The Last of Us is a survival horror game based some years into the aftermath of a global pandemic. It is a ‘zombie apocalypse’ but it is a more plausible one than many. It combines a lush, green ruin (previously found in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West) with modern understanding of mind-controlling parasitism and aspects from 28 Days Later. It also incorporates some background atmosphere from US paranoid conspiracy theories (particularly with regard to FEMA) and has a ‘feel’ like a slightly less bleak Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’.
This feels like a game that is pushing the absolute limit of this generation of consoles. It is beautifully presented with an authenticity to the ruination that could have stepped right out of the pictures of the abandoned parts of Detroit. This authenticity underlines the entire game and is essential to getting you drawn in to everything else. The characters also feel ‘real’, with the uncanny-valley sensation masked by the grime of the hard lives the characters have had to live. The interface is minimal, so as not to overly distract you. Something that also helps greatly with the immersion. Shifting between standard view and climbing/moving/close combat actions is virtually seamless and mapping movement to the world in such a way as not to be jarring has been largely successful.
The music is excellent and would make a great soundtrack to survival-horror tabletop gaming.
The game plays out in third person view, closing in when you line up a gun or zoom in. You’ll be negotiating ruined and overgrown landscapes, searching for even the meanest of supplies. In many ways resource-hunting is a huge part of the game, a return to the philosophy of scarcity that shaped older survival horror games like Resident Evil. You will – for much of the game – be scrabbling for health kit ingredients and as many bullets as possible, even though you can’t carry that many.
Searching for supplies sounds a little boring, but moving through the ruins of other people’s lives is quite haunting and you’re never quite sure who (or what) is going to pop out at any given moment which creates a constant air of unease and tension that greatly helps the game. Sound, also an important part of the gameplay, also plays into this with some enemies drawn by sound and twigs or broken crockery giving away your position.
Combat is brutal, heart-of-your-mouth stuff, especially in the earlier parts of the game. Stealth is your friend – but not essential – and while there aren’t a huge variety of enemies to face they are sufficiently varied – and dangerous – to keep you engaged.
Periodically there are physical puzzles to solve. These are grounded in the world and make sense, but even so the repeated use of the same elements (planks/ladders/pallets) makes these puzzles a little too samey. Thankfully there aren’t that many of them.
This game is a seminal moment in computer gaming. As important – in my opinion – as Half-Life was.
Yes, there are elements of it that are fairly obvious and hackneyed – though I’m going to try to avoid too many spoilers. There is, however, no story that hasn’t been told in some form before and we return to the same tropes over and over because they are effective.
We’re introduced to the main character, Joel, just as the pandemic hits in one of the greatest opening sequences to a game ever made. This is a pandemic not of any bacteriological or viral infection but, rather, a fungal infection spread by spores and bites from the infected. The cause of the outbreak is never really explained but it seems to be sudden and violent. Joel tries to escape the chaos with his brother and his daughter (from an estranged marriage), joining the fleeing crowds and witnessing much of the destruction and terror first hand.
He survives, but he can’t save his daughter.
Many years later we find him living in a ‘safe zone’ working as a smuggler and chancer with his partner Tess. He’s still a troubled man with no real reason to carry on, doing so anyway. He and Tess have made a deal involving The Fireflies, a sort of resistance group and when it all goes south and The Fireflies are on the run he and Tess end up having to smuggle a brand new cargo outside the safe zone, a girl called Ellie.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that the reason Ellie is so important is that she’s immune. The remnants of the government have given up trying to find a cure but The Fireflies still are. Ellie just needs to be gotten to a surviving group with the right facilities and it may be possible to create a vaccine against the fungal infection from Ellie.
Joel and Tess set out, with Ellie, at first for the rewards promised but as their trek continues Ellie and Joel get closer and develop a bond, almost like family.
Along the way you run into other communities and individuals surviving in various ways. There are bandits, infected zones, the worst and the best of humanity. The setbacks are unrelenting. Every step of the way something goes wrong and there are disappointments but that just makes the moments of peace and beauty all the more stand-out.
I don’t want to spoiler the ending but it was, for me, the only blot on The Last of Us’ copybook. This is a game that tells a story, you take control of the character for the action, but the story is out of your hands. You get so drawn in that you don’t realise this too much, right up until the end where you’re denied a choice in the most important and fundamental question the game presents.
Let’s just say that I think Joel made the wrong choice and I almost threw my controller across the room in anger and frustration.
That just shows how engaged you can get with this game though.