The opening scene of The Last of Us drew me in immediately. Playing as a young girl, I felt terror when I woke up alone, exploring a dark house, calling out to my father and getting no response. The newspaper on the sink talked about a new virus spreading quickly, the symptoms of which seemed to be aggression and violent tendencies. It was then that I heard a noise downstairs. If I wanted to progress, I had to go investigate. Pushing the stick forward, I felt like I was walking to my own doom.
The opening grabs you tight and doesn’t let go, but somehow the game manages to become even more compelling as it progresses. Despite a narrative that, on the surface, appears to be riddled with horror clichés, somehow The Last of Us manages to dodge your expectations unceremoniously, becoming more brutal and depressing with every moment that passes by.
The story in The Last of Us works because the characters work. The Last of Us is – for lack of a better term – a character drama, in the same vein as The Walking Dead or Stephen King’s The Mist. Yes, it’s a generic horror setting. But it works because the characters feel so deep, raw, and real. Joel, Ellie, and the supporting cast are as interesting as any characters you’ll find on television, and the superb voice acting is largely to thank for that.
You’ll spend most of the game with Joel and Ellie traversing the dying United States alone. The world has been overrun by monsters called The Infected. These creatures are the result a virus that has turned the majority of the human population into screaming, clicking terrors, who still carry enough of their humanity to be pitied, even if survival means putting them down like rabid dogs. When you enter a home and see photos of families on the wall, it’s hard not to feel that the humanoid monsters inside once had normal lives. The Infected are victims of a scourge, just like the people they bite – and the game won’t let you forget that.
The world is riddled with personal journals and letters to loved ones, all chronicling the transition between sentience and the undead. An endless sea of abandoned cars riddles every highway, confirming that very few people managed to escape the virus’s rapid spread. Monuments to a race that died in 2013 are left abandoned everywhere – hotels, restaurants, theatres, and businesses.
The Last of Us is one of the most beautiful games I have ever seen. The environments are highly detailed and breathtaking to look at, despite the world being in shambles. There’s something sublime about the chaos, and the soundtrack only drives that feeling home with music that blends itself into the environment. A single string sound accompanies you as you walk through an abandoned city, giving you the feeling of man making music from what scraps are left behind, while other times a high-pitched noise of despair is all that’s needed to make a character’s death more shocking.
There’s something humbling and somber about imagining the modern world reduced to rubble. Hearing Ellie, who was born after the world ended, talk about an ice cream truck as if it’s something she’s only heard about in history books is both fascinating and utterly terrifying. The Last of Us makes you feel mortal as you play it, and that’s why it’s so effective.
Ellie is immune to the virus, and she could be humanity’s last hope for a cure – a burden she carries with her every day, as the people she bonds with become infected and die off. Ellie is forced to kill to survive, and we see the damage that does to her psyche as the game progresses. On the other hand, Joel seems like he was turned cold by reality long ago. He’s motivated by pure survival, unable to face the horrors of his past, and even less able to escape them.
The bond between Joel and Ellie is complex; at times it’s a father-daughter dynamic, only with an emotional distance that’s hard to nail down. All the darkness Joel has seen, combined with Ellie’s youthful ignorance of the reality of death, makes for two characters who feel exceedingly human, afraid to bond in a world where anyone can die at any second, fearful of what new wounds they may open up if they do bond.
The whole post-apocalyptic, some-new-zombie-virus-variant approach to horror isn’t new, but it certainly is a damn good setting for a video game. Environments range from the untouched wilderness to urban settings actively being reclaimed by nature. The enemies you face will not only be The Infected, but also the humans who are left to fend for themselves in what is now an anarchic wasteland where only the nastiest people seem to survive.
Whether it’s the military trying to maintain order, murdering to maintain their monopoly on food distribution, or the bands of men who kill the innocent to scavenge for valuable resources like decent shoes and canned fruit, you’ll have your fair share of enemies to deal with.
Going in, I didn’t know what The Last of Us would play like, but I think it’s best described as a stealth-action game, where how you choose to approach enemies is entirely up to you. You may be able to get away with a guns-blazing approach now and then, while other times the best method is to avoid enemies altogether. It all comes down to how you manage your resources and ammunition – you’re going to have to search the environment for supplies, and you’ll have to make some tough choices between weapons and your own well-being. Depending on how you want to play, what you choose to craft can make the difference between life and death.
The thing I found most intriguing was that everything – from crafting med-packs to upgrading a weapon – is done in real time. The world around you never ceases, and there’s always a feeling that death can come at any second. Considering that combat feels very realistic in terms of how much damage Joel or Ellie can take, the probability of dying when you make a single mistake is much higher than it is in other games.
It’s in this way that the gameplay really helps keep the immersion alive. Sure, the brilliant soundtrack and gorgeous art direction help make the decaying world around you feel as real as possible, but the gameplay really drives it all home by providing an experience that’s largely free of video game clichés, with each event seeming to derive from the plot perfectly.
Yes, I have some complaints – a ladder puzzle that rears its head one too many times, a few glitches here and there. But none of the negatives really matters, and they definitely won’t take away from what is otherwise a near flawless experience.
The most amazing thing about The Last of Us is that, even when you aren’t fighting Infected or figuring out a puzzle, the game is still engrossing, drawing you in to the story of the environment around you. The graffiti on the walls, the bodies of the dead, and the artifacts that people leave behind tell the story of man’s coming extinction, and how death came to consume so many people.
One area had me exploring a sewer that had been turned into a community of its own, though deserted long before you managed to find it. A chalkboard described the rules for safety in the place, and children’s toys give an indication of the age of the former inhabitants. Most haunting of all was a room that appeared to be a nursery, now littered with bodies; the words “They didn’t suffer” written on the floor tells the story of what happened to the small children who used to occupy the place.
You make up much of the story for yourself by finding clues, leaving your mind’s eye to fill in the chilling gaps. Never has a linear game rewarded you on such a deep level for exploring the environment. You owe it to yourself to take your time as you play through The Last of Us.
The campaign is the reason to play the game; however, The Last of Us sports a surprisingly rich multiplayer mode called Factions, that manages to capture the spirit of single-player. My favorite sub-mode, Survivor, pits players against each other in four-on-four matches, the goal being to eliminate the opposing team, typically through stealth-kills. Using resources you find on the map to manage your health and weapons, Survivor is very much modeled after the gameplay you’ll find in the campaign. Additionally, there are no re-spawns, which adds a surprising amount of fear – you don’t want to die, because death is permanent.
Supply Raid is your other multiplayer option and, while it’s fun to play, it didn’t hold my attention like Survivor did. Once again, the goal is to eliminate the opposing team. But this time respawns are active, and teams have a pooled number of lives. Much as in Survivor, you craft items on the fly, scouring the map for supplies that will help you stay alive. However, the ability to respawn takes away much of the fear that makes Survivor so enjoyable. The result is a multiplayer mode that feels more traditional, but admittedly still captures some of what makes the combat in single-player so much fun.
Too often we’re given games with multiplayer tacked on as an afterthought, but that’s not the case with The Last of Us. Developer Naughty Dog deserves praise for creating a multiplayer mode that is simple and feels derived from the game’s campaign. It adds some legitimate re-play value beyond playing the story for a second time – which you’ll want to do anyway, because it’s that good.
To put it mildly, The Last of Us is unlike any video game you will ever play, and it’s a reason to buy a PlayStation 3. It’s a true masterpiece, a work of art that will stand the test of time, one day to be admired by video game historians and scholars as a true example of the unique approach to storytelling that only video games can offer. The Last of Us is absolutely a must-play for everyone. It’s a powerful experience, burning itself into your brain by making you an accessory to the horrors you’ll witness on screen. It’s something I will never be able to forget.
The Last of Us is Rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language.