At its core, The Last of Us isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, drawing upon any number of post-apocalyptic, books, movies, or television shows. Zombie outbreak (in this case, replace zombies with fungal virus infected people) and a pandemic. Check. Dystopian future of an America that has moved on from civilized humanity. Check. A main character with a hardened exterior and a tragic past. Check. Third-person action-adventure/survival horror elements. Check. Violence. Check.
All of these things are the makings of a prototypical zombie action game with the archetypical characters bashing, slashing, and shooting their way through their endeavors, desensitizing us all to their plights. The Last of Us isn’t the zombie cakewalk we’re used to seeing. It is Naughty Dog’s magnum opus for the PlayStation 3. The story has depth and never skips a beat. The characters are brought to life by an amazing level of voice-acting. The action does an uncanny job of maintaining tension throughout the entire experience. From the calamitous opening moments this game grabbed me and wouldn’t let go until the heartfelt conclusion where you can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
America has fallen into disrepair. It is a dilapidated land separated by quarantine zones and colonies that cling to any order they can. The harsh world dictates the law of the land. Kill or be killed. Do whatever it takes to make it another day. Survival of the fittest.
Joel is a conflicted man that has suffered one depressing tragedy after another since the outbreak of a fungal virus that spread through the United States and the world like wildfire. He has lost everything that meant anything to him. He tries to forget his past and keeps a wall up to protect himself from the cruel, unforgiving world. As a smuggler, having a conscience can get him killed. It interferes with trading with survivors outside of the Boston Quarantine Zone. He isn’t unlikeable though. He’s just a flawed ordinary man forced into extraordinary circumstances. One of those being a job that involves smuggling a fourteen year old girl out of the city and into the hands of a militant insurgent group called the Fireflies.
Enter Ellie, the fourteen year-old survivor who is attached to Joel, for better or worse. She is every bit the other half of a main protagonist duo. She is a naive, potty-mouthed child born into the virus infected world. She’s been hardened, much in the way Joel has. Violence will do that.
The two are bound together by circumstance. Every harrowing situation thrust open them brings them closer. The longer their journey goes, the more they run into other survivors who assist them in moving West. The conditions of their association range from favors owed to common goals. Some of those associations end terribly and though they endure so much pain in their struggle, it is the hope of finding help out West that drives them on. In hindsight, it is curious to think about how Naughty Dog does their best to dehumanize Joel and Ellie with such a violent reality. And yet, for every time Joel strangulates another human, their arms flailing and eyes rolling into the back of their heads, or Ellie utters an obscenity like a drunken sailor, there are clear moments where life sparks within them, reeling them back into humanity.
The Last of Us might very well represent the best this generation has to aesthetically offer. Nature is reclaiming the American wasteland, encroaching on gritty and desolate cities. Each change of scenery only gets better as the game moves on through seasons. Joel, Ellie, and the gang animate flawlessly and they have remarkable attention to detail. There is a soul behind the eyes of everyone. The highlights are not always the obvious. The slightest of Joel’s or Ellie’s gestures or looks lends a heightened level of realism to the game.
The music accomplishes as much aurally as the graphics do visually. I can’t say that I remember a soundtrack as subtle yet memorable as The Last of Us since Red Dead Redemption. They both bear striking acoustic similarities and oftentimes are understated and complementary. The voice-acting is a sublime contrast to the soundtrack. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson give rousing, believable performances as Joel and Ellie. When The Last of Us isn’t impressing with music or acting, it is creating a spooky atmosphere with the spine-tingling clicking sounds Clickers make or the gurgling noises humans make as you choke the life from them.
There’s plenty of action to go around. Joel and Ellie will be required to solve a few puzzles, nothing overly difficult. Combat is where this game shines. If there’s one thing Joel knows, its killing. So do the bandits and Infected living outside of the quarantine zones. Joel has options when it comes to combat. Go in guns blazing, but limited ammo becomes a real issue and there are times when the odds are so overwhelming that ammo conservation is a necessity. The choice of stealth can be the equalizer and it is brilliantly done. Joel can listen to the sounds enemies make to place their whereabouts and track their movements, making stealth kills ideal for progressing through many areas. Sometimes choosing not to engage enemies is the best option.
There is no shame in hiding and running when Joel is up against human enemies that try to flank your position or take advantage of a vulnerable moment like running out of ammo. The Infected may not be as intelligent as humans but they are equally dangerous in their variations. Runners are in the early stage of infection. Clickers are advanced Infected that are blind but are attracted to sound. One shout from a Clicker and a mob of Infected will swarm upon Joel and Ellie. There is a thought process in each encounter and it keeps the combat progressive and refreshing. No matter the tactic you employ in any given situation, there is always the underlying tension that ends with a sigh of relief upon victory.
Crafting is seamlessly integrated into the gameplay. In a pinch, Joel can whip up a shiv, first aid kit, explosive device, and other useful items with salvaged parts scattered throughout the game. Each item has its situational use. Shivs are a requirement when sneaking up on Clickers. Explosive devices can be thrown or set like mines. There is a wide assortment of firearms found throughout the game – pistols, shotguns, hunting rifles, even a bow. Of course, there’s nothing like finding a baseball bat and creating a spiked weapon for close combat. Each melee weapon is dispensable due to their fragility.
The game employs a fairly simplistic and totally functional upgrade system. Joel’s skills can be upgraded via supplements and weapons can be upgraded via tool kits. Both are found in almost any nook and cranny you can think of searching. I found that upgrading weapons was helpful, but at times it felt unnecessary to bother with upgrading one weapon when it seemed I was only finding ammo for another.
There are few trivial criticisms for The Last of Us. There are times where a supporting character will get stuck in a pathing loop. Joel can be crouched and hidden from an enemy on the other side of the wall and the stuck character will be running in place in front of that enemy but not attract his attention. Collectables and salvageable parts are everywhere. Finding them is much more organic than in many other games that have collectables haphazardly strewn about, but there are times where I found myself deviating from a path to search an out of the way building. Dying comes easily. It certainly adds to the difficulty, but it won’t be uncommon to start an encounter over repeatedly. It is very difficult to switch to a specific weapon with the directional pad in a frantic encounter.
Few games beg the player to push on to see what’s around the next corner with each savage scenario providing little respite as this one does. When a milestone finally offers relief, I hadn’t realized how edgy I had become. It is as beautiful as it is dark. It surpasses the remarkable Uncharted series by going in a completely different direction while maintaining the high-water mark quality Naughty Dog is known for. I simply couldn’t put the game down in my roughly thirteen hour playthrough.
The Last of Us is the apex of gaming for this generation.
A copy of The Last Of Us for PS3 was Purchased by the Reviewer for this Review