Having played and loved the first three games in Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, I couldn’t wait to play a game I’d been hearing about from the same company, called The Last of Us. I was aware of the original when it was released on Playstation 3, but somehow it passed me by. So, when I realised it had been remastered for my shiny new Playstation 4 and, given the rave reviews, I knew I had to try it. And was truly happy I did so.
For this review, I need to begin by saying some things about the brilliant drama impeccably scripted by Neil Druckman, that’s at the heart of the The Last of Us. Unusually for a computer game, this one has compelling and utterly believable characters, with emotional range, complex motivations and very human unpredictability. The story arc is pure cinema of a high order, the dialogue crisp and fresh and we really care about the characters, especially the main pair, Joel and Ellie.
Twenty years prior to the events of the main story Joel’s teenage daughter is shot by a soldier in the midst of a firefight against a plague that’s turning people into cannibalistic monsters (zombies, in other words). Cut to the present day in the story and when Joel is charged with escorting Ellie, a teenage girl who is immune to the zombie virus, to a safe haven with a group called The Fireflies. Immediately we are aware of Joel’s emotional reaction, before he even speaks – he does everything in his power to avoid having to look after the girl, whom we suspect is simply a painful reminder of his own dead daughter, Sarah.
Naturally the storyline wouldn’t work unless our hero accepts the quest (so far so archetypal, very much in line with Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey – or, if you’re a scriptwriter, more likely following the pattern out of that monomyth by Christopher Vogler for Hollywood). The road to the “safe haven” – the inverted commas are deliberate, because all is not as it seems – is fraught with great dangers. There are zombies of various stripes, collectively known as The Infected, the most disturbing possibly being the Clickers, who can detect you if you make a sound, not to mention survivalists, various military people and physical obstacles.
Armed with various weapons, from simple pieces of wood and metal rods for melee combat, to bows and arrows, pistols, machine guns, flamethrowers and various bomb devices, both Joel and Ellie need to sneak past to have pitch battles with all of the above enemies. Possibly the most disturbing aspects of gameplay is trying to sneak past your enemies, such as the hard-to-kill Bloaters, huge beasts with protective plates on their bodies who spray flaming poisonous liquid at you. There is almost nothing worse than getting close to the end of a section than being jumped on and killed, therefore having to start again from the section’s save point.
The journey takes us across a ruined city and smaller towns, through beautiful but deadly rural landscapes, and, ultimately, through a danger-fraught hospital that allegedly can collect tissue samples from Ellie to find a cure for the plague. But of course, the idea that the scientists are simply going to take blood and DNA samples bears no resemblance to what they actually plan, and it is the revelation of the final destination that makes for and riveting and emotionally-charged penultimate level in the gameplay.
Of course, the game is no mere shooter. There are plenty of puzzles to solve, such as how to negotiate environments that seems to obstruct at every turn. Then there are the cliff-hangers: dramatic sequences such as the collapsing bridge of trucks and buses in a powerful waterway which could mean death for Joel and Ellie if the gamer doesn’t handle the situation right.
The graphics are exceptional also. The characters are realistically rendered, the environments amazingly detailed and plausible and using an open world exploration approach (no maps as guides, although certain tracks are suggested). Oh, did I mention that the latest version of the game has a secondary game to play, focussing on Ellie, called Left Behind, which I have only started playing but which I know will have its hooks in me in no time?
I won’t dwell on the minutiae of gameplay, but let’s just say this: you really need to play The Last of Us. However, I do feel the need to same something more about the drama and characterisation.
Like a good novel or a movie, I was gripped from start to finish. There are scenes that make the heart kick with a visceral emotional response, even down to the necessary killing of a rabbit (seriously, I thought, “Aw, cute bunny rabbit,” seconds before Ellie shoots it with her bow and arrow). I mention that as a caution, to introduce you to another important aspect of the storytelling: some of the characters we come to care about die, and the final scene is morally ambiguous, depending on your point of view, and all the better for it.
As for the main protagonists, Joel is a convincing Texan macho man, but multi-layered, and we can sense his underlying feelings beneath his brusque exterior; Ellie is a convincing teenage girl, feisty with a great deal of attitude, good in a fight, given to swearing but with a big heart that at first appears to have been hardened by the horrific events in her past and the losses she has experienced.
I have never, ever, used a cliché such as “an emotional roller coaster” because next to nothing I’ve experienced, at least in gaming, matches up to that phrase. But The Last of Us is exactly that.