Developer: Naughty Dog
Rereleases/rejiggers/rebootmasters of the kind that have been fashionable lately are difficult to write about simply because everything that can be said about them has by and large already been said. This is especially so for The Last Of Us, one of last year’s most hyped and picked-over Playstation 3 releases. A year later, Sony have re-released the game on the new PS4 with upgraded visuals and a bevy of expansion material previously released in downloadable form for the previous version.
While many have interpreted this as a cynical cash-grab, it actually makes a lot of sense when you consider that the PS4’s massive success has seen a huge expansion of Sony’s consumer base, drawing in a lot of people who didn’t own the PS3 and therefore didn’t get to play The Last Of Us on its initial release. In that sense it’s a win-win situation: Sony get a critical and commercial Indian summer for one of its highest prestige titles of the last few years, and a significant amount of consumers finally get the opportunity to play the thing and see what all the fuss is about.
That fuss is certainly still justified. The Last Of Us is a triumph, combining tropes familiar to post-apocalyptic and zombie fiction with a dash of the Western to create a doomy slice of millennial paranoia that at once embraces and transcends what in less capable hands would descend into cliche. Set 20 years after a fungus-based plague decimates modern civilization, players follow protagonist Joel and his fiery teen charge Ellie as they navigate threats both human and otherwise in a danger-ridden cross-country trek.
It seems slightly gauche these days to describe anything as an ‘experience’, so thoroughly abused a term as this has become in popular media, but that is precisely what developers Naughty Dog have crafted in The Last Of Us. The game builds a world regressed to near-tribalism in extensive detail but smartly keeps a lot of it implicit in the gorgeous-looking environments, or drip-fed as key moments in Joel and Ellie’s journey. The desiccated corpses of a double-suicide in a bathtub, a handful of soldiers hung by the neck besides a warning in graffiti: we discover these things as they do, telling their stories far more evocatively in a single tableau than a dozen hours of flashy CGI cutscenes could ever manage. Some may balk at the game’s measured, methodical pace, but Naughty Dog use stillness masterfully to downright soak the player in the world’s quietly tragic yet menacing atmosphere that pays off in flashes of intense violence and suspense.
Ultimately, however, this is Joel and Ellie’s story, and the development of their relationship is at the heart of The Last Of Us. Character has always been game writing’s weakest suit, all too easily devolving into heavy-handed cliché and gameplay convenient power fantasy, but the game succeeds in crafting a strong story around protagonists who we care about because of the personality they show rather than because the plot tells us to. This is partly down to a smart script, but The Last Of Us’s secret weapon is the use of motion capture – actually well-directed motion capture – to allow the cast to bring a sense of personality and life to the game’s cinematic sequences that very few games have achieved.
While in gameplay terms The Last Of Us has a fairly limited repertoire – expect lots of walking and looking, interspersed with short doses of sneaking and shooting – its environment never gets dull to explore, and benefits greatly from the increased horsepower of the PS4. It’s a stunning-looking game, one of the new console’s first true showcases and a tour de force of art direction that shows just how far games have come in terms of worldbuilding.
The Last Of Us remains just as marvellous a single-player experience as always, but the game’s biggest surprise is arguably its multiplayer suite which manages to effectively expand on the game’s wider world. Matches are small-scale with teams of four, and retain the single player mode’s emphasis on stealth and crafting of weapons and equipment to make for more measured and cerebral fare than your average tacked-on shootfest. Playing matches earns you supplies which help you maintain your own steadily-growing survivor camp which you’re tasked with looking after over a period of several weeks, each individual round representing a day. Perform well and your camp will thrive, but if you fail to keep bringing in your supplies your population will begin to get sick and die. It’s a novel idea that ensures that the player is never short of goals, and you can even link your game to your Facebook account which populates your camp with your friends, giving you regular updates on their activities (X-Press Local Music & Arts Editor Travis Johnson seems to be spending an inordinate amount of time skinning deer. Those who know Travis know that this pretty much true to how he’ll probably spend the real zombie apocalypse.).
The Last Of Us is part of a small pantheon of games, including the likes of Red Dead Redemption and Gone Home, that in recent years have led the way in showing just what can be achieved in writing and dramatic performance in the medium of games. With this new version on PS4 bringing us this experience in its best-looking and smoothest-playing form yet, there’s never been a better time to jump into the end of days.