The Last of Us was one of this year's most anticipated video games—and quite possibly one of the most anticipated games of all time—and it has finally arrived on the PlayStation 3. After originally being revealed at the end of 2011, gamers around the globe were on the edge of their seats to learn more about Naughty Dog's new IP. Naughty Dog, responsible for the critical success of the Uncharted franchise certainly knows how to craft spectacular gaming experiences and The Last of Us is no exception.
Naughty Dog took into theme one of our most disturbing fears as The Last of Us puts players right into the action during an apocalyptic overtaking; a viral outbreak supplied by a terrorist organisation known as Firefly. Right from the beginning of the game, players will see an unprecedented amount of effort and expertise in development and narrative. The action begins right after the first five minutes and never truly ends—it only lightens up briefly—and it's a thrilling experience.
The Last of Us introduces a man named Joel whom players will control in a third-person perspective and the ever popular Ellie is controlled by AI. Following the phenomenal prologue, the game takes place twenty years after mankind's almost-complete annihilation by a parasitic fungus that turns its host into mutated and deranged killers. Survivors reside in heavily militarised quarantine zones—think of the opening scenes of Half Life 2—and the lesser civilised exist within clans of savage scavengers or fortified camps. The start of the game takes place on the outskirts of Boston, where Joel meets Ellie for the first time; this is truly disturbing for me on a personal level as Boston is a mere hour and change from my place of residence.
The Last of Us offers a truly gripping and powerful narrative that illustrates the trauma, fear and aftermath of an apocalyptic event and it does so in ways much more potent than any film I've seen or book I've read on the subject. It's a story you'll find yourself truly getting into; you'll feel the emotions, the tension and the situations as the characters do and that is something I'll stand and applaud for. This sense of dread and violence is present throughout the game, both in terms of its story and gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay, its presence in The Last of Us is undeniably functional and enjoyable. While the narrative is strong, it isn't comparable to say, Heavy Rain. The Last of Us is a video game, not an interactive drama—not saying there's anything wrong with Heavy Rain of course, as it was very good—and Naughty Dog knows how video games should be. It's a surprisingly violent game, but it works well with the theme and overall sensations.
Naughty Dog's new AI called "Balance of Power." This new system allows enemies to react realistically to any combat situation they're placed in. They'll take cover if they see the player, call for help if necessary and even exploit the player's weaknesses; for example, if they hear the clicking of an empty gun.
A new gameplay mechanic introduced is a feature that the developers call "dynamic stealth," and it offers many different strategies and techniques in every situation, to which enemies shall react differently. The player's variety of abilities will grant multiple ways of accomplishing the same mission, which is illustrated in your ability to craft weapons and upgrades. You're able to gather items like alcohol and rags and combine them to make either a healing pack or a Molotov cocktail, for example. However, crafting takes place in real time and you'll have to choose an appropriate place and time to do it.
Combat is deliciously brutal and sometimes frantic. For a majority of the game, your arsenal is understandably limited. A few pistols, a hunting rifle and a shotgun is what you'll spend time getting to know before more advanced weaponry is discovered. However, the hand-to-hand combat is the best part...if you can get close enough to use it.
Melee is a substantial component in combat, with various types of weaponry including wooden planks, steel pipes and knives at your disposal. Each melee weapon has limited uses before breaking—similar to Dead Rising—so you might find yourself in the middle of a fight seemingly without a chance in hell of staying alive. However, you can upgrade your melee weapons to give them more oomph. But fists will still suffice if you can avoid being beaten or shot to death first.
Joel's hand-to-hand combat is quite fun and also quite brutal. He lunges into his attacks, sometimes grabbing an enemy by the head and slamming him into the wall. As I said, the game is incredibly violent, but it's understandable and it fits well. You'll often find yourself complaining that Joel didn't beat the enemy hard enough in some tense moments.
It isn't a perfect third-person shooter—nothing truly is—but the combination of melee, shooting and stealth is forceful. You truly feel like you're in for the fight of your life as you try to stay alive in a dark and gritty world; you'll feel vulnerable but strong at times and it works brilliantly.
Jogging back over to the narrative before I wrap this up, it's important that I touch on the relationship between Joel and Ellie; it's an undeniable triumph. Ellie is a teenage girl in every way and Joel is a world-weary and hardened, but compassionate survivor. Their relationship starts off as hostile but it develops and grows over the course of the game both in and out of cutscenes. Their relationship illustrates the theme of the game: it's not just about survival, but why we survive to begin with or why we even bother.
Visuals in The Last of Us are absolutely stunning and pretty much what we'd expect from Naughty Dog and a PlayStation 3 title and then some. Forests stretch out, water flows crisp and clear and wildlife darts through the trees. The nature within the game is illustrated so beautifully that it's easy to forget the dark and ruined world around it. The game traverses the seasons and we see the world go from green to browns and oranges to the soft white of winter.
You're brought back into cities and you see how ugly the world truly is. Darkened rooms, ruined streets and killers and mutants coming at you from every direction. The people in this shallow world are often uglier still. Betrayal, selfishness and lust for power run rampant, as well as cruelty and waves of grief.
Character animations are consistently brilliant, realistic and believable. Of course though, with visuals basically pouring out of the console, there's an understandable (and sometimes illusion breaking) hiccup; slow-loading textures here and there and the occasional blip of blurriness or softness and sharpness on a character model.
The Last of Us certainly isn't perfect, but it's the closest I've ever seen. A substantially gripping narrative, believable characters and acting and beautiful visuals and gameplay bring life and appeasement as we near the end of this generation's cycle. I only own a PlayStation 3 for exclusives like Heavy Rain and Uncharted, but The Last of Us is a game that I would have purchased a PlayStation 3 for if I hadn't had one already.