Forget all you know about zombies
Do not lump the Last of Us in with the numerous zombie-related game media that's out right now, or on the way. The Last of Us goes beyond zombies and produces a work of gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking moment-to-moment survival that can rival the Walking Dead - it's a meticulously crafted game which just shows Naughty Dog at the top of their A-Game and provides a glorious swansong for the PS3.
It really is that good.
Joel is an ordinary guy in an ordinary world, then there's a terrible breakout, something akin to an infection which spreads like wildfire. Joel's world is turned upside down in an incredible and terrifying manner as he eventually meets up with the best character in the game: Ellie. You'll find no spoilers here, either. Just remember that it's not a typical zombie game and you'll be fine.
The story is incredibly well done, masterfully crafted from a cast of characters who all have a role to play and the twists and turns are fast and furious. It'll have you laughing one moment, screaming in terror the next and crying the moment after.
It's like the best argument for a game being art we can think of, because this is cinematic gaming at its best without being a long movie-length cinematic with 10 seconds of gameplay between each sweat-laden spoon-fed segment.
Welcome to the apocalypse and the art of survival. Right from the get-go you should learn that the Last of Us isn't about Zombies of Duty, or being Left for Dead Rising on an Island - it's about being smart and learning to use the environment to your advantage, the tools in your rucksack and most of all being an intelligent gamer.
Your enemies in the Last of Us are numerous, your friends few and far between and you can only really rely on yourself and your companion - Ellie. Ellie gives Elizabeth from Bioshock: Infinite a run for her money and then some, Ellie is some of the best companion AI we've seen and she actively participates in battles the further into the game you progress - as both you and her learn about how to survive in the world of the Last of Us.
The world is a harsh place, it's packed with hidden resources and things for you to discover - it's packed with dangers too. From the traps placed by ruthless human hunters, to the sections where the infected show up are intense and often have you out of breath for real. Both of these scenarios, fighting the hunters and the infected, require a great deal of thought and tactical awareness - knowing when to run is a key skill in this game and you'll be doing it a lot if you want to hang onto those precious few bullets.
When a fire-fight breaks out it's a game of cat and mouse with multiple enemies acting intelligently, reacting to your every combat decision and posing a threat just by being somewhere in the area. Do you pop out of cover and see where they are, or wait and listen for them to move? Joel has a neat 'Listen' ability which is player triggered off Right 2 on the controller.
Rather like Lara Croft's adventure sense in the new Tomb Raider, the world is plunged into a different tone and Joel can see the outlines of where his enemies are through walls and so on. As long as they're making some kind of noise or moving around of course, if they're stock-still then you can't detect where they are and that's when the game gets to be its most intense on any of the various difficulty levels.
Enemies will engage you at range, but they'll also come up for some melee action too. Often they'll sneak around and try and engage you in a bout of fisticuffs or slam Joel's head with a metal bar. You can do the same by equipping numerous melee weapons found around the world, broken pipes, big pieces of wood and so on. They don't last forever of course and eventually your prized baseball bat is going to break after constantly slamming it into the bad guy's faces.
Your best bet is to stay hidden and take the enemies you can out the old fashioned way, with a shiv (limited use one hit kill weapons) or strangulation (brutal and effective - but slow and loud depending on your enemy).
Shoot and you'll soon find out just how vicious your enemies are - be they human or infected. The good news is that gunplay in the game is smooth and efficient.
In fact the controls of the Last of Us are nigh on perfect - the game never feels like you're fighting the control system once you get used to it and several of the gameplay systems feed into the post infected survivalist world theme.
You can scavenge for useful bits and bobs, tape, alcohol and so on. With these you can craft supplies like medkits, Molotov cocktails and shivs. The crafting menu is easy to use and crafting takes place in real time - this lends an air of desperation to battles in the game and means that you need to find a safe place to restock - or you could pray no bad guys turn up as you're quickly trying to make a medkit to stop yourself from dying on the next hit.
You can also find salvage which allows you to upgrade Joel's arsenal of weapons, extra clip size, and more damage or quicker reloads - you can make a tactical choice here too - based on your play style. This is done at one of the few workbenches scattered around the game world and you might need to search the environments to find one. You can also find bits of information about the world from recordings and notes left behind, these are all beautifully written and appear on a variety of media.
There are also upgrades which appear like little pills for Joel's core skills. So he can withstand more damage, craft quicker and so on. They cost a heft amount of points to upgrade and fortunately there's a New Game+ for the Last of Us.
There's also a lot of puzzle solving in the game, from simple physics based stuff to more complex environmental hazards. You can also climb and reach higher areas just like Uncharted.
Joel's journey is fraught with dangers and takes him and Ellie across a disparate landscape post infection, with all sorts of challenges to solve and moments of sheer terror to experience - it's brilliantly put together and the various environments are packed with hidden secrets and alternate routes to use when under duress.
The Last of Us also doesn't hold your hand; it won't immediately tell you where to navigate to. Unless you wait around a while, then the hint system will kick in and you'll get a quick prompt to press L3 and be shown a rough idea of where you need to get to. Some of the navigational problems can be solved by Joel, others need the help of Ellie and Joel working together and learning to trust one another.
We don't want to go any further into the gameplay mechanics, apart from to mention that moving into cover is automatic, but not like Gears sticky cover - it's organic and it feels real as Joel interacts with the object in front of him.
There's a generous auto-save system since the game is quite hard even on the easier levels of difficulty - as well as a save where you want system to make sure you can restart where you left off.
Whilst it doesn't look like a next-gen title, the Last of Us is a gorgeous and gritty game with some truly beautiful locales to explore. There are also some very dark and scary places to make your way through which are textured beautifully (even if they are horrible) - the level of detail and design is incredibly well done for a game like this. The use of light and shadow really makes for some tense moments when you're crouched in the dark and you can hear infected all around you.
The flashlight illuminates the dark properly as well, providing only a circle of light to push aside the blackness. The graphics engine provides a nice solid frame-rate and there have been no slowdown issues whatsoever.
Loading times are swift and there's no texture load/pop-up we could detect.
The level of detail on the characters is something else, it's truly better than Uncharted 3 and that game was no slouch in the graphics department - the Last of Us is one of those games that you need to really look at to appreciate all the little details.
The animations of the Last of Us are what really make the game come alive. The facial animation is some of the best we've seen with really smooth lip-synching and some excellent expressions, especially from Ellie. The combat animations, the human hunter animations and the main character animations are incredible - there's just so much detail in their movements and the fact they are context sensitive means that if Joel gets close to a wall, like Nathan Drake he puts his hand against it to steady himself when crouched in cover.
Naughty Dog has really polished the animations to a high sheen and when you get into melee combat, you'll wince. Joel will react violently to his aggressors and lash out, smashing into them with brute force. If they're close to a tabletop or counter, he'll slam their heads into the top and leave them reeling - if not dead.
So we have great graphics, great animations - the cherry on top of this mix is definitely the AI. Ellie's companion AI is nothing short of superb - she will fight tooth and nail as the game progresses and transform her fighting style as her character evolves. She knows how to use guns, close combat weapons (like bricks) and won't hesitate to get a sneaky shot in the back of a guy's neck with a knife if she feels she can get away with it.
We even had her use a Molotov as an area denial weapon on a group of hunters. She never feels like a burden and has actually saved us several times from the infected and the hunters.
Of course the enemy AI is just as sharp. It has a slew of tricks and it knows how to best use the environments - it can successfully flank you - herd you into trouble and grapple/close combat with the best of them. We've seen no AI errors either, and if the AI gets into trouble itself it will attempt to flee. One guy came at us with his fists, saw us with a gun and bolted.
Another surrendered when we killed all his friends - this wasn't scripted either.
Joel didn't let him live, since he'd already shot us with three rounds - we weren't in a mood to play touchy feely with the guy. Ellie was pretty freaked out about it too; I don't think she expected us to murder the dude.
In short the AI in the game is really good and will test you constantly - forcing you to adapt and survive.
There's a lot going on with the physics engine. From the close combat to being shot by a powerful weapon, Joel can get knocked on his ass for example. There are also physics based swimming puzzles and explosives seem to be extremely useful and deadly in the game. It's all pretty good and works as it's supposed to.
The sound design in the Last of Us is extremely atmospheric and provides a great backdrop to the post infected society. There are some truly creepy places to explore and the sound suite used here is nothing short of truly eerie. No issues here at all and it's the best it can be.
An evocative and moving score underlies the game at the right moments, with music beefing up when Joel and Ellie are under duress and almost taking a back seat when they're off exploring and looking for secrets in a few of the game's quieter moments. No surprise then considering its Gustavo Santaolalla - a twice crowned Oscar winner.
The script for the game is some of the most intelligent and emotional writing we've come across, and we can't tell you any more since we don't want to spoil anything about this game at all. It's an experience which is worthy of some of the more moving dramas on TV and at times rivals even that of the character heavy shows like the Walking Dead.
Oh boy - the voice work for the Last of Us is some of the best we've heard in a video game period. It is truly superb and every cast member has provided an incredible level of emotion to the game from the youngest to the oldest actor. The delivery in some scenes made us laugh, made us cry and made us extremely angry - top job to all the cast and Naughty Dog for making sure that the voice work was the best it could possibly be.
We didn't spend an amazing amount of time with it, but the time we spent with the tense and tactical survival based Faction gameplay was awesome. This is a game which truly rewards a clever player and punishes a run-and-gun merchant spectacularly. Because you will give easy kills to the clever team that plays the mp like the single player element of the game.
You can use one-time team perks at the start of a battle and there are quite a few to choose from. This means you can set up a support style class if you want and prefer to play someone who's better at healing team mates and so on.
You can also use R3 to mark enemies, who also appear as red dots for your team. Play cleverly and you'll be rewarded.
You can also craft in real time just like in the single player. So you can make good use of those things you find scattered around the world as you fight for supremacy in the multiplayer maps.
It's Fireflies vs. Hunters across two modes, which are Supply Raid and Survivors - these are essentially similar to team deathmatch, with the added change of having finite respawns in Supply Raid and only one life in Survivors.
There are random objectives and the game does flow with a story narrative (albeit a lite one) in the multiplayer side. Once you're locked into a faction you're stuck with it until you complete out your story. You'll be growing your Clan and having it survive - each mp match pushes the story one day forwards and there'll be some choices for you to make down the line. We won't spoil the surprises though.
It's an ambitious and thematic addition to an amazing single player game, proving that once again Naughty Dog can step up their A Game to multiplayer as well. It's more fun than Uncharted 3 multiplayer and there's even a facebook app which lets you add your friends into the Clan as names on the roster. It's all cosmetic and only adds atmosphere to the multiplayer, but it elevates it above the run of the mill.
We had no lag issues and no problems connecting to servers during out brief time with the mp component of the game - but we recommend trying it out.
If there's one game which is going to stand out as a swansong for the PS3, the Last of Us can hold its head up high and proclaim from the rooftops - that it's the game. It might actually be one of the best games we've played this generation and is deserving of all the praise and high scores across the media it's getting.
So we're not going to break that mould - nope, we're going to rate it near-perfection.