The Last of Us begins with a prologue that gives you a snapshot of real life, that is, a father dealing with issues such as a mortgage, job hassles and raising a daughter all by himself. After a brief scene you take control of the daughter who receives a frantic phone call from her uncle asking to speak to her dad just as the phone cuts out. As you search around the house for your dad youíll see a newspaper article that states there has been a 300% increase in hospital admissions due to a mysterious infection.
Your dad isnít in his room but the TV is on and itís showing live footage of major trouble not far from your house. An explosion roars, ending the broadcast abruptly, and at the same time you see the explosion out of the bedroom window. If you werenít already panicking you definitely are now! You find your dad soon after, but heís as frantic as you are and he tells you itís time to get the heck out of town. Your dad throws you into the car and as you drive to the highway you see all kinds of carnage Ė a barn on fire, people fleeing their homes and a massive logjam of vehicles on the road to the highway.
While attempting to find a way around the logjam youíre involved in a car crash. As you try to gather your senses you see infected people running rampant, ripping people to shreds. The worldís gone to hell in a hurry, and itís all you can do to escape with your dad. Welcome, to The Last of Us.
Life is certainly different now, with pockets of humanity carving out lives in dilapidated quarantine zones managed by remnants of the military. Joel makes a living by smuggling items in and out of the quarantine zone, and itís a ruthless life. Joel (the dad in the prologue), has certainly changed to adapt to his current circumstances Ė in the opening scenes the idea of hurting someone is foreign to him, but nowadays heís desensitized to violence, so much so that breaking someoneís arm during an interrogation seems normal. Choking people unconscious, using them as human shields or shooting them in the face Ė these are the tools Joel now employs.
The Last of Us is a survival horror/action-adventure game played from the third-person perspective. Joel has no shortage of enemies in the game, both human and infected, so combat and stealth make up the bulk of the gameplay. You have guns at your disposal, but ammunition is scarce enough that you canít always rely on your guns.
As such you have to use stealth and melee skills just as much as your guns. If youíve played Hitman Absolution then a lot of the concepts in The Last of Us will be familiar. Bricks and bottles can be picked up and thrown to get a nearby enemies attention and lure them to a certain spot. This gives you the opportunity to sneak up behind them and choke them out. Or, if you prefer the pacific approach you can simply sneak past.
Joel is a crafty fella, so he can turn the supplies he finds on his travels into deadly weapons like Molotovs and nail bombs among other things. He can also spruce up the wooden planks and metal pipes he finds by turning them into one-shot killing weapons with careful application of tape and blades. The supplies for all of these weapons are almost as rare as ammunition though, so youíll have to search every environment thoroughly if you want to have a well-stacked inventory.
If stealth is more your cup of tea then youíll find Joelís Ďlisten modeí to be an invaluable tool. By focusing his hearing (by holding R2) Joel can pinpoint any nearby enemies that are moving or talking, even through walls. A completely stationery enemy wonít show up, but most enemies in the story are either moving or talking (unlike online opponents) so youíll be able to spot them. ĎListen modeí is definitely helpful, but after a while it does feel a bit like cheating. That probably explains why it is disabled on the toughest difficulty setting.
As you make your way through the game itís possible to level up Joelís skills, but doing so doesnít occur naturally. To enhance Joelís skills you have to find skill pills, and then use them to level up the skill(s) of your choice. The skills you can enhance include your maximum health, the range of your listen mode, the speed at which you craft items and apply health kits, and the amount of sway when aiming your weapons.
There arenít enough skill pills in the game to fully upgrade all of Joelís skills, but there is new game+ for that. Interestingly new game+ unlocks only for the level of difficulty you complete (and those below it), so if you play on Normal youíll unlock Normal+, and wonít be able to tackle Survival mode with enhanced gear. At least not until you complete the game on Survival difficulty first.
Somewhat surprisingly there isnít huge variety in enemies throughout the game. There are plenty of different human factions to fight over the course of the game, but as far as infected enemies go there are only four types, based on how long they have been infected for. There are enemies known as Runners, who still have their sight and will charge straight at you once they see you. Stalkers are much the same as Runners, but are even more deadly.
Enemy intelligence is quite variable, but most enemies are alert enough to respond to movements and sounds, even something as quiet at reloading your gun if youíre close to them. Once an enemy spots you it is possible to lose them by sprinting away and breaking the line of sight, but for the most part if youíre spotted itís going to result in a fight.
While most of the game involves sneaking past enemies, or engaging them in combat, Naughty Dog does a credible job breaking up the action. At one stage later in the game you get access to a horse and areas that are much more open than what youíve seen before in which to ride it. Thereís also a lengthy section where you have to escape a town full of enemies during a blizzard that reduces everyoneís vision significantly. Although these sections are rare in the grand scheme of things, they do keep the game fresher than it might otherwise have been.
The Last of Us features a somewhat light multiplayer component called Factions, that boasts just two modes, Supply Raid (death-match with re-spawns), and Survivors (death-match without respawns). The good news is that both modes are heaps of fun thanks to well-designed maps, excellent shooting mechanics (carried over from the main game and very similar to Uncharted) and the ability to craft items from the supplies you find. Molotovs, nail bombs and enhanced melee weapons (that kill with one hit) can turn defeat into victory in no time at all.
One neat twist to the multiplayer is that every player is growing their own faction outside of games. Initially your faction has just a few people (five from memory), but that will grow or decline based on your online efforts. At the end of each match your performance is broken down into a net gain or loss of supplies. If you performed well you should earn lots of supplies, but a poor performance might leave you with no supplies at all.
Maintaining your faction takes a certain amount of supplies Ė earn more than that amount and more people will join you, but earn less than this amount and your faction members get hungry, sick or even die. The size of your faction isnít especially important, but it does give you a reason to keep fighting, and can be a source of pride when you grow a larger faction than your friends.
As far as issues go, there really arenít many to mention. The two most glaring have to do with enemy AI and concessions Naughty Dog have had to make to reality in order to make a better game. For most of the game youíll be walking around with at least one companion, and in a wise move Naughty Dog has made it so that your companions canít be spotted by the enemy. Unfortunately this shatters the illusion of stealth when your companion stands out in the open, or right in front of an enemy (or even bumps into them) without alerting the enemy to their presence.
A similar issue is that enemies are frequently (always?) oblivious to the light from your torch. In one instance we stood behind a human enemy turning the flashlight on and off and they didnít notice our presence. As far as the game goes itís good that you can have the flashlight on to see where to go in dark sections, but on the other hand it ruins the atmosphere to a certain degree, especially considering how alert enemies are to sounds. Two much smaller issues are that your companions often block your way and can be stubborn about moving, and enemies with guns that are shooting at you rarely drop bullets Ė they just disappear. On balance though all of these issues are minor.
The world outside the walls of the quarantine zone is lush, with nature reclaiming the world as we know it. Vines grow up the sides of buildings, and in some cases trees grow through them. All metal is rusting so youíll see a lot of rusted out cars around the place, while the pavements and roads are more cracked than solid. Small touches, like the realism of your reflection in glass or the sheen of your clothes after they get wet work a treat.
The motion capture is as precise as youíd expect from Naughty Dog, building on their fine work from Uncharted, and the lip-synching is spot on Ė something that really adds to the immersion during the already gripping cut-scenes. Itís worth mentioning the game is also extremely violent - stomping an infectedís head to pulp, or shooting enemies with shotguns at close range are both gory enough to justify the R-rating alone, and there are a lot more gruesome things in the game that we wonít mention here.
As far as graphical glitches go I only noticed a couple of things. For some reason bodies will occasionally go flying up into the air after they die, cartwheeling their way into the air before slapping down in a heap. I think this has to do with the Havok physics engine, because similar things have happened in other Havok-powered games. Being very fussy you might notice the odd jerkiness to movements in cut-scenes too. On the whole though, the visual performance in this game is outstanding overall.
The sound effects are excellent, and the audio cues to let you know when significant things like enemies lurking nearby or when you wander into an enemyís line of sight are very helpful. Little touches like how much less noise you make while crouching compared to walking also work well. Silence is used well to build the tension too. The music responds to the on-screen action, reaching a crescendo when you engage in a fight, or staying quiet when youíre trying to sneak past enemies. There are an abundance of poignant guitar solos, and they usually fit the mood of the game like a glove.
There is no doubt that The Last of Us is one of the most anticipated games in the PS3ís history, and Naughty Dog have delivered a game that more than lives up to the hype. The gameplay is in no way revolutionary, but itís executed extremely well. Where The Last of Us stands out, and is in fact revolutionary as far as a videogame goes, is in the relationship between the gamer and the characters in the game. They are so believable that youíre likely to form a strong bond with the characters, and be heavily invested in what happens to them. The Last of Us pushes characters and story to uncharted levels in a videogame and is a game everyone (over 18 years of age) should play.
Review By: Dave Warner