While traditionally, the flow of games has seemed to slow down towards the end of a console’s lifespan, the PS3 seems to be proving the exception to the rule. With three big games – Beyond: Two Souls, the Puppeteer, and The Last of Us set to launch within six months of their next home system, the Playstation 4, it seems Sony are looking for their console to go out with a bang rather than a fizzle. Throwing their full weight behind it, the company has gone all out to promote The Last of Us as their biggest game of the year – a Hollywood style blockbuster that tells the story of a man and a girl, caught up in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.
If you think that sounds like a familiar plot, you’d be right, but the similarities between this and that other zombie game, The Walking Dead, end here. While the Walking Dead focused on conversations, puzzles, and a hugely branching story that had no easy answers, The Last of Us is much more focused on the combat, with a completely different sort of take on the story to boot.
Set in a post-pandemic near future, where an infection has swept the globe, wiping out much of humanity and turning them into zombies, what’s left of the military have set up checkpoints and strongholds in the ruins of major cities as they struggle to keep people safe. As time’s gone on, the thin line between offering protection and being authoritarian has been well and truly crossed. Paranoid about an infection getting in, huge defensive borders have been constructed, with those passing in and out highly monitored, as even the slightest sign of infection is enough to warrant your execution.
In amongst the chaos, though, people still have to make a living. Our lead character Joel, and his partner Tess, earn their existence by delivering things through the black market, working as runners, bringing shipments in and smuggling things out. Despite their differences, the pair get by, until one day a rather different deal comes up. Instead of smuggling arms, they need to smuggle a girl - and that's something that's going to be much harder than it seems.
Sadly, though, while the plot development moves at a mile a minute in the intro of the game to set the scene, unfortunately, we aren’t actually allowed to say anything else about the reason for Joel and Tess's mission. In fact, we aren’t allowed to talk about anything that happens in the intro at all, other than to say it sets up the story in an excellent way, even if it does have a few glitches that serve to get the game off on an annoying rather than exciting foot. It’s frustrating, because the first few minutes are filled with plot twists galore that make a basic story that much interesting - it's just a shame it takes them so long to build on it.
In terms of gameplay, the Last of Us puts a survival twist on your average third person action game, only with ammo that's hard to come by to make every encounter that much more tense. With your time pretty much evenly divided between combat, and exploring the abandoned world, one minute you’ll be shifting a ladder or giving someone a leg up to help reach higher ground, and the next you’ll be defending yourself from a stream of zombies who have a nasty habit of jumping out from behind abandoned cars. Luckily, the former is a lot more enjoyable than the latter. Letting you take in the world and explore at your own pace, wandering off the beaten path actually becomes essential to your survival, as you’ll need to scavenge everything you can find – health packs, ammo, guns - if you want to make it.
With environments that are a lot larger than you usually find in similar games, there can be a lot to explore. From the spore filled corridors beneath a decaying hotel (spores can infect you too, so Joel has to put on a gas mask before breathing them in), to an empty school gym, or a run-down dockyard, you’re let loose in some pretty large environments without anything to hold your hand, or tell you where to go. But while that may go down well with the vocal hardcore, and certainly makes you feel more than a little bit helpless, it also only ends up making things tricky for the rest of us. With huge buildings on multiple levels to explore, and nothing in the way of a map or a marker to tell you where to go, it’s far too easy to get yourself completely and utterly lost, and just end up treading over the same ground over and over again. While the game does occasionally prompt you if it thinks you’ve got absolutely no idea where you’re going, it doesn’t do it reliably – and even something as simple as a map, or even the ability to turn on a marker of sorts would have helped.
But of course, you’re never just exploring these buildings on your own, as there's always some sort of undead monster waiting to make your journey that much more perilous. Sadly, much like finding your way around the buildings, though, the combat in the Last of Us is also rather awkward - which is kind of a problem for a game that has so much of it.
In order to try and create a sense of foreboding, the Last of Us, like many other similar games, makes ammo something of a rare commodity, forcing you to rely instead on melee weapons, or simply your fists. While melee weapons are fairly generously littered around the place, from planks of wood to baseball bats, each is only good for a certain number of hits. While you can take a few pot shots at enemies from a distance with your guns, once they start to get close (or if they manage to corner you), you’ll be forced to rely on a weapon that you know is going to snap after it’s clonked a zombie more than a handful of times. When that happens, you’ll be left fending off two or three zombies with your fists alone, which tend to not be anywhere near as good at beating back the hordes.
As simply fending off a load of flesh eating zombies with a few punches wouldn’t be hard enough, however, the developers have decided to make things that much trickier by effectively making it harder for you to escape. When you do get surrounded by a load of zombies, rather than fighting back properly, Joel will simply curl up into a ball and take whatever the zombies are dishing out – and once he’s curled up, he’ll refuse to move anywhere. No matter what you do with the left analogue stick, Joel will stay put – until you squeeze the left trigger, to prompt him to run for it. In the middle of a battle, effectively switching the movement controls from the stick to the trigger really isn't all that helpful, and can cause a lot of confusion until you get used to it. And although you’ll find yourself taking plenty of damage in the middle of a fight, there’s no easy way to heal yourself either, as healing is a question of pressing up on the d-pad, then holding R1 while you wait for Joel to patch himself up (which takes several seconds). If you get attacked while you’re trying to heal, it’ll interrupt the process and you’ll be back to square one, every bit as damaged as you were before – meaning it’s nearly impossible to heal during combat.
And then there’s the one hit kills. Yes, in 2013, a game still thinks it’s a good idea to have enemies that can kill you a single hit, no matter how much health you have. Along with the bosses, the most common offenders are known as clickers, which are a group of zombies that hunt using an undead equivalent of sonar, meaning they'll only come towards you if you make a noise (or if one of their friends with working vision spots you and comes shrieking after you). Running at you at full throttle (and annoyingly able to track you even if you move sideways silently), the clickers are incredibly hard to dodge – and once they’ve grabbed you, that’s it, you're a goner. Game over. Your only chance of escape is if you have a shiv (or rather, a knife) handy, which will let you press a button to stab it in the neck in order to make it back off, although you’ll still have to kill it afterwards. Much like the other weapons, shivs also aren’t all that easy to come by, but are rare in a slightly different way – rather than just being hard to find, you actually have to make them yourself, by combing the components you’ve found while exploring the dusty, and run down environments of the game. Open the craft menu, and you’ll be able to combine things together to make health packs, Molotov cocktails, and, of course, shivs ready for when you need them - but as you can’t craft things from the beginning, and as you have to unlock the ability to stab clickers on anything but Easy difficulty, that means you’ll find yourself coming up against one hit kill enemies with no way of defending yourself for the first hour or so of play. Learning curve? Make that a cliff.
Sadly, the story, perhaps the part of the game with the greatest potential, also feels more than a little bit schizophrenic, as it flits from emotionally terrifying to eyebrow raisingly unnatural on a regular basis. The main problem here is that most of the characters in the game - at least for the first half of it - act like complete and utter scumbags. Stony faced and utterly unlikable, the heroes of the piece (or at least, Tess) are continually given chances to rise above and be the better person, but continually stoop to the lowest level and seem to enjoy doing so. If you aren’t a hard as nails tough guy, it seems there’s no place for you in the world of the Last of Us, as any signs of vulnerability (or human nature) are a weakness. Take Ellie, for example. Here’s a14 year old girl who’s relying on you to survive, who’s never been outside the city limits, who has no clue what she’s doing, and yet she mouths off and swears at everyone in sight, not defensively, but seemingly because she’s that ‘ard a person. She flits from being scared and vulnerable (as you’d imagine a 14 year old in the same situation would be) to being completely obnoxious and aggressive, making it much harder to feel any sympathy for her than it really should be. At several points, it makes little sense that she doesn’t find herself being shotgunned in the face, as the characters she's absolutely mindlessly mouthing off at have killed people for less. As you start to near the end of the game, the humanity does start to come through a little bit more, and there are touching moments as the characters start to bond properly – but as there's such little consistency, it makes it harder to feel for the characters than it should be, at least until the end.
In summary, then, the Last of Us sets out with lofty ambitions, but doesn’t manage to achieve all that many of them. With characters that seem to have all the compassion of a brick wall most of the time, combat that ends up being more annoying than fun, and several decisions that make it rather tricky for newcomers to pick up, the Last of Us seems unlikely to find an audience beyond the hardcore. Perhaps it’ll be happy with that – but it could so easily have been so much more.