Okay, so if you’re reading this, please beware that there will be spoilers ahead. I won’t intentionally try to spoil anything, but I do want to try to get into the nitty-gritty of what makes Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us so good.
I’ve completed it four times (only four? you may say) well, I’m a family man and there are actually other games out there. The first completion was a decent enough 17 hours on normal mode, and the moment I completed it I remember thinking then, “That was the greatest game I’ll ever play.” And I immediately wanted to play it again from the start.
I think it was at that point I first tried the online mode however, which drew me in and took God-knows how many hours away. Hours I could have spent playing the single player mode again!
So, back to that first time, the first completion – oh how sweet it was… (*the writer gazes longingly upwards*). That first cut to black was probably the most satisfying ending I had experienced since Sia’s Breathe Me montage at the end of the Six Feet Under television series. It was just so… perfect. It was the perfect culmination of all the emotions you had gone through before it. It was an ending that transcended the battle sequences, the stealth mechanics, the underlying gaming machinery and inevitable wringing of necks and explosions of molotovs; it had heart. It was a release of the tension and worry you had developed for Ellie and Joel.
In a post-pandemic world where the majority of the population are either dead or have been turned into cordyceps-infested ‘zombies’ (see Scientific American’s breakdown of the real science behind the fiction) Joel must transport his cargo (Ellie) across the country, battling the worst of humanity, and those other monsters. She is immune and possibly has the answer to a cure, and an underground group called the Fireflies need her for research purposes.
There are many elements that all add to the whole; so let’s start with the story. Straight from the off we are drawn into Joel’s world; we get a frightening glimpse of his life when the outbreak first began in an intro that is genuinely affecting. The world of this intro is so normal, unassuming and natural. We’re not on a spaceship, or underground in a futuristic science lab, or traversing a wasteland – we’re in a home in the present day. This sets the tone of the game, letting us know that it will be grounded in reality. It heightens the tension when our characters are forced to flee, and shows how vulnerable we are when all we can do is just run.
And then the intro ends with that ending, and we know we are in for an entirely different kind of gaming experience, as the first guitar notes of Gustavo Santaolalla’s score punctuate the cut to black.
We are then introduced to another major element of the game: the score. Not since Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2 has a score felt so cinematic and really contributed to the feel of a game. The soundtrack is one you can happily listen to away from the game, with its delicate guitar strums and hollow, single notes; it is delicate and melancholic and is a perfect match for the themes of the game.
Once the main theme has ended, we are transported 20 years into the future to a world that is recognisable but also realistically affected by the depopulation. Humanity is now split into pockets existing here and there, with some major cities still holding on to some semblance of society and control, and it is here we return to Joel (and Tess) making do, presumably with black market goods, while the last dregs of a military enforce martial law.
We are introduced to the world, slowly, walking down streets, witnessing the effects of military rule and social and physical erosion. Colours are muted. Musical accompaniment is sparse.
It’s not long before we are introduced to the basic gameplay mechanics of what is basically a third-person, cover-based shooter. What was pleasing was the lack of an auto-aim; a game that grounds itself in reality needed to be challenging. Later on we discover we can ‘listen’, for a limited time, to pinpoint enemies, which is handy if you want to make the experience easier. Having completed the game on the survivor mode after finishing normal mode, I would 100% recommend completing the game on survivor mode for an altogether more fulfilling experience. It’s a shame you need to complete the game in any mode to unlock survivor mode. The ‘listen’ ability always felt like a bit of a cheat in this world, and survivor and grounded mode are much more satisfying.
In fact, after completing grounded mode twice, the experienced gamer should perhaps go straight to grounded, if that is possible. It feels right that in a world so harsh as The Last of Us, the game mechanics should be tough and the supplies sparse. It’s altogether more satisfying, and requires greater skill. Save points are also sparser, making certain sequences extremely challenging, because if you die, you have to go straight back to the beginning again.
Take the cemetery sequence for example. Usually we meet the clickers (the infected humans, blind but who can see with ecolocation) in open spaces, where it is possible to use stealth to avoid them. However, here, the point-to-point nature of the gameplay means that the space in which to get around them is very narrow, making it next to impossible to avoid them. The game forces you to use your inventory wisely, so you’ll repeat this sequence, dying often, because you are trying to make every arrow and bullet count, every thrown brick. Frustration may build – you’re annoyed when an arrow breaks when in the previous run through it didn’t, or when a clicker notices you when before you got past it. In the end, do you just use up all your supplies in killing every last one? Do you finish the sequence and reach the next checkpoint, only with a near-empty arsenal and the thought that you could have done that better?
The Last of Us is masterful on grounded mode, making you question your every choice. You need to be careful with the items you choose to craft; that molotov or that first aid kit? Because you never know when you may come across another rag. Do you make a shiv, or do you craft a melee weapon with scissors on the end? Will you sacrifice a shiv to open a secret door?
After the game mechanics have been introduced, the real story begins. The first couple hours of the game is dedicated to developing the relationship between Joel and Tess, and then Marlene and Ellie as they are introduced. There are the beautifully rendered cut scenes, but it’s the in-game chit-chat that really helps to bond the characters. You don’t simply have a cutscene, and then a gameplay sequence in silence leading to the next cutscene. As you amble, or sometimes run, around the ruins of a decaying city, the character interaction continues, realistically, with a great script and great acting, meaning the immersion never really stops.
As forces collude to bring Joel and Ellie together, through realistic plot development, this in-game interaction between them is the driving force behind the development of their relationship, and therefore our relationship with them. You can explore the world together, deciding to comment on movie posters, ice cream trucks and other things that Ellie would never have known about, things that must seem alien to her. This innocence adds a real sense of loss to the proceedings, all adding to the emotional impact of the game.
Characters come and characters go; each of them memorable and each of them helping to develop the central relationship in the game. Nothing about what happens feels contrived, but the characters do make decisions that turn the story one way or another; so while we are controlling the characters, we do not feel we are controlling their fate; merely keeping them alive. They feel like real, independent characters, which culminates in an ending that feels cinematic yet real.
To talk of the ending; story-wise it was perfect. The daughter-father relationship that Joel and Ellie develop means that Joel, having risked everything to get her into the hands of the Firefly doctors, and now realising this means she will need to be sacrificed to get at the genetic information from the cordyceps virus undeveloped in her brain stem, has a choice; a human choice. Save his surrogate daughter (who very obviously reminds him of his dead daughter), or sacrifice her for the benefit of humankind. So often in games these kind of choices would err towards saving mankind, so it was refreshing that Joel chooses to save her life.
We reach a moment now where I feel the game could have improved. I can only think of two flaws; the AI of your companions and how they can be right next to an enemy without being seen (though I can forgive this because to be otherwise, the game would’ve been nigh-on impossible) and the gameplay of the ending. On normal mode, I had at this point developed a great arsenal, and not even used the flamethrower yet. When the game ended, I didn’t quite realise it would be the end; and so there was no opportunity to just ‘go nuts’. This is only a minor quibble, on subsequent play-throughs I could obviously ‘go nuts’ then.
However, this gameplay could have been improved. Joel is racing against time to get to Ellie before the doctors cut her open. But, you can take as much time as you want to get there. It would’ve made for a more interesting and tense ending had there been a time limit imposed, and you didn’t know until you reached the operating room if you were in time or not. It would’ve also made for a more obvious ‘end-game’ scenario.
But that’s all just conjecture. After that, Joel and Ellie return to Joel’s brother, and she asks him if there really was nothing that the Fireflies could do, and he says no, while subconsciously touching the watch he wears that his daughter had given him as a birthday present; that lingering look she gives him, before accepting his lie. That was perfect.
*END OF MAJOR SPOILERS*
So what makes The Last of Us so good? Independently, the elements of solid gameplay and satisfying ways to kill your enemy; the fully-realised world of a bygone age; the relationships; the acting; the score; the mood; the grounded mode difficulty; its basic cinematic grounding (the movie is coming soon) – it’s the sum of all these parts. People debate if there should be a sequel, but I say why not? Personally, it’s a world I would want to revisit, and I have full confidence that Naughty Dog would include all the above elements that make this game so great. They may be the same characters, or they may be new, either way we would undoubtedly enjoy following their story and exploring more of this world.
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