Hanging out in the apocalypse with Joel and Ellie

Last-of-us-cover-1024x1024When we created our rundown of the best games of the generation a couple of months back, I took Sir Gaulian’s word for it that The Last of Us should come in at number two, having not played the game myself. Now that I’ve had some time to hang out with Joel and Ellie in the ruins of America, I emphatically agree with Gaulie’s judgement – and there’s even grounds for even moving it up a place.

The Last of Us sucked me in from the very beginning and kept me hooked right up until the astonishing finale. It starts as it means to go on, with a brutal opening that hits you in your emotions gland with the weight of an articulated lorry, possibly a lorry carrying a cargo of dying kittens. And remarkably, the game keeps that emotional weight all the way through. By the end I found I was physically gasping whenever one of the two leads was placed in peril, such is the emotional attachment I forged with the characters.

There have been games with emotional weightiness and formidable storytelling before, of course. Spec Ops: The Line told a cracking yarn with a memorable ending, and Fallout 3 had some surprisingly moving moments. But until The Last of Us, I’d never played a game that tells such a compelling tale throughout, combining shocks with comedy and creating characters that change perceptibly over time. It’s an astonishing achievement, and one that has set the new benchmark for characterization in video games.

This is an actual gameplay screenshot - the attention to detail is stunning.
This is an actual gameplay screenshot – the attention to detail is stunning.

The setting itself isn’t particularly original – the zombie apocalypse is a trope that has been used countless times before, although the idea that ‘zombieism’ is caused by a mind-controlling parasitic fungus (a fungus that, scarily, exists in real life) is one that I haven’t seen before. However, rather than becoming an all-out zombie-killing fest, like Dead Island and its ilk, The Last of Us borrows more from The Walking Dead by focusing on how the people involved cope with the end of civilization. Half of the time the baddies you’re facing are humans rather than zombies (although the game never uses the ‘z’ word, referring instead to the ‘infected’). And often there’s an uncomfortable ambiguity about whether all of the slaughter is ‘right’.

Gameplay-wise there’s little we haven’t seen before, with the usual selection of guns and tools and the tried and tested mechanics of sneaking and shooting. What’s impressive though is how seamlessly it’s all been integrated – I found myself picking up the controls with no trouble at all, and it’s ingenious the way that the screen clutter has been kept to a bare minimum to avoid detracting from the action. Graphically, the game is phenomenal, and streets ahead of anything else on the current generation. The attention to detail adds enormously to the game’s power to draw you in – assets are rarely reused, so each abandoned house you enter feels unique and draws you into the game world further. Immediately after I finished The Last of Us I began playing Deadly Premonition, and the difference in graphical fidelity was remarkable: Deadly Premonition looks almost like a PS2 game by comparison, and as such its power to absorb you is diminished accordingly (although it’s still great; write up coming soon). Don’t believe what you hear: graphics do matter.

There’s loads more I want to say about the story, but I’ll leave it here for now – sometime in the future Gaulie and I might end up doing a spoilery discussion of Joel and Ellie’s fate. In the meantime though, if you’ve not done so already, I’d recommend rushing off to play The Last of Us now. If you don’t have a PS3, get one: this game is worth it.

[As penned in mortal peril by Lucius Merriweather.]

Apparently Ellen Page accused the designers of ripping off her likeness for Ellie - you can see her point.
Apparently Ellen Page accused the designers of ripping off her likeness for Ellie – you can see her point.