Review

The Last of Us

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Following the completion of Naughty Dog’s multiple Game of the Year winner Uncharted 2: Among Thieves in 2009, game director Bruce Straley and lead designer Neil Druckmann formed a second team within the studio and started work on a game which would come to be known as The Last of Us. This title would represent the culmination of Naughty Dog’s technical prowess on the PlayStation 3, and be the epitome of the game which Straley and Druckmann would themselves want to play.

Both men should be proud of their telling contribution to the project because The Last of Us is without doubt one of the finest games of its generation. Not only is it the most technically accomplished game on PS3, but its captivating singleplayer campaign sets a new high-water mark for interactive entertainment. Like a good film, The Last of Us keeps you on the edge of your seat and thoroughly engrossed throughout its duration thanks to an excellent script, powerful performances, and by forging a strong bond between players and the characters they control and encounter during the game’s thrilling cross-country and multi-seasonal journey.

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The Last of Us takes place in a future where mankind has been devastated by a viral outbreak which mutates humans into violent, seemingly mindless creatures infected with the cordyceps fungi. This epidemic has far-reaching effects on society as martial law is declared and the surviving humans eke out a desperate existence in quarantined zones or the wilderness where food and other resources are scarce. For most of the game you play as a grizzled casualty of the outbreak called Joel who has suffered his share of losses over the past twenty years, and who is tasked with smuggling a 14-year-old girl called Ellie across the US to meet up with the remaining members of a resistance group called the Fireflies.

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Of course, trekking across the country while having to deal with the military, bandits and the Infected was never going to be easy, and The Last of Us’ plot does a phenomenal job of continuously throwing curveballs your way to keep things interesting. One of the best things about the game is that it manages to balance quiet, more subtle moments between characters with all-out action, and ensures that most individuals you meet during your journey are given enough time to develop and influence the twists and turns which the story takes. This is in stark contrast to Naughty Dog’s last game, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, where many characters only appeared in one or two cut-scenes before becoming irrelevant to the plot.

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While The Last of Us’ 12-hour campaign is very linear from a narrative point of view, the game constantly provides you with interactivity in other forms as you explore vast, highly realistic environments in search of a path forward, and take out the varied enemy types which block your way. It’s truly a mind-boggling exercise to look back at all the locales you’ve passed through by the end of your journey because very few games offer the kind of variety and attention to detail which The Last of Us serves up in abundance. Seasons change, dilapidated city streets become spectacular mountainsides, and daylight turns to pitch darkness as you venture into the infested innards of boarded-up buildings. Thankfully Joel carries a pocket flashlight with him at all times and these interior sections of the game play out more like a survival horror than an action adventure, with certain moments very reminiscent of the Silent Hill series.

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The Last of Us’ gameplay brings together elements from many other genre-defining classics. Environmental traversal takes a few cues from the Uncharted series while the game’s weapon upgrade system appears to be inspired by Resident Evil 4. Apart from boosting weapon characteristics such as recoil and reload time, you can also craft items such as nail bombs and medkits by combining components you find scattered around the locations you pass through. Crafting, weapon selection, and using offensive or defensive items are all done in real-time so you’ll need to find a safe spot to heal yourself or attach some scissors to your melee weapon for increased damage. Overall The Last of Us’ gameplay is a satisfying blend of established ideas and genres which encourage you to formulate your own tactics as you decide on the best approach to take down (or bypass) a group of enemies. Although enemy AI is generally impressive, I noticed that it doesn’t react to you if you switch on your flashlight in a dark room. While I would expect this from an Infected, blind enemy type called the Clickers, unfortunately this failure to react to torchlight coming from an unknown source also applies to human enemies.

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Naughty Dog’s games are known to be some of the most technically accomplished on their respective platforms, but the visual and audio design of The Last of Us sets a precedent which will be hard to beat on PS3. You can tell that the team who worked on this game are utter perfectionists as every little audiovisual detail is polished to perfection. One of the best examples of this phenomenal attention to detail are the game’s cut-scenes which are all rendered in-engine and boast improved textures, lighting, and effects compared to The Last of Us’ in-game graphics. This is where the characters’ performances truly shine thanks to amazing facial animation and stellar voice acting. While many AAA titles occasionally display blocky, unnatural-looking shadows on characters’ faces during cut-scenes, The Last of Us suffers no such fate. If you want to be treated to the absolute pinnacle of the PS3’s graphical potential then this is the game to get!

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There’s very little to fault in Naughty Dog’s latest tour de force for the PlayStation 3. The game’s narrative may be linear but it nevertheless represents an evolution of the type of stories we are used to seeing in videogames. I’ve personally never played a game where I felt so attached to its characters and their shifting, at times strenuous relationships with one another. Although I look forward to a future where games of this quality have interactive plots, The Last of Us is most definitely a step in the right direction for story-focused titles which hope to provide the same level of immersion and emotionally affecting, character-driven narratives which have predominantly been the domain of books and films up until this point.

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