Who would have thought that one of the most eagerly anticipated console releases of 2013 would be in the survival horror genre? With its big franchises, Resident Evil and Silent Hill, either morphing into steroid-infused blast-fests or being passed from developer to developer in an effort to recapture early glories, this has been a moribund generation for horror gaming. And yet, with its limited ammunition and resources, its propulsive story and its occasionally wonky mechanics, The Last of Us falls squarely into the survival horror category. Indeed, it may well be the leap forward the genre has been waiting for.
The game kicks off with a spectacularly realised prologue which serves as both an introduction to the world in which The Last of Us takes place and as a statement of intent from developer Naughty Dog (well known as the creators of the Indiana Jones-aping Uncharted series). A young girl awakes in the night and creeps through her suburban home in search of her father. Through the windows we see flashing sirens and hear distant screams. In seconds the domestic idyll is shattered and the girl is on the run with her father through streets teeming with frightened people, running from the infected. These scenes of chaos are perfectly pitched, building gradually from unease to hysteria and climaxing with a moment of brutal loss which suggests, from the start, that writers and developers won’t be pulling their punches.
The main body of the game takes place 20 years after these initial scenes. The fungal outbreak from the prologue has spread across the world, laying waste to the towns and cities, and transforming the majority of the population into the deformed ‘infected’ – zombie-like creatures that roam the cracked and overgrown ruins. The player controls Joel, a grizzled smuggler, living hand-to-mouth in one of the few safe quarantine zones scattered across America. Into Joel’s life comes Ellie, a fourteen year old girl who may hold the key to curing the infection. Reluctantly, Joel finds himself agreeing to escort Ellie west to the camp of the militia-like Fireflies, who have tasked themselves with finding a way to eradicate the infection once and for all.
The gaming press has been unanimous and enthusiastic in its praise for the story, but the truth is that it’s, essentially, The Road meets Children of Men with a cameo from Ellen Page in Juno. Where Naughty Dog succeed is not in the originality of their story, but the confidence with which it is told. The voice acting and the character animation is exemplary, and the characterisation solid. The relationship between Joel and Ellie, very much at the heart of the game, is convincing and develops gradually and realistically. The Last of Us recognises the importance of quiet moments in a story-driven game and Naughty Dog takes advantage of these to give the player an insight into the characters they are playing. Given that the story and characterisation in most modern video games is of a strictly B-movie level, this is to be applauded.
This care and attention extends to the world through which the player guides Joel. Gaming is no stranger to a post-apocalyptic landscape, but The Last of Us features one of the most persuasive and beautifully-depicted destroyed worlds the medium has ever seen. In a state of perpetual collapse, half-reclaimed by nature, each locale has the ruined grandeur of a Mayan temple or an abandoned WWII Pacific outpost; and, although the path through each section tends to be more or less linear, it is telling that each looks and feels like a real place as opposed to the elaborately-decorated tunnels you tend to find in most games.
So, the presentation is immaculate, but how does it actually play? The answer: solidly but unspectacularly. The gunplay is robust and the hand-to-hand combat meaty, if a little inaccurate. Most enemy confrontations offer a choice of stealth or combat, with the former being the preferred option mainly due to the limited resources available to the player. Houses and cars can be scavenged for equipment to make additional support items such as health kits, shivs or nail bombs (a personal favourite), but generally the player will be low on bullets. This tends to add extra tension to Joel and Ellie’s sporadic encounters with the local hunters and the various mutants roaming the cities, as does the crafting mechanic which means that, in order to create an item, Joel must first shrug off his backpack and take the time to build, say, a Molotov cocktail rather than producing it magically from some bottomless inventory. It’s a neat nod towards realism, meaning that the player needs to take the time to prepare for each encounter rather than being able to cherry-pick from a stockpiled arsenal in the heat of battle, and works well, but its hard to ignore the fact that, for all the maturity The Last of Us brings to its story, it is still, at heart, a third-person cover shooter with occasional stealth levels.
Similarly underwhelming is the multiplayer mode, which offers variations on the traditional team deathmatch and little else. Some effort has been made to tie this into the single player story, with players battling for resources in order to keep their communities going (in a nice touch, the player can populate their communities with the names of their Facebook friends, but this is only sporadically entertaining and adds little to the overall experience) but ultimately there’s little here that gamers won’t have already seen in other, more well established, online games.
Is The Last of Us a significant step forward for video game narrative? Well, yes and no. It’s undoubtedly a very polished piece of interactive entertainment, with a compelling and well-told story, but that story is conveyed mostly through non-interactive cut-scenes, or incidental dialogue during quiet moments in the game itself. This leaves the player with a nagging sense that all they are doing is pressing forward to see the story that has been laid out in front of them. This is true of most story-driven games, but it’s a shame that The Last of Us couldn’t have found methods more suited to its own medium with which to tell its story.
Taken on its own merits, however, it’s hard to fault The Last of Us. The Naughty Dog team have set out to tell their own post-apocalyptic thriller and have realised that with some verve. Despite the familiarity of the combat system, it serves its purpose and most encounters strike the right balance between empowerment and panic, while a compelling, mature story provides the impetus to push on to the next checkpoint. With both this and the Uncharted series under their belt, Naughty Dog have undoubtedly attained the very peak of the triple-A, narrative-driven videogame mountain, and they may well have dragged the half-dead body of the survival horror genre with them. Here’s hoping that they take a few more risks with whatever they do next.
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