I’ve just finished a 20-odd hour playthrough of PlayStation-exclusive The Last of Us, the survival horror game. I suppose I’m a little slow on the uptake – I’m surprised that it’s over a year since it was launched – but it’s a pretty great game. Though I must admit I’d expect nothing less from Naughty Dog, a development team whose pawprints are over a load of great games (The Uncharted series, the stupidly great Jak & Daxter games) and who have a good eye for the cinematic.
First, the game looks beautiful. Odd to say about something set in a gone-to-shit world where forehead fungi are turning people into zombies – er, sorry, the infected – but there it is. There’s a lot of attention to detail, and as one of the end-of-cycle games in the PS3’s life, they’ve really squeezed all the grit and shininess out of the box. Character models are great, and the quality seen in the Uncharted games’ art and design is on display here. There’s a lot of ground shared with something like The Walking Dead, say – overgrown buildings, flooded subways, vegetation encroaching into fucked cities – and there’s a lot of time you could spend just looking around. There’s been some effort to add more than the bare minimum to the sets, at least.
The story – basic survival – is essentially told through a long escort mission, though there’s some surprising cuts and changes in protagonist control. Generally though, it’ll be a two-person experience, with you trying to steer the occasionally borked AI into helping you scale obstacles or open doors. Or to prevent them running headlong into the enemy which will – surprise, surprise – result in them becoming monster chow.
This happened more than I’d like. A lot more.
As this would suggest, there’s definite flaws in the game. Areas aren’t quite as open as they might appear – the usual boxed-in design rears its head with a variety of locked doors, impassable barbed-wire bits (even though they’re only knee-high) and stairwells full of couches to stop you progressing any further. Opponents are also pretty predictable once you’ve played for a couple of hours.
Not that it’s ever especially easy, mind – just that there’s such a limited range of foes that it’s easy to more or less know how you’ve got to deal with them. There’s only five types of enemies – military dudes, non-military (and non-showering) dudes, infected bodies that can see, infected bodies that can’t see (but have excellent hearing) and superhuge infected bodies for whom the term ‘kill it with fire’ was invented.
The challenge differs with the numbers of attackers and the landscape you have to hide in – but I found myself picking certain types of behaviour and sticking with it through the story. I suppose this speaks well for the whole count-your-items nature of the game – but at no point did I find myself seriously challenged by a lack of supplies. I’d assume this changes in the higher difficulty levels – but with a backlog like mine I’m not sure I can do the whole New Game Plus thing.
That said, the story was enough to keep me pushing on through the search-every-drawer-for-cogs grind. The end of the game is pretty intense. It doesn’t give you that moral choice aspect something like BioShock might: this story is told the way Naughty Dog intend, and there’s increasing levels of gruesomeness and oh-fuck-that’s-not-what-that-means-is-it? moments. There’s a continual sense of foreboding, and for me, at least, a point where I made a choice about killing some people that honestly made me feel pretty shitty – not an easy task when I’d just spent the previous 20 hours turning dudes with fungus-heads into salad sprinkles. I was always excited to see what was around the next bend.
The Last of Us was a deeply enjoyable game, though I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed it given how on display some of its problems are. It’s a very linear game, but there’s a charm to it which helps you move past the funnelling and occasional moments of wonkiness. The relationship between the main characters is the key; the creators have managed to make a pair of people who seem just that – people, lost in a world of shit.