Compelling stories can be hard to portray in a videogame environment. Don't show enough and the player may lose interest, but weigh the game down with cut-scenes and dialogue, gameplay can suffer as a result. The Last Of Us walks this thin line perfectly, mixing immensely enjoyable gameplay with cinematics moving the story forward without ever seeming to get in the way.
When the Cordyceps fungus infection mutates and makes the jump from insect to man it sets the scene for a scary future. Set 20 years after the initial outbreak the majority of the human race is either dead or infected. The Last Of Us takes place mainly from the perspective of Joel. A man with a troubled past who is given the job of transporting Ellie from Boston to Salt Lake City. This sets The Last Of Us up to tell a varied and sobering story across its 16 or so hour campaign.
From its opening moments which have to be the most powerful ever seen in a videogame, The Last Of Us gives a believable and realistic insight into a future where humans are at threat of extinction. Quarantine zones presented early on show humans lining up for food with ration cards being mistreated in the process, close inspection of the walls reveals graffiti scribbled in despair and listening to conversations taking place around you reveal information that could be easily missed. The simple act of walking through what looks like a warzone is more impressive then many end game setpieces simply because of the attention to detail. And to The Last Of Us's credit the characters and world this game takes place in is slowly and methodically introduced. Never seeming rushed the game gives you chance to get used to the pace and level of detail on offer. Its when Joel picks up his backpack the actual gameplay reveals itself. Those expecting a nimble and eager protagonist may be surprised to see that Joel actually acts his age. The Last Of Us is grounded in reality. There is no scaling of 50 foot walls, pushing boulders or carrying assault rifles with limitless ammo. Joel is only capable of shimmying across ledges, carrying a ladder to access a room or scavenge for much needed ammo. And he needs it. many times in the game you may be down to your very last bullet being forced to decide between stealthy takedowns using a brick or bottle to distract, or risking a well aimed shot knowing if you miss, death is far more the likely outcome. The stealth system in The Last Of Us is a robust one, being able to crouch and listen for enemies provides an intuitive way to form a plan of attack. A successful stealth approach reveals a button prompt to subdue, you can kill a human, use him as a shield or simply knock him out the choice is yours. But its not just humans that are the problem. Variants of the mutated fungus outbreak include runners in early stages of infection, all the way up to clickers who emit a clicking noise similar to sonar as the infection has removed all facial features. Just seeing the unnatural twitches and noises the infected use are enough to put you on edge. And that would be the case if you had a backpack full of guns.... but you don't. Not even being able to pause if you need to swap weapons or apply a med kit, having to wait for Joel to take his backpack off to get to the items makes the whole experience very tense. But by toning down the explosions and action set pieces it makes every gunshot have consequence making you wonder if there is an alternate way to take out the enemies or simply pass them by.
As ammo and supplies are low crafting is in order to create nail bombs, molotov cocktails, med kits and so on and the only way to upgrade weapons is at the crafting benches to increase reload speed or ammo capacity for instance. Even the smallest items like a dual weapon holster have to be scavenged as parts and then made. It's a nice touch however to see Joel's backpack bursting with the supplies you have just crafted immersing you even further into the game, with the help of tricks like voice recordings and flashlight clicks coming through the speaker of the PS4 pad again, sucking you in, and should your flashlight start flickering at just the wrong time you will frantically find yourself shaking the pad to get some more power.
The gameplay in the Last Of Us would have been enough to make a solid game, but the soundtrack as you play is fantastic providing tension when you need it and serene moments of reflection when the pace slows, What makes The Last Of Us so gripping is the level of detail shown early on stays throughout the game. Every chapter has its own striking visuals. From toppled skyscrapers in cities hinting to the carnage that must of gone on, to beautiful vistas in the countryside that don't seem to reflect the chaos around it. Each section of The Last Of Us has so much subtle information hidden within its stages in the form of collectables, notes, photos or diary entries. Sometimes it may just be a bedroom with posters and belongings that seem to tell a story about the person without actually "being" told that story, walking through an area off the beaten path may prompt Joel or Ellie to give their view or insight into what is in front of them and its here where The Last Of Us really shines. Narrative is ever present but rarely intrusive, life both before and after the outbreak are discussed without ever really stopping you from playing. On the occasions when a cutscene does kick in we are treated to some of the highest production value cinematics in any videogame. Special mention has to go out to Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson for there performances as Joel and Ellie, providing real heart to a harrowing story. Every facial quirk, side-glance or emotion is plain to see and only makes you connect with the characters further. And as this journey takes Joel and Ellie across America other survivors stories are intertwined giving you glimpses into how other people regardless of age, gender or race are coping with the outbreak, with the same standout performances of the two main characters. Through playing The Last Of Us and watching the cut-scenes there is a real sense of progression in Joel and Ellie's relationship, going from two bickering opposites to having a deep rooted understanding of each other.
In short if you have never played The Last Of Us (like me) and you own a PS4 this is an essential purchase for the main games campaign alone. Add to that a multiplayer mode, bonus unlocks like extra outfits, concept art and the Left Behind DLC all included on the disk, It makes The Last Of Us a phenomenal package
+ Fantastic Narrative
+ Tense Combat
+ Perfectly Paced
+ Cinematic Presentation