It’s pretty rare to find a triple-A game that features a thought-provoking story with well-drawn characters inhabiting an interesting world. Rarer still are the titles within that subset whose gameplay is compelling and yet not at odds with the story or its themes. The Last of Us is one such gem, a cohesive and cogent late-generation stunner that is not only one of the best games so far this year, it’s up there with the best games of this generation.
In one of the most harrowing, exhilarating, and assured prologues in recent memory, player character Joel bears witness to the effects of a fungus outbreak that reduces the population of a small town in Texas into wide-eyed, shrieking, remorseless killing machines. We are then transported into the future, where humanity’s few remaining survivors eke out a miserable existence in quarantine zones, wear the uniform of the military whose presence both protects and oppresses, or are part of a resistance group called the Fireflies. It’s a grim world, and Naughty Dog expertly outlines the stakes and delicately unfolds the plot in patient fashion, allowing these things to be conveyed via well-crafted dialogue and the world itself, rather than with raw exposition.
Joel is a stern, slow-to-trust arms smuggler who – persuaded by the hard-nosed and capable Tess, a business associate and possible ex-girlfriend – is tasked with delivering a teenage girl called Ellie to a Fireflies contact. Joel is a man of few words, and so is not particularly keen on the whole idea despite the promise of a lucrative reward. Travelling outside the relative safety of the quarantine zone is dangerous enough without the company of an inquisitive, feisty 14-year-old loudmouth.
This gruff older man/enthusiastic young innocent pairing is only one of several clichés The Last of Us indulges – most of the others being thoroughly-worn tropes of the survival horror genre – but the depth, nuance, and intelligent presentation Naughty Dog injects into that dynamic make it feel truly authentic and special. That authenticity is boosted by the cohesive nature of the game’s systems and its commitment to a blacker-than-black tone, making its world incredibly immersive and addicting. There is little here that pulls players out or feels incongruous.
Much time is spent in simple exploration of The Last of Us’ absolutely gorgeous crumbling cities and natural landscapes, as Joel scavenges for anything useful or for a passage to the next area. Fortunately, the game’s interface overlays are unobtrusive yet informative; lootable items are immediately identifiable from a distance and health and ammo meters appear only when relevant to proceedings.
From this gathering come simple crafting and weapon upgrade mechanics. Useful items are broken down into the categories of cloth, adhesive, sugar, alcohol, explosive, and blade, and combining two or more bases in the game’s simple crafting window results in Molotov cocktails, improvised mines, health kits, and much more. Crafting items takes time though, and the game doesn’t pause the action but instead ratchets up the tension, with Ellie imploring Joel to hurry in a frightened tone of voice. Needless to say, many moments are spent scrambling for resources and franticly cobbling together health kits or melee weapons while desperately avoiding enemy contact, or even performed mid-battle.
Upgrading weapons is equally simple although it requires the use of a bench, disposable parts, and specific toolsets. With the right combination of items, the expected handful of gun modifications take place (range, aim, damage, reload speed, capacity etc.), but holsters may also be whipped up to allow faster access to a greater number of weapons at once. Elsewhere, supplements permanently boost Joel’s maximum health, crafting speed, and so on.
Mechanically, The Last of Us is primarily a stealth game; alongside hostile survivors, the infected vastly outnumber and out-gun Joel and Ellie, and ammunition is scarce. Fortunately Joel can focus his hearing at any time to “see” the silhouettes of any nearby enemies, provided noise-dampening materials like thick concrete aren’t between them. While listening in this way Joel is actually less in tune with his immediate surrounds, and so the screen is drained of colour and crispness, nearby sounds are almost completely muted, and his movement is slowed to a crawl.
Like many of the game’s mechanics, it’s elegant, nicely balances risk and reward, and makes perfect sense within the world. Sneaking requires only a crouch, and debris may be vaulted gracefully with the press of a button. In combination these moves allow terrifyingly tense manoeuvres to be attempted as the player seeks to thread the needle between hordes of unwitting yet powerful enemies.
Joel and Ellie also have an ally in the humble flashlight, which lights the often dark post-pandemic world. Infected enemies don’t respond to the light at all, so it doesn’t betray Joel’s position among them, but human foes most certainly do. These enemies exist in clumps dotted throughout The Last of Us’ often sprawling levels – an area several city blocks square with many accessible buildings is not uncommon. Far from inducing boredom, the irregular gaps between these encounters only heighten the player’s fear when they do occur, but also the dread in-between. Few action games have such confident, deliberate pacing, and it does wonders for the atmosphere.
And boy is that atmosphere bleak. Cormac McCarthy’s similarly gruelling The Road comes to mind, an association the game’s shocking violence further cements. This simmers during graphic depictions of neck-stab stealth kills, but positively boils over when a fully-fledged fight breaks out with other survivors. Guns coat nearby surfaces in crimson and improvised mines send a shower of gore skyward, but hand-to-hand is where things get especially nasty. Here both Joel and his assailants brutally beat, club, strangle, and impale each other, and the former is not above smashing heads against counter tops or crushing faces beneath his boot. Although this melee combat initially seems somewhat herky-jerky, those with a good sense of timing and range will soon discover its idiosyncrasies and subsequently win any one-on-one battle with a human adversary.
Infected enemies are harder to dominate in this way. The least threatening – known as Runners for obvious reasons – may be snuck up on and eliminated via strangulation or beaten to death by a weaponless Joel. However, all others including the ubiquitous, terrifying, and unpredictable Clickers require weapons to defeat. Their faces covered in fungus, the grotesque Clickers are unable to see, but instead use a creepy variation of echolocation to detect Joel, who they can gorily dispatch with a single bite to the neck. Their attack power raises the stakes significantly even after the optimal tactics for their dispatch have been mastered, as do the widely but not cruelly-spaced checkpoints. Indeed, The Last of Us is a tough and unrelenting game that requires patience and skill to complete.
Of course, it isn’t flawless. A flat patch hits when too-similar objectives and battles coincide with a lack of meaningful story progression about midway through, and a spell spent in a darkened hotel with vision further impaired by airbourne spores is an unpleasant grind. There are also some AI hiccups, with companions occasionally leaving cover to dance about in front of thankfully oblivious enemies, but to single anything else out would be pedantic nit-picking.
There are numerous small technical marvels here – Ellie has almost no repeating dialogue, not much beyond death brings a loading screen, and the world is incredibly well-realised and detailed. Almost all characters have hints of depth and believable development arcs, the voice-acting is world class, and the cutscenes are fantastically directed and animated. The combat systems provide great possibilities for emergent gameplay, and it’s not often any particular action is forced upon the player. Everything just slots together seamlessly.
Most significantly, The Last of Us is a game that successfully tackles themes of trust, morality, grief, and mortality while also providing a thrilling and at times almost unbearably tense gameplay experience that will have some in tears before the game itself has even properly begun. Naughty Dog has outdone itself, and most of the industry in the process.