It’s slightly reassuring yet rather disheartening to know that our most of our prized and united moments as a species will come towards the end of our lifespans. Short, sharp glimmers of hope are harder to find in an era where 8 hours of your day is spent in front of a television screen, but so are lead pipes to the face and diseased bitemarks. The apocalypse is all swings and roundabouts and The Last Of Us hammers this home with each passing second, rewarding each ounce of stress and dread with…just the satisfaction of being alive for a little bit longer.
The entire world has been ravaged by a virus that has gone manically fungal, ensuring each human that breathes in infected spores gets one too many organic tendrils spouting from the pores. With cities in lockdown and food rationed for decades, men like Joel are something of a blessing in disguise. A guy who knows how to smuggle things from infected wasteland to oppressed populace, he’s a Godsend despite his moral compass wavered by his basic instinct of survival. With such a reputation, he’s taken up as the best candidate to transport someone’s most valuable asset out of Boston; a 14 year old badass in training called Ellie. But with some of the perils waiting on a cross-country tour of an America enraptured by infection, the two will have to find some common ground to get along with if they’re going to push through the infected that will push them to their limits, and then some.
So far, so standard. It’s post-apocalyptic hell on yet another disc, but if there’s one thing The Last Of Us does-and does supremely well- is turn your first impressions of each and every element of the experience into dust. Strolling into the decaying ruins of the world, heart flattening strikes to morale strike Joel from every way possible. There are barely enough bullets to feed a starving family of pistols. Infected oddities react to the slightest tremor in oxygen, and before you’ve even reached the 100th step on you pedometer, a trademark clicking sound you’ll fear to hear will ring in the air, the owner soon to launch on your naive body and tear the tendons in your neck out. ‘The Clickers’, probably the greatest monster to grace consoles since any of the unique infected in the Left 4 Dead crew knock anything out of your hands and instantly down you as soon as a finger finds flesh. When that first tooth pierces a vain, you soon realise that you can’t simply fluster your way through the epidemic, but treat the apocalypse with a little bit of respect and decency if you’re going to make your way through it. It’s tricky to nail The Last of Us into a genre at times due to the amount of choice available in tackling scenarios. Sometimes it’s stealth as you crawl from makeshift cover to makeshift cover in an attempt to wean off numbers of infected/generally bad uninfected folk. Sometimes it’s action when you feel you have no choice but to gun ‘n’ duck your way through scenarios hoping for the best. Sometimes it’s strategy when you have no choice but to locate a clear path simply to run away. It isn’t cowardly. At times, it’s the most tactical and skillful thing you can do. Planning is the name of the game in many cases, as the world surrounds Joel with horrid abominations that can easily cave your skull in if you’re not careful enough. Yes, this may have the blood of Uncharted in it, but this is stripped to the bone, bare-knuckled survival, and whilst void of detonating planes, collapsing buildings and power-centric artifacts, each moment of gameplay in The Last Of Us is even more death defying than its hyperactive brethren.
The Last Of Us holds no shame in forcing you to explore corridors for supplies with no one but Ellie for company, but there’s always that feeling of dread lurking in each and every corner of the mind. The pacing of the entire game spikes as randomly and as violently as a pit of syringes. One minute you’ll be strolling around doing the creep as you scavenge for supplies. The next you’ll be locked in a room with 10 Creepers all twitching their necks primed to give you a lovebite to remember. Goodness knows how long this game takes to the average player. My paranoid temperament under such jumpy parameters led me to kill my knees through crouching pretty much 85% of the time. While it harbours a constant horrific portrayal and charming internal relationship throughout, the game has a constant ‘Deal With It’ attitude. One-hit kill Clickers are pretty much the introductory monster, setting things straight from the get-go with the harshness of this new world. You inventory will most likely resemble binary code with the sheer amount of depressing 1s and 0s you’ll be seeing throughout, only looking healthier during moments when you have to gun you way out of situations. Sometimes you’ll have to tear through supplies in a bid to survive, but that option never, ever feels like the right one. In fact any decision you make doesn’t feel entirely sound, but dwell too long and you’ll end up dead. If there wasn’t such a lovely and forgiving checkpoint system in the game, I’d probably curl up in the corner of my room and cry.
Perhaps the starkest element that works against you however is the sheer reality of the absurd scenario. Occasionally a bullet will knock you for six and the game addled mind will scream that that isn’t part of the plan. Sometimes you will have to rummage through your backpack in a bid to find not a weapon of choice, but one that is loaded. Saving graces came when I had enough materials to craft a first aid kit, but then deliberation struck when I could use those same materials to clear out the potential killers knocking down my health. In the time it took to craft my decision, I was shot point blank in the head. There’s no winning formula for approaching conflict, but over time the game does gear you up for thinking as if you are in Joel’s shoes.
Sometimes though, I got sick of trudging through fields of imminent death. It’s partly the games fault, but I’m petty. Sometimes the tension got a little bit too much and I crumbled, crying out that I just wanted another morsel of narrative. The relationship between Joel and Ellie take twists and turns as it trundles along the battered American roads, and comes across the odd cliché milestone with each passing hour. However, it never oversteps the mark, offering its own sombreness to all proceedings. The direction, the acting and the chemistry bring each segment of their relationship be it through cutscene or gameplay into a refreshing light, and while the reward of survival should be enough to satisfy victory, any interaction between the two after a tense sneakabout is the cherry on top of the cake.
After the sheer amount of stress forced onto both Joel and my own shoulders, I have every right catching my breath by ogling the surroundings as soon as I get the chance to, shuffling my gear like a compulsive possessed all the while. The world may have succumbed to Hayfever 2.0 long ago, but its effect on the world has encased it in lush decay. It’s refreshing to see constant reminders of death coated in the invasion of lush vegetation rather than go with a pure pallet of greys and browns, almost encouraging the Triffids to attack. It all looks so great that I’d occasionally try and slap the cinematics on the wrist due to them showing up the in-game visuals. Story driven FMVs have astonishing attention to detail in them and are an absolute joy to behold. As much as I can praise the visuals though, it’s everything you hear in The Last Of Us that is really impressive. Dabble in a good set of headphones, and you’re more likely to get out of the game alive. Noise is used intelligently throughout, forcing you to tune your senses before tackling different enemy waves. The soundtracks’ seemingly lone guitar does a sterling job of encapsulating every facet of the title, and while a majority of the game is cast in eerie silence, it brings about goosebumps every time you hear it. There’s a sombreness in every part of the games aesthetics, backed up by sheer brutality in the form of the stark harshness of the gameplay (along with some stomach churning executions). If it weren’t for some unusual faux pas, it would be the most immersive title of this generation hands down…
If you’re not too wired, there are some noticeable breaks to immersion here and there. It was evident Ellie had never left the safety of the city early on as she danced in front of Clickers like an emu possessed when we started off. Thankfully your pal pillocks don’t attract attention with their actions, and once you become a scatterbrained infected radar you’re soon to detract from the bewildering daftness to ensure your own safety. Once every hour I’d let out a feign ‘Buh?’ as the world crumbled in the common sense and physics departments. In another game, it would feel like a pesky nit just awaiting to be clasped and gotten rid of. However, here, where every other precious detail is finely tuned to hold everything together, seeing such bloopers can really strike the immersion the game has worked so hard to build at times, and it really is a shame. When it makes such an error, it’s quick to launch something else your way to detract from it for a while which thankfully gets things back on track quickly, so there’s nothing game breaking here, but I’d be in tears if the checkpoint system wasn’t so forgiving due to the times I’d get distracted and killed due to a partners goof-up.
If you have a worse temperament that me and get sick of the A.I, there’s always multiplayer to dive into. Bringing in all of the mechanics from single player, deathfests online are much slower affairs than ones that people may be used to. Matches become huge ‘hide-and-seek’ games or challenges in seeing which team is better at flanking the other. I can’t see a lot of people playing it in months from now due to its rather slow pace, and both modes on offer are nowhere near as tense as the main game can become, but there were enough nice ideas here to keep me hooked for a bit. Online follows a linear story driven path, with each match being a ‘day’ in the life of survivors. Each day you have to gather supplies through kills and other means to increase the population of their camp, prevent them from dying and progress the story of their faction. It becomes clear that these cans of baked beans you’re gathering are basically this games version of EXP, but nevertheless, it’ll likely hook those who are sick of fast-paced killfests in for the ride.
It’s good that The Last Of Us has plenty of heart in it, as it will most likely rupture yours. Wonderfully immersive, The Last of Us is a valiant swansong for this generation amidst talk of the next. Cut off all communication to others, dim the lights and turn the volume up to perilous levels before nestling into it. Playing its cards like a magician of the highest calibre, the journey will know exactly what to do to hold you in its grasp. Just have a cardiologist on hand in case something vital breaks…