Developer: Naughty Dog
We had a few concerns when The Last Of Us was first announced. It was the first time that Naughty Dog had created a second IP for a single generation of hardware and the first time it had split its staff to work on two separate games – one team on The Last Of Us, the other on Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Would the developer who had scored a direct hit with the adventures of Nathan Drake maintain that quality with a now divided team? We needn’t have worried… When Sony publicly unveiled The Last Of Us at the 2011 Spike Video Game Awards it left little doubt that the talented first-party developer was once again on the verge of striking gaming gold.
While The Last Of Us features many of the tropes associated with apocalyptic videogames, Naughty Dog was keen to put its own spin on the formula. The fearsome enemies that feature throughout its running time aren’t zombies, but humans who have been infected by a strain of the Cordyceps fungus, which typically prey on ants and other insects. It also strayed away from the barren game worlds of Fallout and Wasteland, creating a verdant paradise where nature had reclaimed a world once populated by man. In short it felt completely different to everything that came before it.
It’s rather telling that when people discuss The Last Of Us its actual game mechanics – despite their refinement – are rarely discussed before its characters or story. It’s not due to them being weak, but more to do with the fact that the characters and story that feature in Naughty Dog’s game are incredibly well crafted. Unlike many other big budget releases, these are characters that you care about, with even the most fleeting characters feeling fully fleshed out.
Like the very best books and movies, you’ll find yourself continually discussing the motives of characters; their place in the bleak world that Naughty Dog has created and the way they deal with the many moments of terror that punctuate The Last Of Us’s dramatic action scenes. Watching Joel slowly warm to Ellie after he’s experienced so much personal loss, or witnessing the way she fearlessly leaps to his rescue when he’s heading for a watery grave (despite her fear of water and inability to swim) is the sort of character progression that is all too rarely seen in today’s games. And let’s not forget Ellie’s encounter with a herd of giraffes, quite possibly one of the most bizarre, heart-warming and hopefully optimistic scenes to ever appear in a videogame.
Although The Last Of Us boasts an incredibly strong narrative, its gameplay is every bit as good. Building on the blueprints first laid out by Resident Evil 4, it gives you numerous ways to clear most sections, offering a pleasing amount of flexibility. The heightened sense system highlights the fact that you’re still only playing a videogame, but most prefer to turn these options off, delivering a far stiffer challenge.
And The Last Of Us is certainly tough, both in its encounters and the brutality of Joel’s action as he attempts to protect Ellie, who quickly becomes his surrogate daughter as Druckmann weaves his narrative thread.
While hand-to-hand combat largely consists of repeatedly hammering the Square button, there’s surprising weight to each blow, making you wince at the carnage that gets unleashed by both Joel and his human and mutated aggressors. In a time when Square Enix was trumpeting the survival elements of its new Tomb Raider game, it was The Last Of Us that did it properly, making sure that the mechanics it introduced felt grounded in reality, rather than being simple buzzwords that didn’t really make an impact in Crystal Dynamics’ game. Take the way both development studios handle a near-fatal fall for its lead characters. One is up and running mere moments after it happens, the other leads to one of The Last Of Us’s strongest chapters. It goes back to Naughty Dog’s understanding of how the passive world of cinema is best exploited by the more immediate nature of videogames and as a result The Last Of Us rarely puts a step wrong.
Why It’s A Future Classic
Few games put you through the emotional wringer like The Last Of Us. During its 15-odd hours, we laughed, cried and even punched the air in joy upon realising that a key character was still in the running – even the best triple-A releases don’t elicit that range of emotions from us. Developers like Rockstar and Quantic Dreams may love movies, but it’s Naughty Dog that truly understands how to weave an epic narrative between two vastly different mediums. If its Uncharted games were silly summer blockbusters, then The Last Of Us represents its bid for Oscar gold – nuanced, beautifully paced and leaving you discussing its ending long after it finishes.