation.
At first glance, The Last of Us’ plot has been done more times than Mare Simone (Google her). Taking the post-apocalyptic zombie route, it throws Joel, a man hardened by tragic loss, into a partnership with Ellie, a mature 14-year-old who looks and sounds eerily similar to the real-life Ellen Page. The two are forced to travel across the country, hunting any infected that dare cross their path while they battle the elements in their attempts to survive. As overdone as this set-up is, it provides a strong backbone for the heart of the story – the complicated, emotion-charged relationship between Joel and Ellie.
You might think you’ve built deep relationships with game characters before (Drake/Sully and Lee/Clementine spring to mind) but nobody has ever crafted one as expertly as this. I know what Joel is thinking as Ellie marvels over the interior of a music shop, or as she scrambles over a fence into uncharted territory, yet he says nothing. There’s so much subtlety and hidden meaning in not just their dialogue, but body language too, that it reflects one of cinema’s oldest and most pertinent sayings – show, don’t tell. When you can communicate with your audience through actions, not words, you know you’re onto something good.
But this is a video game, I hear you say, so what makes it so special? Because The Last of Us takes that aforementioned saying one step further. This is not just show don’t tell, it’s play, don’t show. Personality quirks, dialogue and even most of the story’s disastrous events play out in real gameplay time. Take the prologue for example. Without spoiling anything, where most developers would have been content to relay events as mere cut-scenes, Naughty Dog instead chose to throw control to the player’s hands. The effect is it builds a connection, right from the start, between the story and its audience. It’s not just a narrative to observe, but one which you play an active role in. Augmenting this is your companions curiosity in their surrounding environment. Watching them inhabit the world not as mindless AI, but as believable living beings, elevates the game’s wonderful world into something truly magical – an organic populace that exists outside of player interaction.
Which leads us to another form of player interaction: gameplay. As said before The Last of Us seamlessly bleeds the core themes of its narrative – survival and companionship – into its combat. Ammo is scarce forcing Joel to scavenge each and every one of his environments and tackle each area intelligently. You could go out all guns blazing, blowing infected body parts off, planting axe blades into unsuspecting heads and stabilizing Joel’s naturally unsteady aim, but you’ll pay for it with your life. AI will flank the crap out of a run and gunner and Joel’s shaky aim combined with the natural stumble of clickers (deadly zombies) make it nigh on impossible to headshot a running target.
Instead, you’re better off snuffing out isolated enemies then launching crafted nail bombs into larger crowds, saving valuable shotgun and flamethrower ammo for a rainier day. Partners are also more of a help than hindrance too, alerting you to soldiers approaching from behind and rarely requiring assistance in the thick of a firefight. Far and away the most welcome addition to the combat, though, is the more randomised contextual actions. Purely by accident I learned Joel could take out a soldier standing on top of a table by ripping his legs out from underneath him, slamming his head into its wooden edge and knocking him out in the process. The Last of Us’ combat is already delightfully satisfying, but moments such as this propelled it into something far more visceral and exciting.
With all these positives you’d think there’d have to be at least one flaw right? Well yes, The Last of Us does have one gaping issue and it’s to do with enemy AI. Numerous times throughout my playthrough Joel’s companions would duck out of cover to an enemy patrol’s line of sight with enough subtlety to rival a trench-coat laden man revealing himself in a school canteen. Naughty Dog opted not to punish the player for this thankfully, but it does break the immersion factor and is a small blemish on an otherwise flawless canvas.
Before I lay down my final verdict, though, there’s one more thing that needs to be said. It pushed the game from mere greatness to something far more magical and is the difference, in my book, between a 9.5 and a 10. There’s a moment about halfway through the game where your group has just narrowly survived a surprise clicker attack. They escape the confines of a building and emerge to a leafy abandoned suburban town with no zombies and no enemy guards. Joel and his companions are left to explore the deserted remains of houses, challenging each other to darts, rummaging through people’s private belongings and watching peacefully as two wild dogs fight playfully, seemingly unaware of the commotion around them. It’s a reminder that even in disaster there is still beauty and tranquility.
It tripped my body into a meditative-like state and roused emotions that I had never experienced during a video game. Like 28 Days Later, The Last of Us expertly paces these moments of calm and natural serenity with the brutality and realism of a zombie attack. The best part is that there’s more than just one.
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