The post-apocalypse has been played out many times. A viral outbreak leading to the collapse of society has become a rather generic standard. Many have tried and some have prevailed; but none quite like The Last of Us.
The dystopian remnants and unforgiving journey show elements of inspiration from the likes of The Road and Children of Men. But most importantly, it shows a very different Naughty Dog to the typecasted creator of adventures like Uncharted or Crash Bandicoot.
Twenty years has passed since the human race was overturned in the blink of an eye by Cordyceps, a parasitic fungus that replaces human tissue with it's own. The once great cities of America lie in ruins, and survivors cling onto their ever-reducing humanity. Veteran survivor Joel, a texan survivor who smuggles items between the various militaristic quarantine zones, has been tasked with escorting Ellie, a young girl with a secret importance to our salvation, across the brutal, overgrown landscape of the U.S.A.
Upon their travels, the crux of this ever-evolving story is the relationship that develops between these two central characters. They are amazingly realised, existing without any cliched video game traits. Simply put, they feel human. Through everything from the surprise twists of the story (trust me, there's plenty), to the smaller nuances of dialogue, it's a pitch-perfect slow build of personal investment between two people.
It sets a new standard for storytelling, matched only by the likes of The Walking Dead, with the chilling addition that Cordyceps is a real fungal infection, giving it a sense of context within our own existence. Granted it's just in the animal kingdom at the moment; but after watching a certain BBC documentary clip, it's equally as terrifying. Probably the closest to a zombie virus we'll get.
The Last of Us may be pushed by an absolute narrative momentum, it is complemented by an amazing survival horror game. This isn't a complete world of desolation, well maybe it is for our species on this planet; but nature has reclaimed what was once taken by us and turned into the urban metropolis. While it is a visual feast, and probably one of the best looking games on PS3, the environment tells its own story of social collapse. Accompanied by an minimal musical score, which adds to the pure subtle beauty of thie ever-evolving and immersive world.
A coffee cup left lying on a table stained with blood, signalling an abrupt end to the cafe's patronage. A trail of handwritten notes leading to the rise and gruesome fall of humanity. All of which are hugely effective educators of the world around you. It's not quite like Bioshock Infinite, where key elements to the story arch are discovered through looking for these items; but they serve an equally great (if not greater) importance of giving the world you explore a true sense of place.
Alongside this beauty, there is an equal sense of brutality and desperation to the affair, playing an almost perfect dissonance, creating an almighty feeling of uncomfortability that runs beneath your skin. This is a horrifically violent game; but it doesn't feel needless. It's pure survival, sickening brutality comes as a natural part of this world, and Naughty Dog pulls no punches. Smash bricks into your enemies' skulls, drive shivs into their necks, blow their heads off with a well aimed shotgun shell, all without any fanfare or glorification besides the weighty, crimson-laced satisfaction of the decisive blow.
But this combat is laced with variety of situations, using a rather unique crafting system. Throughout your travels, you will scavenge supplies like tape, bricks, scissors, and bottles of alcohol, to which Joel can combine to create a variety of items. The scarcity of these items makes for a different approach to each area. Maybe you'll stock up on shivs and take each enemy out quietly, or you'll craft a makeshift nailbomb and go in guns blazing. Each gruesome encounter makes you take stock of just what items you have, giving it all an interesting puzzle angle.
It makes for an incredibly tense experience at times, giving you slight room to improvise if your plan goes wrong. All aided by the variety of enemies: from your standard soldiers and mercenaries, to the genuinely terrifying infected. The clicker, a particular type who has been infected for an extended period of time, fungus growing out of their skulls to render them blind. Using a clicking sound as a sonar visual aid, this will rapidly become a terrifying sound effect, what with the instant deaths!
With Naughty Dog writing a truly gripping story, the unfortunate shortcomings of choosing a video game platform to tell it on do make themselves apparent. The Last of Us is heavily reliant on character development, always giving you people the likes of Ellie to communicate with. Put them in a combat situation, however, and the mirage of immersion is sometimes quickly broken.
The developers did incredibly well to remove a majority of these issues; but it's the small minority that affects it all, like sneaking past mercenaries and watching your partner sprint right into their field of view undetected. Granted, I can understand they did this to not disrupt the flow of the game, and in many other titles something like this would be more forgiveable. Just in a title like this, determined to immerse you into this post-apocalyptic world and the beautiful story told throughout, AI problems like this become all the more jarring.
Multiplayer, much like Uncharted, is somewhat of an afterthought compared to the juggernaut of a campaign. With some simple variations on deathmatch, paired with the crafting system and survival implementations, it does actually make for a fun online gaming experience. However, it shows how the simple gameplay does tire quickly without the emotional involvement of a story.
Many have called The Last of Us the best game of this generation. With expectations set so high, the standard assumption is that it will never meet them. It's certainly not perfect; but I'm going to have to agree with the previous high standard of critical acclaim.
Naughty Dog has created a true masterpiece, limited only by the hardware capability and the media form. Joel and Ellie's journey through the beautifully realised end of the world is one of the most memorable you will play. It needs to be experienced by everyone, as I feel this represents the beginning of a paradigm shift in gaming.
Storytelling of this calibre is only possible on videogames; but they have found the metaphorical 'ceiling' to sharing inspiration from film-like, linear plotwriting. Something new is needed, and it's great to see this artform go out with a decisive bang.
The Last of Us is truly the last, and best, of this generation. 9.5/10
I am the Founder and Editor-in-chief of New Rising Media. You can follow me on Twitter @MrJasonEngland.