Welcome to the soft apocalypse, the shiny, Hollywood-esque end-of-the-world where everything is just a little bit too cool to feel convincing.
The Last Of Us‘ developer, Naughty Dog, creators of the superb Indy-via-Whedon wisecrack-’em-up Uncharted, cites The Road as the primary inspiration behind its tonally different new title, yet it’s really more like I Am Legend in the broader way its fictional backdrop has been constructed.
The Road has a true, optimism-grinding darkness, while The Last Of Us still likes to show you scenic, ruined cityscapes while throwing zombies in your direction in a bid to impress you with its visual variety. While the writing here is as high-end as any big budget blockbuster – perhaps better in places – much of the story lacks that engaging darker edge in an otherwise extremely well-designed game.
You may remember the cordyceps virus from David Attenborough’s Planet Earth, a parasitic fungus that can alter the behaviour of insects and leaves unsightly tendrils protruding from the heads of doomed creatures. The Last Of Us takes that idea and asks the question of what would happen should a similar phenomenon affect mankind; a pretty smart premise for an end of the world scenario, really, one that turns humans into killable screaming zombie things, with the super-infected turning into horrific mutated beings called Clickers.
A cure may have been found in the form of a young girl, however, called Ellie, who your grizzled father figure character Joel has to escort into another part of America, so scientists can work out how to find a cure from her genetic make-up. Rather than just putting zombies in your way, the remnants of mankind pose a similar threat as they desperately scramble for survival.
The Last Of Us is set across four seasons, and while the first half is lacking when it comes to narrative surprises, the second half marks a vast improvement by upping the pace and benefiting from the escalating quality of Joel and Ellie’s characterisation, as well as the development of their relationship.
What’s intriguing for a project as commercial as this is how deliberately it goes against the grain of other shooters. You’re simply surviving, rather than waging a one-man war, and because of the rather extraordinary nature of the enemy AI in The Last Of Us, every scenario can play out differently. Being spotted right away is usually a death sentence – and you don’t pack a whole lot of bullets. Sometimes you get lucky and throw a molotov cocktail that kills 7 enemies; then again, you can approach the same scene in a stealthy way, spend 10 minutes manoeuvring carefully around the level, only to have it annoyingly unravel at the last second when a Clicker automatically kills you.
This unwieldy quality is both a strength and weakness of The Last Of Us. In one way, you’re offered complete freedom of approach to progress, a marvel in design terms that generates some impressive variables in set pieces, but in another, you may be disproportionately rewarded for undermining the game’s stealth-focused systems.
There’s a randomness to it that sometimes makes you feel like blagging a shootout just to see if such instict-driven brainlessness works.
Yet there’s still so much to admire in The Last Of Us, primarily the gorgeously cinematic way the story is brought to life, in and out of cutscenes. There are also rather a few interesting twists that subvert the central idea of a grizzled hero protecting the innocent young girl that would usually have no place in mainstream videogames; kudos to Naughty Dog for actually taking the narrative in unexpected directions and allowing the gameplay to reflect that.
The Last Of Us offers few new ideas when it comes to apocalyptic fiction, but there’s not a lot wrong with the execution of that tale, and like BioShock Infinite it’s well worth playing just to see the kind of potential in interactive storytelling that even non-gamers will be impressed by.