The Survival Horror genre in video games can be traced back as far as the first Resident Evil game for Playstation, released in 1996. Limited supplies (e.g. ammunition, health, etc.), claustrophobic environments and ever-looming threats around every corner, permeated the genre, making it a challenging experience. Somewhere along the way, through various iterations and other games of the genre, they began to focus less on the survival horror aspect and more on the gunplay/action. Naughty Dog Games, the studio behind the popular Jak & Daxter Series and the massively successful Uncharted series, have put their flagship series on hold to focus on their recently released post-apocalyptic survival horror/action game, The Last Of Us. Unlike any of it’s predecessors, The Last Of Us manages to find a near perfect balance between survival horror and the action elements that later “plagued” the genre.
The story of The Last of Us takes place 20 years after a fungal disease has ravaged much of the United States. What’s left of society is broken off into militarized quarantine zones, forced to live off dwindling ration tickets. We are introduced to Joel, who prior to the outbreak led a normal, yet stressful life with his daughter Sarah and brother Tommy. Twenty years of surviving has taken its toll on Joel, he’s a weary smuggler who’s partnered with the like-minded Tess. A series of events puts them in charge of a 14-year-old girl, named Ellie, who is to be transported to a militant group, known as the Fireflies, who are trying to restore order to the world.
The game’s graphics are top-notch, taking full advantage of the advanced hardware specifications on the PS3. Character models are beautifully rendered and life-like, mostly thanks to motion capture done by the voice actors themselves. The environments are more than just mere textures packaged on to things. While playing, I would often find myself stopping, when not in threat of danger, to admire the “world” around the characters. Each building, street, and room all have a story to tell and are all designed with pain-staking, authentic detail. There are collectible items (“Artifacts”), peppered throughout each level and even they give insight into people’s lives before and after the outbreak. It’s those little touches that make the story and journey so much more satisfying.
Stealth is the main component that drives the gameplay in The Last Of Us, especially on the harder difficulty settings. Unlike most games, the player is not given rechargeable health, or a seemingly limitless supply of ammo. The emphasis on having close to nothing and using your wits to get by really pushes you into the mindset of the characters as well as the post apocalyptic setting. The danger feels real and imminent, and human enemies react with a special A.I. called “Balance of Power” in regards to your character’s situation. If you have a gun on display, or a melee weapon, or if you’re low on ammo, etc. the enemies will react to that. They may charge you head on, or try to flank you and take you out. The “infected” enemies aren’t as cunning, but are just as lethal, and if you’re caught by one, its goodbye and you don’t even have a chance to fight. Joel has a heightened ability due to his 20 years of survival, where he crouches to the floor and can use sounds to gain a sense of what’s around him. His abilities, as well as distractions via bricks and bottles that can be thrown to distract or draw a nearby enemy, are essential to getting out of areas unscathed. It’s this kind of tense, draining game play that keeps a rather mundane, “take on waves of enemies” approach from becoming stale and thefore, you feel more rewarded when you make it out alive.
While the main draw of The Last Of Us is the single-player campaign, there is also a more than capable multiplayer component. With the multiplayer, you pick a side, either the Hunters or the Fireflies, and with that you play through matches, to get supplies and add survivors to your “camp”. These supplies and survivors also act as upgrades for your equipment, weapons, perks and character customization. Over time, there will be “events” that happen and to prepare your “camp”, you must complete side missions. These side missions can range from taking down enemies, reviving a certain number of teammates per round, or performing a number of executions. When these are completed, your “camp” successfully completes the “event” and you get more supplies for upgrades. While not completely necessary, the multiplayer is a fun experience unto itself and worth checking out.
The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital HD 5.1 really shine throughout the game. The voice actors do a great job of conveying emotion, you really feel for the characters and their plight. As mentioned above, Joel has a heightened ability and uses sounds to become more aware of his environment. The “Infected” scream, howl, and click their way across the screen and every time you hear it, it sends chills down your spine. The score is also amazing, written and composed by Oscar-winner Gustavo Santaolalla (of Brokeback Mountain and Biutiful). It perfectly encapsulates the post-pandemic United States, with acoustic/tremolo guitars, giving it a very “Western”, Americana feel.
There are a quite a few “Extras”, which can be unlocked after completion of the game. Different outfits for the main characters, gorgeous concept art and filters (Black & White, Sepia, etc.) all encourage more than just one play-through.BOTTOM LINE
Video games are often described as mindless fun, a way to relax and have a good time. With the progression of graphics, audio, hardware, etc. they have become more than just “mindless fun”. They have developed into a more cinematic experience, with bold, exciting story telling. This has been thrown around quite a bit, but Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, is truly a masterpiece, and possibly Playstation 3’s swan song, setting the bar very high for the next generation of consoles and games. It’s more than just a video game: it’s an enthralling, tense experience and if you’re a self respecting-gamer, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
– By Robert Vaughn
Robert Vaughn is a graduate of Montclair State University, NJ, with a B.F.A. in Filmmaking. Throughout his time in the program, he worked on various aspects of pre, pro and post-production. Writing has always been a favorite of his and he feels this “favoritism” shows in his work. Various professors, students, directors and actors have praised his writing ability. On top of writing for Diabolique, he has written for TV, written/co-written feature films for So Real? Entertainment and is currently working on a feature length dark comedy script of his own. Follow him on twitter: @rvaughn881