THE last time we saw the grizzled lead of Sony’s post-apocalyptic adventure, Joel, and his boisterous young companion Ellie, they were stalking through the dark and wet of crumbled Boston.
Monsters infected by a human variant of the cordyceps fungus rattled and roamed through the ruin, hungry to tear the sinew from our heroes’ necks.
It was taut and terrifying, introducing the infected and displaying the horror chops of Naughty Dog’s latest.
This time things are altogether different. Joel and Ellie are strolling through Lincoln, Pennsylvania in the early evening sun. The sky casts a golden pall over a patch of foliage as the pair make their way into town. Fireflies dance in the sunlight, distracting Ellie as Joel scowls and pushes forward with nary a glance.
You control Joel throughout The Last of Us, but this section is all about Ellie. 14 years old and born after the fungus brought the world to its knees, Ellie is fiery, foul-mouthed and capable, but naive and awed by the world around her.
Brought up at the end of the world in a strict quarantine zone, she has never seen fireflies, only heard about them from tales and books in her camp. It’s through her eyes you see this world, as she excitedly flips through a stack of records at a gutted music store. “It’s sad, all this music just left here with no-one to listen to it,” she says.
It is sad. Sad, desolate and empty. But also strangely beautiful, a world with stories tucked away in corners and left underfoot. A deflated basketball, a broken down arcade machine that Ellie heard about from a friend, a note left by a frantic man waiting for his love to come home before departing for quarantine. “Do you think they found each other?” asks Ellie. “How the hell should I know?” Joel growls back. “Well, I’d like to think they did,” replies the girl. Character laid bare in an instant.
It’s very clever, and expertly done. It’s clear in these moments that The Last of Us is not going to be a game that should be rushed, as Naughty Dog carefully unfurl their narrative through the words of their protagonists and the ambience of their stage-setting. It’s a road-trip, essentially, and it would appear there will be times when, by your usual video game standards, not a lot is happening.
Where exploring is your aim and reward, similar to the understated ambient storytelling of Dan Pinchbeck’s Dear Esther or Konami’s superb Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.
When the violence hits, it hits fiercely, shattering the calm with breathless, bloody skirmishes that burst into life and end with death just as quickly. Joel makes use of what you scavenge, crashing a brick into another man’s skull, or jamming the business end of a pair of scissors into an infected’s rotting neck. Bullets don’t seem to be quite as scarce as you’d think, in this section at least, but this is far from the shooting galleries of Uncharted and Call of Duty.
The Last of Us appears to treat killing with the weight it deserves; grubby and unglorified. When Joel and Ellie come under attack from a group of scavengers, it’s a desperate fight, stalking behind overturned tables and fallen debris before exploding out with bottle in hand. Aside from scripted moments where you are tasked with saving the girl, Ellie is a useful ally in open combat.
She doesn’t have the same omnipotence as BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth, but she will scream “on your left” as a hunter comes creeping up on Joel’s blindside, or she will stun an enemy with a chunk of concrete allowing Joel to thunder up and finish the job.
It’s a fascinating concoction, all told. The cinematic grandiosity of Uncharted, tempered by the grit and darkness of I Am Alive and the horror beats of Resident Evil. Individual components may recall other games, but the whole is something unique and startling. A strong, brave departure for Naughty Dog without losing their indelible mark.
But the latest look concerns almost as much as it excites. Shooting is a particular worry, loose and unwieldy, exacerbated by the PS3’s spongy analogue sticks. In open combat it feels enough of a fit, a panicky wavering crosshair reflecting the desperation of the fight. But when you are strung upside down, and incongruously afforded unlimited ammo to gun down a stream of infected, the shortcomings are brought into sharper focus.
The intentions are well and good --do you expect to be able to shoot straight when hanging from your bootstraps?-- but there’s a fine line between tension and frustration, and this section falls into the latter camp.
It’s a tightrope that The Last of Us seems wont to walk. A scripted chase is quick to kill you if you don’t do as you are expected and combat is a tricky business. The challenge is strong, and it’s refreshing to see a game quick to punish mistakes.
Make combat too easy, and you risk losing the thick tension that The Last of Us is working hard to create. But in terms of telling a story, constant restarts could lead to troubled staccato pacing. The Last of Us dares to test your patience, and how well it balances challenge and narrative will be integral to its success.