Reviewed by John Hussey
Where do I even begin with this game? Naughty Dog have certainly had the best track record when it comes to developing video games. Starting off with PlayStation legend Crash Bandicoot, they have worked their way through the generations of consoles and continued to do nothing but succeed.
Though I’m not particularly a fan of Jak and Daxter (mainly because I missed playing their games during the PlayStation 2 era), I loved their next big instalment Uncharted. This started their trend of producing a new signature franchise for each generation of the PlayStation. But that trend was finally changed when it was announced that Naughty Dog would be producing a brand-new franchise prior to the completion of the final Uncharted outing.
At first it was thought to be Uncharted‘ replacement, with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception being the final game in the series. As it turned out Naughty Dog were brave enough to develop two games at the same time, splitting there already small studio into two separate teams – one working on Uncharted 3 whilst the other team worked on The Last of Us. This was of course extremely risky, meaning that the stakes were doubled but the beauty came via the fantastic outcome of two well received games.
The Last of Us strays away from the previous Naughty Dog formula, following the route of Uncharted‘ development, and became a completely different genre of gameplay, something completely alien to the studios usual premise. Despite Uncharted moving away from the cartoony design of previous Naughty Dog franchises, it still retained the core aspect of adventure and platforming, with Uncharted ultimately mastering both and blending them together seamlessly.
The Last of Us, however, would delve into the realm of survival horror and push players into an apocalyptic setting. There was a lot of worry in the early stages of development because it was felt that Naughty Dog were selling out, choosing to make a game focused on an overdone genre. However, once the first teaser trailer was released those doubts were quickly silenced as it was apparent that Naughty Dog’s vision could put a unique spin on the zombie genre.
It was interesting to see them approach the genre with a clear head and focus on the right things, namely character development and how humanity is affected by a horrific worldwide infection. Also there aren’t any zombies to be seen within this game. That might seem puzzling considering I said “zombie genre” but the infected you face are actually based off a real-life fungi infection, called Cordyceps, which is known to take control of the brains of insects in certain countries. Naughty Dog decided to ask the question of, “What would happen if this infection evolved to infect mankind?”
But the brilliant thing about The Last of Us is its focus. From the very start of the game it is clear that the concentration is on the characters, and not the infection. The game creates an immersive atmosphere and realistic post-apocalyptic future but your attention is mostly on the characters involved and how this vicious world has changed them.
The prologue of the game delivers a very in-depth, and emotional, experience where we get to know our protagonist, Joel, through the eyes of his daughter Sarah. There relationship is torn apart by the abrupt outbreak which quickly escalates as Joel, and his brother Tommy, tries getting Sarah to safety. Things take a heart-breaking turn for the worst when a soldier is given the orders to prevent any civilians from escaping the infected areas and Sarah is shot.
Troy Baker, who plays Joel, produces a mesmerising performance because you can see every ounce of emotion and you feel sorry for him in this traumatic moment of loss, reflecting the ongoing themes of the rest of the game. In fact this is definitely the strongest aspect of the game. The character interactions feel so real and personal because of the amazing actors involved doing the motion capture (similar to the Uncharted series).
Baker in particular always gives his all and you can see how damaged he has become after spending twenty years in a hellish infected world and he needs to adapt to the situations placed before him. Then there’s Ashley Johnson who plays Ellie who is another phenomenal actor and plays off Baker perfectly. The two of them make the game and it is a privilege to follow these characters on their torturous journey as they learn to discover one another.
Joel’s journey picks up when his smuggling partner Tess discovers the location of Robert, a black market dealer that stole their weapons cache. They ultimately kill Robert, after sneaking into his base of operations and taking out his men, once they learn he gave their weapons to the Fireflies, a militia group that are trying to oppose the authorities in-charge of the Quarantine Zones.
This brings Joel into contact with Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, who offers them a weapons trade in return for Joel smuggling Ellie out of the Quarantine Zone. Joel is obviously reluctant but attends to the job anyway but things quickly become complicated when they discover that Ellie has been bitten by an Infected but has mysteriously remained unaffected by the infection – leading to the assumption that she holds the cure and the Fireflies want to exploit this.
Shortly after this Tess is bitten and is killed after she choses to sacrifice herself to allow Joel and Ellie to escape the pursuing military forces from the Quarantine Zone. The game then becomes about Joel having to accept responsibility over Ellie as he tries to get her to the Fireflies. The journey is tough and every turn leads them into further danger, whether it be them having to escape gruelling encounters with Infected hordes or deal with desperate, and sometimes sadistic, survivors.
This is where Baker and Johnson’s performance really begins to shine as their relationship grows. It is clear from the start that they both have suffered their own personal losses and these losses have helped define them as survivors. It is also clear that Joel resents Ellie because she reminds him of Sarah, a memory that he has completely erased from his mind because he couldn’t bare the pain of her loss. Ellie, on the other-hand, fells very insecure and scared because everyone she has known has died or left, leaving her with a terrible guilt and a fear of eventually being abandoned.
Slowly throughout the game they begin to bond and open up to each other. This leads to many beautiful, and heart-felt moments, as Joel is slowly lifted out of the darkness and is given a second chance at being a father. Though there is a moment where Joel tries fobbing Ellie off to his brother Tommy, trying to tell both himself and Ellie that he isn’t her father and she isn’t his daughter. He quickly learns after Ellie showcases her feelings and how she has grown to trust and feel safe around Joel that they need to stay together.
From there their relationship gets more personal as they each face a difficult task in order to protect the other, showcasing how far they are both willing to go in order to protect what they hold dare. Joel is at one point left fatally injured and it is up to Ellie, who becomes a playable character for this section of the game, to protect him. It is interesting playing this segment because you come to quickly remember how strong Joel is as a character compared to Ellie.
Because of this you feel more vulnerable in this dangerous world where anything can kill you given the chance and that your first instinct should be to attack first and ask questions later. We are introduced to one of the most despicable villains within gaming history in the form of Nolan North‘ David. The funny thing is I didn’t realise that the Uncharted star played this vile character until I looked it up, showing how good North is at masking his performance as he reveals a different side to his terrific voice acting.
At first you don’t know whether you can trust David but then he aids you in a tense encounter with a horde of Infected. Trust then becomes an issue again when it is revealed that David’s group were the ones that attacked them at the university (resulting in Joel’s injury) and want revenge for the death of their comrades. David wishes to protect Ellie, which feels reassuring at first, but turns ugly when his intentions aren’t pure.
Ellie’s encounter with this monster escalates after David grows psychotic during his obsession to chase her down. It’s a horrible thought to imagine what he intended to do to her, resulting in a frightening struggle to keep Ellie safe. This is Ellie’s grimmest moment, a moment that pushes her to a dark place in order to survive the terrors of mankind’s deepest, darkest impulses. It’s certainly a turning point that shapes the final stretch of the narrative.
In the final stage of the game Joel is also pushed to the edge as he finally comes to terms with his attachment to Ellie. After he is told that Ellie will be sacrificed in order to produce a vaccine for Marlene’s course Joel becomes almost psychotic in his actions to save her. This was first hinted at when he awoke in the Winter segment (after his long period of illness due to his injury) and discovered Ellie had been captured. Joel took it upon himself to torture two of David’s men in the most brutal scene of the game, showcasing just what our protagonist was capable of when provoked.
Joel takes down the militia group with extreme violence as he storms the hospital to free Ellie before she is experimented on, ultimately killing the doctors who desperately try to give humanity a chance at redemption. The conflict ends with Joel deciding to finish off Marlene, justifying his murderous results because he knew she would only try and find Ellie if spared.
The game then ends on shaky grounds when Joel lies to Ellie in order to protect her from the truth, keeping from her the chance to make her own decision and potentially be lost to Joel. With the sequel recently announced it’ll be interesting to see where this relationship goes if Ellie found out the truth and whether she would be willing to forgive Joel for his selfish actions, despite his personal feelings.
Another great aspect of The Last of Us is the gameplay. I love the combat system. It allows you to create your own personal kind of play-through, whether you choose to play it safe or be aggressive against your enemy. Obviously to begin with you have to be more careful, especially when adapting to the law of the world around you – understanding how the Infected behave and how your actions around human enemies can determine the tone and advantage of the battle.
As the narrative progresses you are equipped more and more with different kinds of items and survival techniques. Not only are you given a variety of different weapons, you are given the option to scavenge for equipment in order to build different items, such as health packs and Molotov’s. This helps to enhance the feel that you are trapped in an isolated world where supplies are scarce and survival is key.
You can also customise your weapons and general survival and eventually become a strong force to be reckoned with, making your play-through easier as you become almost overpowered with your abilities to kill everything around you. Though it is fair to say that playing The Last of Us on the harder difficulties makes for a more interesting gaming experience as item building is limited and survival during enemy encounters is less certain. It’s some of the most tense, and thought-provoking, gaming I have come across.
On top of this is the world exploring via collecting letters and other items left behind by the long-since dead, reminding you of how society used to be before the world turned to shit. These lost items can become very powerful to the expansive storytelling as you learn about other survivors and what they had to go through in order to survive.
One of the most tragic tales comes from a man named Ish who ultimately founds a settlement within a sewer system and you learn through both the aftermath of the environment and his letters what became of the people. Another example comes from hearing about a group of students that are trapped within the university, unable to contact the outside world. It all goes to show how the outbreak tore apart the world and ruined the lives of so many innocent people.
If I could sum up The Last of Us with one word it would be “experience”. It’s a journey unlike any other within gaming, and film history. The characters of Joel and Ellie are extremely memorable and completely likable, despite the dark decisions they have to make as survivors. In fact, these decisions only help to enhance their characters and make them even more organic, pushing the boundaries of a three-dimensional games character. The game is about these two lost souls trying to find themselves in a difficult situation and the pay-off, after such an emotional journey, is perfect.
This is matched by the depth of the journey, not only because of the decisions you make, and the terrifying challenges throughout (separated by key moments in the game), but also by the environment itself as you further explore a world no longer owned by man. It’s beautifully put together by Naughty Dog, giving the player a rich environment to explore which feels like a natural progression of what life would become without society. Nature rips through the construction of man and reclaims the earth, generating these mesmerising but haunting surroundings.
Accompanied with this is the wonderful composing by Gustavo Santaolalla. His score is unlike anything I have heard before as he experiments with a wide range of instruments to create this immersive world that allows you to feel every ounce of emotion you are supposed to. Whether it be a sense of isolation, a sense of dread, or a sense of emotion, Santaolalla makes you feel it, adding so many layers to key scenes.
The best moment that comes to mind is the beautifully crafted giraffe scene where you felt a moments reprieve in the midst of this destructive landscape, able to come to terms with how far the relationship between Joel and Ellie has come on this traitorous journey.
It is interesting reflecting back on The Last of Us upon completing it and coming to grips with everything you have endured, how far the characters have been pushed, and understanding the ramifications of facing a world without rules and dominated by survival. It’s a fantastic experience unlike any other and it’s a game I’m happy to have in my collection and replay over and over to re-experience this emotional, dangerous, but beautiful journey.