It’s a game about zombies.
Several images are probably coming to mind just reading that sentence- panic in the streets, crashed ambulances, military road blocks, That Scene where you have to shoot someone who’s been bitten, mass chaos and anarchy leading to the realization that Humans Are the Real Monsters. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last several years you’re probably sick to death of zombie fiction. Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us hits almost every single one of these cliches within the opening ten minutes and then goes on to tread well-worn ground over the course of its 12+ hours. It would not be unfair to say that the game lacks a single truly original moment.
The fact that I consider this an utterly negligible flaw should tell you something.
The Last Of Us starts twenty years after a strain of geek media approved fungus Cordyceps has jumped to humans, turning most of the population into shrieking, deformed mushroom zombies. The remaining uninfected population huddle inside brutal military quarantine zones which are imploding one by one into anarchic bands of viscous hunters and cannibals as supplies run out and the infection breaches the perimeter. Outside of these fortified walls nature is rapidly reclaiming the crumbling, zombie-infested ruins of human civilization. Enter Joel, a hardened survivor and criminal who reluctantly takes on the job of smuggling a piece of cargo across the ruins of Boston to a group of idealistic freedom fighters known as the Fireflies. The “cargo” turns out to be Ellie, a fourteen year old girl with personal connections to the Fireflies’ leader. Needless to say everything doesn’t go according to plan and the simple smuggling job turns into an epic journey that will change both of their lives.
Joel is a man haunted by his past and unable to see any hope for the future. Ellie is a street-smart kid who wears an outer shell of toughness to hide how scared she really is. Together, they find something worth fighting for in their bleak world.
I know, you’re probably gagging right now. It all sounds so trite, so cliched. But jut like its worn out premise, The Last Of Us will make you believe in its story no matter how many times you’ve seen it before. Partly this is because the game does not play it nearly as safe as you might suspect at first glance, imbuing well-trodden and familiar plot events with complex, nuanced and at times deeply uncomfortable themes and characterization. But mostly it’s just Joel and Ellie and the other characters who cross their paths. These people have real souls behind their virtual facades, lives and secrets and inner longings communicated in subtle pauses and fleeting glances. They will surprise you and shock you, sometimes even scare you. Joel is not a nice person. His character arc is not “grouchy asshole learns to appreciate kittens and ice cream”, it’s the story of a deeply broken man tearing the world around him to pieces in a desperate attempt to both escape and recapture his past. You may not like him at the start of the game and you’ll probably like him even less by the end, but his journey will hook you all the same.
The real star of the show, though, is Ellie. Naughty Dog not only took on the unenviable task of writing a genuinely engaging child character in a video game, a feat achieved only once before, but also threw caution to the winds by choosing the Sassy Teen archetype, widely recognized by scholars in the field as the most volatile and dangerous of all. Naughty Dog could have messed up Ellie’s characterization, and by extension the entire game, so easily, but they knocked it out of the park. Hitting exactly the right balance between child-like innocence and post-apocalyptic wise beyond her years fortitude, they have created a character that you will quickly grow to care about without resorting to any simplistic guff about “vulnerability”. Her characterization is startlingly deep, relying on the player to be intelligent enough to figure out her motivations without needing to be explicitly told. There are many things about Ellie that are only hinted at or never spelled out clearly- for example, she swears like a sailor through much of the game but early on lets loose with some hilariously tame Ned Flanders-ish expletives when encountering something startling. Is this some sort of defense mechanism? An attempt to seem younger around her adult quasi- caregivers? Something to do with her implied to be harsh upbringing at a military orphanage? We’re never told. It’s never even acknowledged by the game. Despite spending more than a dozen hours in Ellie’s company I didn’t truly come to understand what made her tick until the closing moments of the game, and I fully expect fans to debate and argue over her emotions and motivations for years to come.
Of course it’s not all high-minded arty characterization that makes The Last Of Us’ story so compelling. A lot of the fun comes from just watching the characters’ personalities bounce off of each other, with Joel and Ellie’s odd-couple bickering forming a particularly entertaining highlight. AI- controlled side characters, of which there are several throughout the game, reward the patient player who takes time to explore the sometimes-massive environments with tons of incidental dialogue, quips, observations and startlingly life-like canned animation routines. The illusion that these were real people going about their day to day lives was never once broken during my play through, something not even Bioshock Infinite’s much-lauded AI companion could achieve.
When not bonding with your friends you’ll spend most of The Last Of Us either exploring or fighting. The player is handed a wide variety of tools and abilities to engage enemies, with almost all encounters offering room for stealth, guns-blazing direct assaults (not recommended) or a mixture of the two. More often than not whatever exquisite Sold Snake routine you had planned will go completely to hell, leaving you to desperately claw your way out of trouble by the skin of your teeth. Unlike a lot of games that offer a stealth option it is possible to break line of sight and hide even in the middle of a massive firefight, so you can go back and forth between both approaches depending on what the situation calls for.
Combat in the The Last Of Us focuses heavily on brutal survival, meaning that ammo is scarce, guns are slow and inaccurate and you’ll have to forage the environment for materials to craft new tools and weapons. A wooden plank with a pair of scissors jammed through it makes you feel nigh-invincible, a fully loaded shotgun almost god-like. Usually you’ll enter an encounter with nothing but a brick and two bullets to go up against a small army of rifle-wielding scavengers or wailing infected. Some of these battles have been among the most nail-biting, white knuckle experiences I’ve ever had in a video game, and I’m sure every player will have stories of that time they took down six dudes armed with shotguns using nothing but a glass bottle and a wooden plank.
About those infected. They come in various types, each with their own special rules of engagement and all of them utterly terrifying. Early stage infected constantly mumble, shriek and even sing to themselves and have a disconcerting tendency to scream loudly for no reason. Later stages of the infection cause fungal growths to burst through the victim’s face, blinding them and forcing them to use echolocation by emitting an unsettling clicking sound; these enemies will also kill you instantly if they get their hands on you. Expect to spend a lot of time crouching in the shadows, too petrified to move.
Much has been written lately about violence in games and desensitization. The Last Of Us doesn’t desensitize the player with its violence, it tears off the scab. Headshots and explosive weapons result in fountains of bloody gristle and the player can trigger brutal takedowns where Joel will slam an enemy’s face repeatedly into a wall or a desk. This isn’t like other games where you punch someone and their head explodes comically; instead you hit them very hard with a blunt object and they just stop moving. This is to say nothing of some of the brutal events that go down during cut scenes. All of this gore serves an actual purpose, mainly in highlighting elements of the character’s personalities and ensuring that the players is jolted out of any simplistic notions of good guys or bad guys. There are no such thing in this game.
In order to prevent the action from getting exhausting The Last Of Us regularly slows down to allow for lengthy exploration segments in which the player can wander and discover optional side areas stuffed with survival goodies or listen to Ellie tell bad jokes. The visuals used to render the game’s environments are frequently stunning, particularly in interior locations as crisp sunlight washes over jaw-droppingly detailed abandoned buildings. That said, it’s obvious Naughty Dog are pushing hard against the upper limits of what the PS3 is capable of and the game is filled with heavily aliased shadows, framerate issues and cardboard trees. It’s a mixed graphical bag that mostly comes out looking beautiful in spite of obvious hardware limitations.
The Last Of Us’ superb mix of stealth, combat, exploration and story makes for possibly the best game I’ve ever played. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it. I played through most of the story in a single sitting (not something I’d recommend as the optimal experience) and you could not have ripped the controller from my hands with any force on Earth except possibly the opportunity to erase my memories of playing it so I could do it for the first time again. I jumped out of my seat on more than one occasion, particularly during what may be the greatest OH SNAP moment in video game history, found myself rubbing spores from my eyes twice and literally yelled obscenities at the characters on screen multiple times. For a game to get any significant emotional reaction out me feels like an achievement worthy of a gold medal, but for one to engross me to such an extent is almost revolutionary. Here we have a major developer who has finally realized that a mainstream, AAA big-budget title doesn’t need to have a story that’s a giant pile of horse shit. If only everyone else would get the memo.
All that said, The Last Of Us is not a “fun” game. The combat, while excellently crafted and a joy to play is often extremely tense and stressful and the constant, relentless violence and bleak tone will slowly claw away at your mental resolve. Several times in the game’s last quarter I had to pause the action and put down the controller to calm myself down, and when the story reached its bitter end I found myself exhausted, dazed and depressed more than exhilarated. The Last Of Us’ narrative doesn’t give you what you want, nor does it hand you its resolution in an easily digestible moral lesson about the power of love or family or any other such vapid nonsense. This game demands that you think hard about the characters and what it is their story is really about if you’re to come away from it satisfied.
The Last Of Us isn’t without its flaws. The game is littered with extremely simplistic environmental puzzles, seemingly just because someone felt they needed to be there, involving a small handful of not terribly challenging or interesting mechanics like finding ladders and boosting characters over walls that I felt only served to bog the game down, and the old “character opens a door and then gets grabbed from the side, mash square to contemplate survivor’s guilt and parent/child dynamics” thing crops up way too many times, such that by the end of the game I was pre-guessing the appearance of the mechanic with 100% accuracy. It must also be said that the first half hour or so doesn’t make the best first impression, with a phenomenal opening devolving into a long and rather tedious introduction of gameplay mechanics where you spend a lot of time being given orders by an AI companion Call Of Duty style. Also, during this part of the game the graphics are for some reason extremely unimpressive compared to how wonderful they get later. Ultimately, however, these are irrelevant. The experience Naughty Dog has crafted is so compelling, so layered and rich in meaning and nuance that its flaws are meaningless.
I want to take a brief detour to talk about the game’s multiplayer, which was for some reason shrouded in secrecy until a week before launch. A fairly bare-bones four vs four with only two modes (DLC is apparently incoming with more content) and a somewhat interesting metagame, the multiplayer can’t help but be ancillary to the main campaign but is actually surprisingly enjoyable. It retains the dark atmosphere of the story as well as the survival emphasis, giving the player only a handful of bullets when spawning. It’s methodical and slow paced rather than relying on everyone bunny hopping and running around like headless chickens, with stealth and teamwork much more important than twitch aiming skills, so the game should appeal to those who are shite at online shooters (such as myself).
I don’t know if everyone is going to connect with The Last Of Us strongly as I did. Maybe some people won’t like the choices the characters make or the game’s ending. But I personally have no hesitation in recommending this game whole heartedly. It is the best written game I’ve ever played, the compete package of addictive gameplay, sumptuous art design and production values and genuine emotional impact and a crowning achievement for the Playstation 3, this generation of gaming and possibly the entire medium as a whole. It joins the long list of previous games such as The Walking Dead and The Walking Dead to embrace the creative possibilities of the video game format while never selling itself short or simply regurgitating shallow action movie plotlines, instead crafting a tale that can stand proudly alongside the best that any other medium has to offer.
I guess that zombie craze was good for something after all.