GAME REVIEW: The Last of Us is beautifully heartbreaking
The Last of Us. A survival horror action-adventure game, The Last of Us is set in a post-apocalyptic United States in the not-too-distant future of 2033. Naughty Dog / Sony
Arriving somewhat late to the party, at what could possibly the tail end of the zombie craze, The Last of Us is video game developer Naughty Dog’s take on the zombie apocalypse. Make no mistake, The Last of Us is a zombie apocalypse game. It doesn't matter what Naughty Dog tells you, it doesn’t matter what your friend’s mom tells you; The Last of Us is a zombie apocalypse game. Sure, the game’s zombies, lovingly referred to as “The Infected”, aren’t your run-of-the-mill, fresh-from-the-grave shambling undead (clue: they RUN). But they're still mindless. They still have a craving for human flesh. And their bite will still turn you into one hideously ugly mother.
So, premise-wise, the game doesn’t win any awards for groundbreaking innovation. Plenty of the scenarios The Last of Us will throw at you will be immediately familiar to anyone who is a fan of the genre. Dilapidated buildings and streets choked with abandoned cars? Check. Forced, temporary alliances with shifty-eyed characters who look like they haven’t bathed in weeks? Check. Morality-challenged packs of human scum who will shoot you on sight for a chance to scavenge your dead body for valuables? Check. Gruesome deaths involving human heads exploding piñata-style in a shower of brain lasagna? Check. Check. Check.
Wanderers of dystopian America
You play as Joel, a middle-aged man who kind of looks like Gerard Butler on a bad day. As a grizzled survivor of the fungal plague and subsequent collapse of civilization, Joel is forced to work a variety of shady jobs in order to sustain his bleak, hand-to-mouth existence. A smuggling operation has him making his way through Boston’s military-protected quarantine zone, and it is in this first hour you get a clear idea of how far society has fallen, how human beings have been reduced to fighting like starving dogs for meager scraps. Joel is not so different from these dregs; though you will catch fleeting glimpses of his tender side – a remnant of his yesteryears – Joel is introduced as a hardened veteran of an unforgiving world, someone who will do what it takes to survive, even murder.
Things pick up when Joel meets Ellie, a plucky fourteen-year-old girl whom he’s been charged with delivering to the Fireflies, a resistance movement bent on toppling the oppressive martial law. Thus starts their cross-country journey that will take you from Boston to Pittsburgh and beyond. Along the way, our heroes will meet other survivors, skulk through bandit territory, and come face to face with The Infected. Though their travels will be beset by tragedy and moments of sheer brutality, it is the relationship between Joel and Ellie – and the subtle transformations that they go through – that is truly the beating, living heart of The Last of Us.
Skulking, shooting, scavenging
The object of The Last of Us is simple: survive, given the meager tools in your possession, employing a combination of stealth and kill-or-be-killed combat. It belongs to that sub genre of games that encourage, no, force you to think before committing an action. You are not Kratos or Dante here. You aren't even Mario. You are an old man with a dinky blade, and guns that (gasp!) actually run out of bullets. Barge blindly into a room filled with enemies and you will have a very bad time. To survive, you will have to observe the movements of your enemies, concoct a strategy, and make smart use of every item in your limited but varied arsenal.
As a general rule, due to the scarcity of ammo and the frailty of your melee weapons, it is best to avoid direct combat altogether. You will find yourself constantly crouching behind cover in your effort to hide from the enemy’s line of sight. You would think this would prove as limiting to your field of view as it is to the enemies who are looking for you, but no. Fact is, life in zombie-infested America seems to have bestowed upon Joel Daredevil-like senses. It’s actually an interesting mechanic. With a push of a button, Joel will crouch and focus his hearing on his surroundings, which in the game is represented as X-ray vision that penetrates even the thickest walls. So you will always know where the bad guys are. This is especially useful when you’re sneaking up on an enemy for a surprise attack – which, if done correctly, is the best way to make a kill without alerting everybody in the area to your location.
Melee combat is preferable if you’re going the stealthy route. Unlike firearms, which stay with you for the duration of the game, close-range weapons break with repeated use. You can always pick up another baseball bat or lead pipe, but again, these items are quite uncommon. Thankfully, Joel can also throw bricks and bottles – which are relatively plentiful – at enemies to temporarily stun them. Joel can then follow this up with a lethal rush attack.
Ranged combat in The Last of Us is similar to Uncharted and other modern shooters. You can duck behind cover to protect yourself from gunfire, which is essential when you’re treating your wounds or reloading your weapon (both of which, realistically, take time). A salient note to bring up is that, while Joel is still inexplicably hardy for a human being, he will not simply shrug off a bullet to the shoulder like characters in other games. Getting shot will stagger you, making you extremely vulnerable for a second or two – which, in a game where every second can mean life or death, can be truly devastating. Thankfully, checkpoints are aplenty in The Last of Us. Though you will most likely die many times, you will always be transported to a place not far from where you were last killed.
Aside from sneaking and combat, scrounging around for junk plays another heavy role in the game. You will pick up everything from alcohol to adhesive tape, materials you will need to craft first aid kits, shivs, nail bombs and Molotov cocktails. Other materials can be used to upgrade firearms, the durability of close-range weapons, as well as improve Joel’s natural attributes, such as his health and his sense of hearing.
Special mention should be made of the gameplay role of Joel’s constant companion, Ellie. Despite her small stature, she is far from a damsel in distress. More like Bioshock: Infinite’s Elizabeth than Resident Evil 4’s bungling screamer, Ashley, Ellie is resourceful and requires no babysitting. She becomes more useful as the game progresses, warning you of the locations of bad guys, and eventually even participating in fights.
It’s about the characters
Speaking of Ellie, the main characters are so believable it's heartbreaking. Expect no witty quips or light-hearted banter from Joel and company; this isn't Uncharted we're talking about. These people aren't happy or having fun; they're exhausted and miserable, haunted by the memories of tragedies both recent and long ago. Most of the light moments are provided by Ellie: Her learning how to whistle and sucking at it; skipping playfully or humming tunelessly; and, like any curious kid her age, asking questions, always asking questions – about a bygone age of bizarre wonders such as coffee shops and ice cream trucks; perplexing human habits such as the deliberate starvation of the self, just to achieve the “beautiful”, skinny look; and, perhaps most poignant of all, it was an age when relationships with people you cared about weren’t as fleeting as the wind.
And so it is through their plight that we find ourselves inextricably pulled to these characters. Joel may seem a cold and hard man, but the pain of his loss – which is palpable in everything he does, from the way he speaks to the way he treats others – anchors him to his humanity. It is for this reason that he becomes immediately sympathetic and strangely relatable. Ellie, as someone born after the downfall of civilization, is innocent of a world not ruled by constant danger. Though she is afraid, she is not governed by fear, exhibiting a resiliency and maturity that belies her age. As their joint experiences bind them and their relationship evolves, it is in each other that Joel and Ellie find the strength to go on, and it is through them that we, as the players, discover the impetus to push forward, to ensure that their story ends well, if not happily.
A beautiful state of decay
This is Naughty Dog we’re talking about. Needless to say, The Last of Us is one of the best looking games out there today. Naughty Dog’s artists have gone to painful extremes to cram as much detail into the world as humanly possible: walls are pitted and cracked; metallic surfaces are so grimy you can catch tetanus by just looking at them; and the refuse of the departed era, such as books, magazines, and posters, litter every abandoned home and ransacked convenience store. No two areas ever look alike, and every place you visit will have its own tale of catastrophe and woe to tell.
The character models are top notch. Joel’s beard is a magnificent trophy of manliness, a veritable triumph of 3D graphics. The facial animation is so lifelike you’d be hard pressed not to try and reach into the screen to squeeze Ellie’s cheeks. The voice-acting is incredible, adding yet another layer of realism, not to mention gravitas, to the characters. As for the music, it is fittingly somber and depressing, bringing to the fore the direness of Joel and Ellie’s circumstances and the unnerving uncertainty that surrounds them.
A class of its own
Other games have tackled the zombie apocalypse before, but none give the player the sense of desperation and desolation that The Last of Us does. It is this tribute to despair where the game absolutely shines. It is the constant, nagging feeling that everything and anything you do will result in failure – or worse, the loss of your humanity – that makes every second of gameplay so profoundly nerve-wracking. It is survival horror at its finest, a stealth action game where every shot counts, and the smallest mistake can spell your immediate doom.
Intense combat, fantastic sound and visuals, and well-written, complex characters make The Last of Us not only a great game, but a beautiful one. It is a prime example of the video game as a proper storytelling medium, as a bona fide work of art. If you have a PS3, this is the definitive addition to your library of classic titles… because, simply put, that is what the The Last of Us is: a classic. —TJD, GMA News