The Last of Us is bleak, unnerving and foreboding; not exactly what springs to mind when you think of a swansong. Sony’s big exclusive for the PlayStation 3 isn’t exactly what you’d expect of Uncharted developers Naughty Dog either.
Set two decades after a fungal plague has torn the world apart, there are no happy sights, no smiles, and barely a scrap of hope. We follow Joel and Ellie, a grizzled weather-worn man and the 13-year-old girl he has sworn to protect, as they escape the oppressive military that contain survivors in quarantine zones run under martial law.
Naughty Dog’s first game post-Uncharted is similar in small ways, but unrecognisable in its broad strokes. Being a third-person action game, such resemblances to the adventures of Nathan Drake were inevitable but rest assured The Last of Us is a very different beast. A sense of adventure is replaced wholesale with a sense of survival. Guns littering environments to prepare Drake for lead-peppered battles are replaced with makeshift shanks and ammunition found only a few bullets at a time.
An early portion of the game sees Ellie, Joel, and his former squeeze Tess re-enter a city reclaimed by Mother Nature. As they trek on to their destination, the trio make their way through a partially collapsed building. As you progress you can collect supplies, which in turn can be combined to craft items. From batteries, blades, tape, rags, alcohol, explosives (a rarity) and sugar you can make shivs, medkits, Molotov cocktails, improved melee weapons, and replenish your flashlight batteries.
Entering the crafting menu or even pausing for that matter doesn’t stop the world around you; it spins on as its inhabitants continue to hunt. It only adds to the sense of constant danger. At one point Joel decides to go on ahead to clear an area of its infected inhabitants, where there are two types of infected. Runners are in the early stages of infection and will rush you, usually in groups. Fending them off requires a frantic mashing of the square button. If you’re carrying a melee weapon, that will automatically be used.
Clickers are the other, more dangerous kind. They have been totally claimed by the fungi and have lost their vision. Like bats, they use sound to see, using a clicking noise to navigate. Let one run at you head on and death is near-instant, as they tear chunks right out of Joel’s neck. Their blindness holds obvious disadvantages, however, so you can distract them with a bottle or brick then close in for a kill from behind. Killing them requires a shiv, whereas a Runner can be strangled.
The combat in Uncharted didn’t sit right with some people. In Nathan Drake’s world of high-adventure and action-movie set pieces, combat that was so frantic didn’t feel quite at home. Drake always had a John McClane style attitude to going in guns-blazing and getting through by the skin of his teeth, and in a way the combat echoed that, but largely it could have been more polished.
The Last of Us shares a lot of those combat ticks but in this world they work far better. The system is more refined, but that sense of frantic fighting when an encounter gets beyond your control lends well to a system that supports such panicky outbursts of violence.
Sound is very important to The Last of Us. The distinctive Predator-like clicking that gives the Clickers their names is bad enough, but alert them and it gives way to a squeal not unlike Jurassic Park’s Raptors. It’s unsettling and sets the tone for some great audio design not unlike Visceral Games’ original Dead Space.
Rather than a survival horror game though, The Last of Us is survival action with a rich vein of horror running through it. The horror of the infected, of the mutilated corpses and of what humanity has become seeps into each jump scare and the subsequent smashing of buttons.
Tough, unforgiving and unrelentingly dark, The Last of Us is many things but definitely not Uncharted with flower-zombies. The commercial success of the game may be in some doubt, as is whether this is a potential new series for Naughty Dog, but on the basis of what I saw, the PS3’s next big exclusive could be a gem.
The Last of Us will be released on June 14 exclusively for PlayStation 3.