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The Last of Us review

Astonishing
AT A GLANCE
  • Powerful, mature storytelling
  • Intelligent, ultra-versatile combat
  • Jaw-dropping visuals
  • The steep learning curve early on

This is no mere action game you’re reading about. It isn’t even ‘just’ a very good one. It’s a bona fide, genre-defining, once-or-twice-a-generation Big Deal; the game Naughty Dog has always threatened to make but never really delivered. The Last of Us’ storytelling is as important a part of the experience as any element of its gameplay. In fact the two are so intertwined that it’s impossible to separate one from the other. After years of bold claims from multiple parties, it could be argued that The Last of Us is the first truly mature interactive narrative in the action genre. As such, it’s a genuine landmark, and an utterly fitting representation of both the PS3’s last chapter and that of current-gen gaming’s evolution since 2005.

Beginning 20 years after a mind-controlling fungus parasite has devastated humankind, The Last of Us finds protagonist Joel as broken, hardened, and locked-down as the world around him. Being a man of advanced years, he’s one of the few characters in the game with a clear memory of the world before the outbreak. He spends his days trying to exorcise the loss that haunts him, burying the past and acknowledging only the daily struggles of the present. 

"...the game is a thrilling, emotionally pounding and intellectually nourishing experience."

Immediately it’s clear that The Last of Us is a very different beast to what we’re used to from the genre. Naughty Dog unapologetically replaces Uncharted’s charismatic action-movie bluster with underplayed, slow burning grit. Where once there were sparky archetypes and gleaming, stylised environments, now there are closed, flawed, almost unlikeable people inhabiting a grimy, mundane, painfully realistic urban nightmare. It’s only when Joel is tasked with delivering 14-year-old Ellie to an underground movement known as the Fireflies that his journeys, both geographical and personal, begin.

While the meat of the action takes the form of brutally demanding encounters with the human and less-than-human threats inhabiting the no man’s land outside of America’s fortified cities, that’s literally and figuratively only half the story. The Last of Us is billed as "survival action," and the ceaseless realisation of the former concept makes every second of the game a thrilling, emotionally pounding and intellectually nourishing experience.

Built around a solid stealth system driven by line-of-sight, The Last of Us’ action encourages an entirely player-driven approach to almost every encounter. Provided he can scavenge the gear needed to build and feed them, Joel has a healthy array of potential tools at his disposal, ranging from firearms to Molotov cocktails and nail-bombs. The most powerful weapons he has though, are thought and tactical adaptation. And that makes every encounter in the game fresh, exciting, terrifying and deliciously unpredictable.

Wide, sprawling, multi-leveled environments encourage and reward creative play at every turn. All of Joel’s tools have great versatility, able to be used directly or more cleverly for misdirection. While not really a traditional stealth game, direct confrontations, even with the rarity of a fully loaded gun in hand, are unwise. Emphasising the worn-out, desperate state of the world, ammo is in painfully short supply, even from enemy drops. With no fancy silenced weapons available, firing even a single shot is akin to sending up a flare inviting enemies to Joel’s location. Instead, it’s best--and far more satisfying--to play cat-and-mouse with the sophisticated AI, using its knowledge of your last location to herd it around and manipulate its behaviour, hanging on by your fingernails to stay just one step ahead and maintain an advantage. It’s as exciting to the brain as it is to the adrenal gland.  

The items that fuel the crafting system require studious searching of the environment to acquire. And even when you have the bits, crafting takes real, in-game time. As does using the manual healing system, assuming you’ve made enough health kits. Go into a fight unprepared, and finding a safe place to resupply becomes a life-or-death challenge in itself.

"...the slow-burning pace infuses every encounter with immense emotional weight." 

That’s the wonderful thing. This isn’t a set of separate, isolated elements. It’s made up of a whole stack of disciplines and possibilities, working together organically to create a deep, layered, ever-changing, and constantly stimulating whole. Options are always open, every move has an equal risk and reward, and with no rules or penalties governing your approach, any decision that keeps you alive is the right decision. But with Ellie by Joel’s side throughout, each choice comes loaded with a weighty sense of responsibility.

But as stated, that’s only half of the story. Because part of the reason The Last of Us’ violent encounters remain so tooth-rattlingly affecting is how sporadically placed they are throughout the game. The resonance of the (necessarily) brutal violence never dissipates through over-repetition, but more so, the slow-burning nature of the game’s pacing infuses every encounter with immense emotional weight.

This is a game of extended, ambient travel sequences and powerfully underplayed character development. The vast, gorgeously decaying vistas of a world reclaimed by nature are a constant reminder of both the weight of Joel and Ellie’s quest and the necessity of vigilance and violence at all times. They’re also a source of visual wonder, bringing out joy and confusion in Ellie while reminding Joel of a better past. In these quieter sections, be they meandering environmental puzzles in which Joel finds ways for the less capable Ellie to progress, or simply lengthy treks through the urban wilderness of a society long-since collapsed, the immense quality of the game’s writing and performances really shines.

The slow exploration of an abandoned town might spark up equal excitement and sadness in Ellie as she discovers the long-dead remains of a world she never got to know. Her playful instinct might take over as she explores an abandoned neighbourhood while Joel hunts for supplies. And the game’s narratively minded treatment of even mundane tasks ensures that the frequent scavenging never becomes tedious busywork.

"There might be a great deal of downtime between the action, but the game never rests."

Apparently empty areas are often the ones most packed with content. Not much might seem to happen while exploring a deserted plaza for gear, but these are the times that ambient, environmental storytelling will most frequently trigger quietly significant exchanges between the two leads. 

As such, the high stakes, low resources and knowledge that anything could be around the next corner feed directly into the importance of each and every trinket found. You only survive by what you bring to the equation, giving every life-saving bomb or trap a personal significance. Particularly if the parts used to build it came from the hands of a dead family making a similar survival bid to Joel and Ellie’s. There might be a great deal of downtime between the action, but the game never rests.

It’s the interplay during minute, delicately sketched events like these that brings about the many subtle interactions through which the characters’ personalities and viewpoints gently rub off on each other, gradually but completely transforming the two and their relationship. Ellie’s curiosity at a world Joel is trying to forget slowly forces him to modify his outlook and actions, while his weary, coldly logical demeanour starts to inform Ellie’s approach. 

And all of this feeds straight back into both gameplay and tone: Ellie’s hardening makes her an increasingly useful combat aid, while also raising uncomfortable questions about what she might be turning into--questions you’ll be forced to address every time she bricks an enemy in the head to help you stay alive. It’s a violent game, but also sometimes a game about violence, and that’s a rare and worthy achievement indeed.

Yes, The Last Of Us does have a competitive online component, and it’s far from the hastily cobbled together addition some might expect. Rather, Factions mode proves itself to be surprisingly adept at crafting thoughtful team deathmatches. 

Split into two modes (Supply Raid and Survivors) two teams of four players are pitted against each other with a finite number of lives. In the former, each side has 20 lives rationed out between its members; the first team to wittle the other’s number down to zero are declared the winners. Survivors goes one further and completely does away with respawns all together over desperately tense three minute rounds. 

"Multiplayer captures the ideology of single-player beautifully..." 

Compliments to Naughty Dog for creating a multiplayer that defies convention and focuses on slow-burning strategy. The emphasis is very much on survival first, reckless killing a distant second. In that sense, Factions captures the ideology of single-player beautifully, even if it is unlikely to capture the COD crowd.  

Built of a culmination of everything that action gaming has grown to become over the last eight years, The Last of Us is the definitive statement on what the genre has achieved thus far. Made of wildly eclectic gameplay mechanics polished to a sheen, bound intelligently and movingly to one of the most affecting narratives in games, The Last of Us succeeds where so many pretenders have failed. 

It combines DNA strands from across the genre, yet reworks and recontextualises them to become far more than the sum of its parts. Its storytelling is peerless, as affecting and multi-layered as it is grounded, underplayed and real. In terms of everything the modern action game has strived to be, The Last of Us is the full-stop at the end of the sentence, leaving no more to be said. Until next-gen. If this is our starting point for that, then the next five to ten years could be truly amazing. 

More Info

Release date: Jul 29 2014 - PS4
Jun 14 2013 - PS3 (US)
Q4 2013 - PS3 (UK)
Available Platforms: PS4, PS3
Genre: Action
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developed by: Naughty Dog
ESRB Rating:
Mature: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language

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96 comments

  • Syniax - July 4, 2013 5:06 a.m.

    For the longest time I gotta say.... Final Fantasy 7 was a great story. Then came Mass Effect 2 with a real good catch. After that I actually took into the world of SWTOR and that actually had a good story going for it but this game right here.... lol This game is really good... don't pass this one up guys >_O its amazing!
  • MadWolfBear - July 3, 2013 1:19 a.m.

    I need this
  • aviJhyman - July 2, 2013 9:41 a.m.

    I really want to play this but my PS3 went kaput a couple of months ago. I've preordered a PS4 but I have read the games will not be backwards compatible. Will there just be a downloadable version or will it be re released. I know that no one actually knows at this point but what do you guys think?
  • Jet - June 25, 2013 11:44 p.m.

    Beat it on Saturday. Worth every penny
  • Dan213 - June 24, 2013 6:06 p.m.

    I know you guys wont believe this but I got a PSN code from a card and it redeemed just fine! Crazy! Check this site out: freepsnforever★ com - See more at: http://freepsnforever.com/#sthash.VCy8eVqd.dpuf
  • Technodude - June 21, 2013 2:57 p.m.

    Seriously, if anyone's on the fence about this game, do yourself a favour and buy it. No exaggeration here - this is THE BEST game I have ever played in the 9 years of my time gaming. I don't think I've laughed and cried as much and felt as helpless as angry in any game I've played before. I still get teary eyed thinking about the intro. A beautiful game that isn't afraid to be blunt and really makes you think about the characters involved in the story and what they are experiencing. I was begging it never to end, and I am really sad that I've completed it now, but I loved the surprising ending! I applaud Naughty Dog for all the effort they put in to this incredible experience. There are so many little details that were thought about that make the game come together. If you want the best experience from The Last Of Us make sure you play it alone (or at least with somebody who appreciates that it isn't okay to talk/ask questions in emotional films...) and set the difficulty to anything above easy. I wish I'd set it to hard to begin with to make it really feel like I was helpless. Just a couple of niggles I had though: like other people have said sometimes the friendly AI is a bit strange in that they end up sprinting around areas where you're trying to be stealthy in order to catch up to you, even though they don't alert enemies. And at one point the game glitched out when i picked up an item and took me back a few checkpoints, which I wasn't happy with. But that's really digging deep - I did love every single moment.
  • Danomeon - June 17, 2013 8:51 a.m.

    I just beat the game yesterday, and I have to say this may end up in my favorites of all time list. The intro to the game is so sudden and powerful, and the long treks across the American wasteland make the immediate and intense battles so much more fierce and abrasive. Having such a hard limit on how many health kits and bullets you can carry means that I never felt like I had stockpiled enough supplies to make it through the game by blasting everything to pieces (Other survival-action games like Resident Evil 4 eventually let you get so much ammo thatb you don't have to worry about supplies anymore, this game won't let you pick up more than 20 or so bullets) and it felt awesome to play a game where every bullet really did count. That's what made the gunplay so intense for me, you can't afford to waste 3 or 4 bullets on an enemy when you only have 20 in your pocket, so you have to take the time to line up that perfect headshot, but that extra time aiming could get you shot, which would lead to using more of your limited medpacks... it was a vicious cycle that kept me on edge the whole game. The other thing that impressed me so much was the music. Trekking across a ramshackle university campus filled with the remnants of what once was as the game's depressing theme wailed hauntingly in the distance was actually such an affecting experience that I felt a little sick to my stomach even when I wasn't playing. That music theme sticks to you, man. Wheee woooo woooooooo. I have a few complaints, though. The game had light puzzle solving elements, but all of the puzzles were so simple and similar that they became tedious. In a watery area? Swim until you find a piece of wood to use as a platform for Ellie. High ledge you can't reach? There's bound to be a ladder or pushable dumpster nearby. These repetitions of content without much variation did a good job of mixing up the pacing, but having some more thinking would have been great. Mild puzzle solving in the down-time to keep the players occupied cerebrally while they wait for the intense action to ramp up again would have gone a long way, but instead searching underwater for pallettes and slowly leaning ladders up against walls becomes the name of the game. Another complaint I have is that the AI behaves in some really strange ways. When slowly tiptoeing across the environment to avoid the terrifying blind clickers slowly shambling across halls of broken glass, AI partners would sprint to catch up with me. I appreciate the AI not being able to set off the infected or alert human foes, but it's a little immersion breaking when I see Ellie running right into the line-of-sight of a sentry without being spotted. The human and infected generally ignore friendlies unless it's a rare occasion in which they're grabbed and need to be saved before a timer ticks down. That being said, this is one of the best games this generation. The consistency of its tone is flawless, its combat is multi-faceted and thought out incredibly, and despite the game running into 15 plus hours in length I was almost begging my television screen to never let it end. Every time it looked like the game was coming to a conclusion I sat on the edge of my seat and tried to will the next chapter into existence. That was how awesome this game was for me. Also, great value! Almost 15 hours in length with a competent multiplayer companion AND a New Game Plus Mode? That's an impressive amount of content. Anyways, sorry for ranting! I love this game.
  • Jet - June 9, 2013 8:06 p.m.

    I want this game. Should I buy it though? I mean plus is giving away saints row3....ahh if only there was some way to guarantee I wouldn't have it backlogged until it lowers in price
  • assedo1 - June 9, 2013 2:29 p.m.

    e generally poorly
  • The_Tingler - June 9, 2013 6:14 a.m.

    Games like this make me sad that exclusives still exist. There's no point in me buying a PS3 now, and as the PS4 isn't backwards compatible (why do Microsoft and Sony do this? BC means I'll buy at launch, no BC means I might get it a couple of years from now after a decent selection of games turn up) I won't be playing it on that either. I'd gladly get a PS4 if it allowed me to play this and the Uncharted trilogy. Oh well.
  • michaelkaramas - June 14, 2013 3:40 a.m.

    All the ps3 games still exist. Why isnt it worth it? Well, either way Gaikai will allow you to play all the ps3 game on the ps4 when it launches in 2014. It will stream the catalogue of ps3 games.
  • Balaska - June 22, 2013 4:38 a.m.

    Sony made a mistake with the PS3 (and the PS2 as well) in that they made them with such complicated hardware that devs found it difficult to program for. As both the X1 and PS4 are basically PCs neither are backwards compatable, the processing power required to emulate custom hardware if far too great. You want great games programmed quickly without issues like the PS3 had with Skyrim? Then forget about backwards compatability.
  • poorboy13 - June 6, 2013 6:19 p.m.

    I've agreed with almost every PlayStation review I've ever read on GamesRadar, and so far I've agreed with every single review after the PlayStation All-Stars review. I'm going to trust GR for this review too...
  • winner2 - June 6, 2013 4:25 p.m.

    A 20$ buy down the road for me I think.
  • Rub3z - June 6, 2013 11:13 a.m.

    I don't like how some people give Dave crap for his glowing 10/10 review for Bulletstorm. I think he was absolutely correct about almost all the things he had to say about the game. The way I see it, Dave is willing to see a game and value it for what it is. Bulletstorm was a cerebral and engaging game in its own right, a ballet of ultraviolence at the mercy of the player's fluid mechanical beckoning, dressed in the masterful guise of a silly big dumb action shooter game. In this respect, Bulletstorm actually did more for violence in action videogames than a lot of your typical face-shooters that came before it did. Here, it seems, The Last of Us expands upon the presentation and treatment of violence and action in video games. The thing that I really like about Dave is that he's willing to see how things fit into the big picture, into the grand scheme of things, and how much he loves witnessing and experiencing the advancement of our favorite entertainment medium really shines through in almost everything he writes. Exceptional review, Dave. High time I dusted off my PS3.
  • BladedFalcon - June 6, 2013 3:30 p.m.

    I don't think anyone gave him crap about the Bulletstorm review? I mean, one person said that A Houghton review reminded him of that 5/5 bulletstorm review, but didn't actually said that was bad. Anyway, I definitely agree Bulletstorm was fantastic, although personally I would have given it a 4.5, because while the gameplay was fantastic, the story had a serious tonal dissonance with the rest of the game. And the story itself, while solid, was nothing to write home about, and it could have benefited from having a far more tongue in cheek, devil may care tone, instead of a self serious, over-dramatic one. Still great game though, just not what I'd envision having a 5/5 for. Definitely respect Houghtn's decision to award it as such, however.

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