PlayStation developer Naughty Dog was once best known for its part in foisting the PSX’s answer to Sonic The Hedgehog upon us with the Crash Bandicoot series of games. While not being my thing, the Crash games were well produced, sold well, and generally received favourable reviews from critics back in the day. However, in the last 5 or 6 years Naughty Dog has somewhat reinvented itself as a developer of high quality cinematic action adventure games with the critically and commercially successful Uncharted series on PS3.
The Uncharted games certainly provided a very good reason to consider buying a PS3 over the Xbox 360 at retail with their exclusivity to Sony’s console, and to my mind, while there are some good 360 exclusives out there, Microsoft’s console never really came up with a serious rebuttal to Nathan Drake’s modern-day take on Indiana Jones. Nevertheless, I do not think that Uncharted alone would have been the tipping point in most gamer’s decisions over which console to pick up, assuming one was initially ambivalent over which of the seventh generation consoles to buy. I had already long bought a 360 by the time Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released in late 2007, and while I admit that it looked quite good, and sounded promising from the coverage I caught in Edge at the time, I wasn’t tempted to break out my old flexible friend and pick up a PS3 for this alone. However, you cannot deny the quality of production values that Naughty Dog have been injecting into their PS3 releases and the impressive way they have moved away from pseudo-“kiddies” games like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter to the mature content of the releases we’ve seen since (and including) Uncharted.
In the Spring of 2013, with the next generation of consoles only months away from launch, Naughty Dog delivered what could be rightly described as the PlayStation 3’s swan song – The Last of Us.
The back drop to the game is nothing that we haven’t seen before.
A global pandemic has all but wiped out modern civilisation, and those that have survived are living in heavily fortified zones protected by the military. Outside of these zones are other remains of humanity, pocketed in small areas of once thriving towns and cities surviving to live amongst the decay and detritus, but away from the order laid down by the military. The virus that has wrecked humanity starts life as spores getting into the brain and then developing into a fungus that turns the host into violent zombie. Over time the fungus grows deforming the head and other parts of the body, and there is no cure. These poor souls are referred to as the “Infected“, and there are a lot of them still out there looking for fresh victims as the virus can also be spread by being bitten.
After a short prologue to the main game, which sees the last hours of our world before the virus begins to spread, you take control of one of the survivors, Joel. Set twenty years later, Joel has become a smuggler of guns and pharmaceuticals with his partner, Tess, and through a twist of events get involved with a resistance movement called the Firefly’s, whereby they are entrusted to escort a young girl, Ellie, across country to a Firefly stronghold. As the game progress a strong relationship between Joel and Ellie forms which helps them drive forward, against the odds, to their ultimate destination.
The action elements are formulated of confrontations either with hostile human opponents, or the Infected. Weapons are not available in abundance, so fortunately Joel can look after himself, and many enemies can be dispatched by hand in ways not entirely dissimilar to what you would expect in Uncharted. Weapons that are available come in the form of small arms and cruder weapons such as shiv’s or baseball bats. To make matters more interesting not only are bullets in short supply, but non-ballistic weapons can only be used a few times before they will break and become useless. Therefore scavenging becomes a key part of the game process when not engaging in combat or avoiding enemies. You will find yourself searching high and low for the parts to make a shiv or Molotov cocktail, if you’re lucky you may find some bullets, but you’ll search everywhere for items so that you can survive.
The game requires you to think, and in many cases will allow you the opportunity to squirrel yourself away to one side while you consider what the best plan of attack will be, if indeed attack is a genuine option. Early on in the game, when ammunition and weapons are probably at their most scant, if you decide to become a one-man zombie-Terminator you are going to come unstuck very quickly indeed. As in real life, you use your intelligence to pick and choose your battles. Do it wisely and you’ll progress; the alternative usually results in death or making the next encounter ever the more tricky. The computer AI is excellent, and you will be quickly hunted down should you even accidentally give your position away. There are a few battles where a direct approach is required, but they are few and far between, and thus generally the action is of a cerebral variety as you eliminate those that block your path. The game is not easy, and there will be plenty of deaths before you pass certain areas. Indeed, some encounters really crank up the tension as you potentially face being overwhelmed if you do not enact a suitable strategy or respond quickly enough.
Of course the action is not entirely the primary driver of the game; it is the narrative and the relationship that forms between Joel and Ellie, and the action constantly plays second fiddle to the story being told. This cannot be highlighted more than in the dying minutes of the game where you would be rightly expecting one thing to happen, and your resilience is rewarded with something else entirely. In fact the game’s concluding minutes are very clever and I applaud Naughty Dog for taking the route they took to bring the story to a close.
The graphics are of the highest quality, well drawn, everything has character, and the lighting effects are just beautiful. The animation is some of the best I have seen, with lots of detail in facial expressions bringing the characters more to life and further enhancing the relationship building that goes on between them and between you and them. Sound, both music and audio, is first rate as you would expect if you’ve ever played any of the Uncharted games. Technically this must be pushing the PS3 to its limits, and it’s doubtful we’ll see anything of this quality launched on the system again now that the PS4 is centre of Sony’s attention.
The Last of Us is not perfect (criticisms I do have are all very minor), but within the genre that it sits in, it comes as close as one can get to gaming perfection in my opinion, and it will be interesting to see which developers try to copy or surpass the game, within its kind, as time moves on.
One developer who should take note of The Last of Us gameplay and narrative is Capcom. In many ways Capcom have spear headed the zombie genre’s rise to prominence in modern media with the Biohazard (aka Resident Evil) series, but they have lost their way considerably since the brilliant Biohazard 4, and perhaps ever more so since Biohazard 5 as Biohazard 6 is just a complete mess. Biohazard 5 has many redeeming qualities for me, even if it is not as good as its predecessor. I cannot say the same for the abomination that is Biohazard 6. If Capcom can extract just some of the essence of The Last of Us, combine that with the characters and story strands of Biohazard, and refocus on the one player element instead of fixating on the need to pander to multi-player, then they may be able to inject some credibility back into the franchise. After all, Naughty Dog have gone on record as saying that Biohazard 4 was a big inspiration to them during the development of The Last of Us.
With the cost of PS3 hardware now plummeting as retailers look to clear their shelves for additional space for PS4, there has never been a better time to pick up a brand new PS3 on the cheap so that one can play this game. While it may seem a bit extreme, the investment will be worth the experience that will unfold and you can then of course take in many of the other PS3 exclusives like the aforementioned Uncharted, plus Gran Turismo and others. I have no idea how many individual video games I have played since I was born, but there aren’t that many I really wanted to sit down and play through again immediately after completing them for the first time. With The Last of Us I did not get that feeling. The feeling I got was sadness, I was actual sad that I had completed the game, that my journey with Joel and Ellie had come to an end and there was no more story left to tell. I do not think I can say that about any game I have ever played or completed before; and I think that, more than anything else, that sums up the emotional impact of the thoroughly good story told by The Last of Us.
I shall, of course, be returning shortly to experience this epic once more, and I look forward to the forth coming single player DLC. I can only hope that if Naughty Dog decide to continue Joel & Ellie’s adventure, that the game is every bit as good as this; they have left themselves a mighty high mountain to climb… indeed a part of me would like to see the game as a stand alone title. Alas, I am sure commercial pressures will dictate otherwise. Still if any developer can trump their previous lofty achievements, on their record so far, it would be Naughty Dog.