Can you remember the first time you turned on your PS3? We can. It was to play Formula One Championship Edition. Firing it up, our minds were immediately blown by just how good it looked.
The PlayStation 3 has come a long way since then, with games like Metal Gear Solid 4 and God of War doing justice to the promises that Sony made all those years ago at its launch in 2006.
Now, in the year of its demise, we have the PlayStation 3’s swansong. The Last of Us isn't without its flaws, but what it gets right manages to set the bar so high that the PS4, for all its bells and whistles, is going to have to work hard to beat.
Naughty Dog really has worked magic with the PlayStation 3. Its Uncharted series has been the icing on the cake for owners, the one true IP which Xbox fans really can’t knock.
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Now Naughty Dog has turned its hand to something different. Forget swashbuckling adventures, The Last of Us is a brutal game, with a story so engaging and voice acting so good, it’s just as much fun to play as it is to watch.
There is so much to enjoy about the game’s story that we really don’t want to ruin things for those who play. The start - and what a start it is - sets the tone and things pretty much get worse from there.
The whole world as we know it has been pretty much destroyed in the wake of a zombie-spawning infection, with most cities turned to overgrown wastelands. The areas that remain populated are subject to military rule, with inhabitants risking life and limb running contraband between safe zones through zombie filled landscapes.
You play as Joel, who has the task of getting Ellie from point A to point B while preventing the pair of them chewed to pieces by zombies - or worse, taken hostage by humans. Joel and Ellie’s on-screen interactions are so perfectly written and the story so full of twists and turns, that it becomes a bit like a good book, very hard to put down.
Naughty Dog also made the decision to keep the story ticking over while you play, so important things are announced via cutscenes, but background info and other twists can come up in conversation while you are playing. In practice, it works brilliantly, preventing the game from becoming too cutscene heavy while still keeping the story ticking over.
It’s actually the gameplay which is the weakest part of The Last of Us. This is a game that doesn’t seem to have its priorities right, pursuing strange and slightly uninteresting game mechanics, while keeping what’s really good always bubbling beneath the surface.
A prime example relates to how Joel and Ellie negotiate the game’s scenery. Naughty Dog has a real skill with platforming - as we know from Uncharted - yet rather than being able to climb about levels, you seem to perpetually be lifting and placing planks and ladders to get across gaps.
The same applies to enemy types. The Clicker - a kind of zombie which is blind but will chase you if it hears you, killing you in one hit - is overused. All too often the game falls into the trap of sweep and clear style gameplay. Go kill zombies in this room, sneak past Clickers, story progresses, rinse and repeat.
It’s irritating because when The Last of Us is good, it’s really good. Later on in the game humans are thrown into the enemy mix and they require a far different approach from zombies. Their being able to spot you from afar means you need to use every single item in your inventory to beat them. The Last of Us doesn’t offer a huge amount in terms of ammunition either, so every time you miss, it can genuinely mean the end of you.
As the game goes on your acquire more weapon types and items to use to take on the bad guys. Initially the game can seem oversimplified, but as you get hold of things like pipe bombs, tear gas and weapon modifications, every battle becomes a strategic affair. Unfortunately, you need to play a good five or six hours for the game to really get going.
The gameplay is what stops The Last of Us from being an absolute classic. It definitely works, but we just wish Naughty Dog had played to its strengths a bit more. A slight touch of Uncharted could have made The Last of Us really rather special indeed.
We get the impression Naughty Dog wanted to put itself out of its comfort zone. This is a game predominantly about stealth and sneaking. Rush into a fight and you will end up dead. If you take your time, set traps and plan ahead, then things will likely go your way.
Special mention needs to be given to a few standout mechanics. Joel has the ability to upgrade weapons as well as tweak his own character’s abilities. All of this is handled via two types of scavengable objects: parts and pills. In keeping things so simple you don’t waste all the time going through every nook and cranny of a room, RPG style, to ensure you haven’t missed any items.
We also really like how you can hold down R2 to focus Joel’s hearing. It allows you to partially see through walls and watch the patrol paths enemies and zombies take. Get into the habit of holding R2 a lot and you shouldn’t find any nasty surprises waiting around the corner.
Let's not mess about, The Last of Us is absolutely stunning to look at. Every environment is different and on such an epic scale that you want to explore every room just to see what visual delights Naughty Dog has planned for you.
On top of the incredible environmental detail, is Joel and Ellie’s in-game facial animations. They come so close to the CGI cutscenes that it becomes difficult to spot the difference. Joel in particular, especially his gruesome death animations, is outstanding. Forget PS4, there are moments where the Last of Us looks better than anything Sony had to show off at that console's launch.
Graphically the human characters in The Last of Us are superior to the zombies. Those Clickers, which we mentioned earlier, are a bit of a mess up close. Compare them to the soldiers and gasmask-clad bad guys you take on later in the game and they don’t even come close.
Not many realised The Last of Us would include a multiplayer section. Called Factions, it pits two separate groups of humans in the game against each other. You pick a side and you fight.
Game modes consist of Supply Raid and Survivors. Supply raid is all about scavenging, tasking you and your side with collecting as many supplies as possible within a 20-life limit. Those supplies are then converted into player upgrades, custom outfits and weapon tweaks.
Survivors is more Counter Strike style, in that one death results in the end of your play for that round. Both modes have a maximum of eight players, with both sides controlling just as Joel does in single player, except with listen mode and its "see through walls" ability lasting only a few seconds.
Core to all this is the idea of Clans. Each match counts as a day and the better you do over a period of days, the more NPC characters will come and join your Clan. Each Clan member can be used to send out on missions and gather supplies, in turn helping add to your own character's XP.
The Last of Us will remain a testament to the PS3's capabilities. Naughty Dog has worked magic with Sony's console, making a game that looks better than a lot of the demos shown for the PS4.
As for the storyline, it had us hooked from the word go right to the last minute. If there was ever a game to legitimise the games console as a proper creative medium, it would be this one. Sure it's about zombies, but The Last of Us is much more than that and the intricacies of Joel and Ellie's interactions run much deeper than just blasting a load of undead.
We have already mentioned the gameplay's faults and it's those that hold this title back from gaining full marks. Don't get us wrong, you really must play it, but we just feel that Naughty Dog missed the mark here from creating an all-time classic.
The Last of Us has set the bar for all games to come and it's a bar so high, the PS4 is going to have to work hard to top it. We get the impression Naughty Dog could have taken things even further but was limited by what the PS3 could really handle. Perhaps the flexibility of the next generation will be enough for Naughty Dog's immense talent to run wild. It will be a game to behold, that's for sure.
In the meantime, we have a modern classic on the PS3. The Last of Us is a game you absolutely must play, if only because it leaves you dreaming of just how far the world of console gaming can go.