Reviewed on Playstation3
I remember cordyceps from the BBC nature documentary Planet Earth. Killer fungi that invade the body of insects, grow spores out of their heads and take control of their brains. It’s not easy to make me sympathetic to insects but cordyceps did.
Evidently it left an impression on someone at Naughty Dog too as their latest game The Last Of Us imagines a world wiped out by a strain of cordyceps that invades humans. The result is a catastrophic annihilation of mankind that leaves only a pocketful of survivors in each city, living in quarantine zones run by the military.
For most of the game, we play the role of Joel, a middle aged everyman. Having lost his daughter in the initial outbreak, Joel suffers from survivor’s guilt and twenty years of hardship have turned him into a cold, unfeeling shell of a human being.
Joel makes a living smuggling goods to survivors outside the city. After a botched job involving an arms dealer, he and his partner Tess encounter Marlene, the leader of an insurgent group known as the Fireflies.
Marlene convinces Joel and Tess to take on a job delivering a teenage girl, Ellie, to the Fireflies’ lair. Joel isn’t used to human cargo but he doesn’t care as long as he gets paid. Of course, things don’t go to plan and Joel starts to uncover why Ellie is so valuable and things get complicated as he begins to form a bond that he never intended to have and probably isn’t ready to cope with.
The Last Of Us is a familiar take on a well worn tale. It draws its influences from The Road, 28 Days Later and Children Of Men. The journey undertaken by a grizzled old man and his surrogate child is not a new one. And yet The Last Of Us is rightly being recognized as a milestone game by the gaming press and enthusiasts alike. Not only does the game have peerless production qualities that stretch the eight year old hardware its running on to new highs, Naughty Dog seem to have finally cracked the ludo-narrative dissonance that have dogged triple-A blockbuster games in the past five years, perhaps none more famously than their own Uncharted series.
Plenty of contemporary video games have aspirations to stand shoulder to shoulder with the biggest and best film and television spectacles. Yet they are invariably let down by a reliance on a rudimentary play mechanic that was made famous by Gears of War – a game about space marines that stand behind cover and shoot thousands of aliens into tiny pieces. This ‘kill everything that moves’ system was applied to the narratives of dozens of ambitious high profile video games including an immigrant who moves to America in search of a better life (GTA IV), an aging alcoholic looking for closure on the death of his wife and son (Max Payne 3) and a ship-wrecked young woman searching for strength and independence (Tomb Raider). All of these games featured reflective moments in which their protagonists pondered their life and sought to evoke empathy from the player. Then they resumed their genocidal rampage.
Occasionally some games took a self aware approach to the ludonarrative dichotomy. They’re called Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite.
Finally, finally!, with The Last Of Us, we have a big budget game where the character we play has a passing resemblance to one in the cut scenes.
Joel is no super hero. He is the anti-Nathan Drake. He cannot leap impossible distances, he cannot scale walls in an effortless scamper and he doesn’t shoot with the calm dead-eyed accuracy of a war hero. Instead he has to search for planks if he wants to cross a ravine, he needs a ladder to get over a wall and he’ll waste precious bullets trying to hit his target. The Last Of Us is not an action game and as if to put the exclamation point on that, Naughty Dog makes a brave design choice in making Clickers, the cordycep afflicted humans, capable of killing Joel in a single strike at any point in the game. This forces the player to think laterally. With scarce resources, sometimes the better option is to avoid combat. One or two enemies in a room could possibly be taken down in a run and gun approach. With four or five, forget it.
This refreshing approach to game design makes The Last Of Us a joy to play and it heightens your investment in the non-interactive segments which are already very polished to begin with as player-controlled Joel behaves in a credible and believable fashion that is in sync with non-interactive Joel.
Naughty Dog live up to their formidable reputation as game developers with two memorable and likable lead characters that are intriguing and utterly engaging. The game is laden with small touches that build your connection to the characters. There’s the moment where Ellie gives you a high five when you work collaboratively to cross a dam. Or in an unscripted moment of dynamic gameplay, I was playing as Joel and having the life choked out of me by a Hunter when Ellie saved the day at the last possible moment by throwing a brick at the assailant. It’s memorable stuff.
It’s worth mentioning the score by Academy Award winner Gustavo Santaolalla who produced the music to Amorres Perros and Babel. The Last Of Us has an unusually understated soundtrack for a big budget game. In lieu of grandeur and bombast, Santaolalla opts for sombre acoustic guitar notes and leaves the percussion instruments at home. I found the soundtrack served only to heighten the scenes of emotional intensity later in the game.
This is the game I’ve been waiting for. After Bioshock Infinite, I had more or less resigned myself to hoping for a game like this with the next generation of consoles. Instead its arrived earlier than I had hoped. This is the game that should become the benchmark and a taste maker for other developers to follow. Of course there’s room in the world for the Call of Duties and the Uncharted sequels which revel in gunplay and indulgent action set pieces. But when developers seem to be pouring time, money and effort into stories about increasingly complicated and sophisticated leads that want you to care about their actions and the consequences that they carry, applying that story to the Gears of War model was getting increasingly tiresome. With The Last Of Us, we have a high profile game that presents an alternative.
The best thing of course after a high watermark like The Last Of Us is thinking of the possibilities that the success of a game like this could bring. What’s next?