“Dishonored” and Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” have highlighted the recent trend towards a compelling narrative that is more akin to a HBO production rather than a video game. The Last of Us goes one step further and delivers a game that is a better experience watched rather than played. The orchestral soundtrack and voice acting is top notch and would not be out of place in your local cinema. Characters actions hold up under close scrutiny and you feel their fear, hope, despair and loss.
Harrowing emotions like these constantly dog your heels in T.L.O.U. add this to its visceral style and you have one of the most hauntingly beautiful, bitter sweet games of the year.
Set in America in the year 2033 T.L.O.U throws you in with no explanation. Something has turned people into monsters, no questions, no explanations just running, terror and explosions. This is for the best as the story itself is slightly unoriginal, think “The Road” but with things actually happening. However it is the main characters relationship that is the heart of the story and in Joel and Ellie we have a heart bursting with enough emotion to make a grown man weep.
As the game teaches you the basics of its stealth or confrontation system you could be excused for nodding off. Goons that wander about with as much awareness as a box of oranges, they only seem to notice you if you start firing your guns like Yosemite Sam. Stay with it though and it will pick up with the introduction of your ward Ellie and the change from faceless goons to infected.
The infected come in only a handful of forms. Most notably “runners” and “clickers”. Runners as the name suggests charge straight at you as soon as they notice you but are fairly easy to take care of, as long as you keep your cool. Clickers on the other hand hunt by sound, make so much as a peep and they are drawn to the commotion, like moths to a flame. You can use this to your advantage though by distracting them with the bricks and bottles that you will find liberally sprinkled about most sections.
The game is at its best when you find yourself left with only a handful of bullets in your clip, your lead pipe worryingly absent of any upgrade and a nail bomb…
…if you’re lucky!! Like something straight out a Romero flick, the music thumping along to your heartbeat it’s scary stuff indeed.
A small section finds you exploring an underground bolt hole, following in the elusive owners footsteps by means of dairy pages and trying to avoid the inevitable infected. Just like something out of a early Resident Evil title (and that’s high praise indeed). Sadly this does not last and the infected are slowly supplanted by hunters, nameless thugs with guns and a lust for blood. Trickier yes, nowhere near as much fun though.
Other times you will find yourself wishing some encounters would be over so you can get back to the story. A story that often offers some excellent set pieces; hanging upside down by your feet, infected rushing your position as Ellie struggles to free you. Trying to jump start a car in a neighbourhood where you just know as soon as you make a sound all hell is going to break loose. A mad dash on horse- back though town, enemies jumping out vainly trying to obstruct your path, or even playing a deadly game of cat and mouse in a blizzard. These moments add a sense of welcome exhilaration that you can’t find from sneaking about knifing people in the back.
As the game progress you will find yourself with the ability to boost your skills and weapons in a basic RPG manner. It is next to impossible to max them all out however, so choose wisely the ones that suit your play style. Better hearing for the stealthy approach or more health for those with a gung-ho approach. It does not give you many options but all are very useful. The unbreakable shiv option becomes a bona fide approach for taking down clickers.
To increase your immersion in this deadly world Naughty Dog has taken the bold step of using a clumsy control system. You can’t swap guns with a casual press of triangle you have to play about with the d-pad and “look” in your bag for your weapon of choice. This takes time so adds to the realism and you find yourself carefully thinking about how to take down a group of enemies and not just charging in like some sort of super soldier.
In-between all the action there is time to walk along desolate freeways, lush forests, abandoned hospitals or trashed hotels. It is in these moments that that Jole’s and Ellie’s relationship is made more rounded and believable, it’s in these quiet interludes that you find out little things like Ellie can’t whistle. Not a throwaway line however as an hour or so latter you will hear her making a breakthrough and it is met with a grumpy but light-hearted response of “great that’s something else you can annoy me with” throughout the story it is small touches like this that makes you notice the developing relationship between the two main characters. At the start Joel is gruff and all business, not even wanting to talk directly to her. If he has to, telling her to do what he says when he says it but by the end he is offering information freely, helping her on to horses and even sharing jokes.
The two of them form not only a strong bond but a formidable partnership. In-game Ellie is by no means a passenger, if an enemy grapples you she will throw bricks at them even on occasion knife them in the back. Simple things like shouted warnings of “he’s behind you” genuinely warm you to her and make you appreciate the company on this dangerous mission.
And as the last words of the game, all the more poignant for their simplicity ring in your ears you will realise it’s not been a story about infected, hunters or even the fate of mankind. It’s a story about loss, redemption and love. Don’t play the last of us, get the popcorn out and watch it!!
Conclusion: Despite some shortcomings – clunky control, a somewhat clichéd narrative, The Last of Us hits all the right beats; combat that will make you think instead of charging in all guns blazing. Watching a relationship bloom in a organic and non forced way, dazzling set piece after set piece. An stone cold classic, not to be missed.
Five out of five.