I’m not someone who replays games over and over, but moments after I finished my first spin with The Last of Us, I wanted another round. There’s no experiencing it all for the first time again, but I wanted to revisit the entire game from a different perspective and have a chance to explore the world a little more. This is a game that deserves that study and exploration, but the first time playing it your only goal should be survival. My first playthrough was a blur: a blur of quickly shooting my gun, hoping to hit someone while stupidly wasting bullets. A blur of swinging my crowbar wildly while hoping to make it out of a crowded room. A blur of sneaking around corners and down hallways to avoid detection. A blur of running – lots of running. A blur of racing hearts and near-death encounters. This is a frightening game.
20 years after a pandemic has radically changed known civilization, infected humans run wild and survivors are killing each other for food, weapons – whatever they can get their hands on. Joel, a violent survivor, is hired to smuggle a 14 year-old girl, Ellie, out of an oppressive military quarantine zone, but what starts as a small job soon transforms into a brutal journey across the United States. You think you know who the enemy is in this game but, boy, you’ll find out just how wrong you are as things get progressively worse for our protagonists.
The world realized here by game developer Naughty Dog is absolutely frightening but, honestly, not that far-fetched. The infection that brings the world to its knees warps the sick into ravenous beasts, more rampaging monsters than zombies. You will quickly learn that the best way to defeat these creatures is to not engage them. There will be times when you have to, and you better hope you’re prepared to deal with them. When you do have to fight, the best defense is a good offense. Engaging the creatures is basically suicide: if they get to you, you will die. Yes, some you can fight off even after they’ve grabbed you and are viciously trying to chomp out your throat, but keeping away and hiding is your best bet. Being prepared is the name of the game here.
That first encounter, by the way? Remember how tense up and freaked out you feel. That feeling comes back repeatedly throughout the game, before it slowly morphs into disgust and uneasiness. You’ll find that the reason for your disgust -and even dread – is not because of the infected. You get accustomed to them as the game progresses. It’s because of the other wildly unpredictable “normal” people. You know what the infected are going to do. They are going to lunge at you, try to rip you limb from limb. But people? You just don’t know. “It’s the people I worry about” says one of the many folks you’ll run into during your travels. Whoever you run into, with very few exceptions the encounter eventually ends terribly, and those few exceptions are quickly forgotten as you are once again thrown into the thick of things. The stark reality of this world constantly hangs over you, even in short times of beauty. Don’t be fooled by Joel and Ellie, though. It may not seem like it, but you’ll discover that they can be just as ugly as those they fight.
The Last of Us will throw obstacles at you to keep you constantly on edge. Ammunition and health are limited, but you will adapt to that as you play and learn to avoid threats were possible. But when you have those moments where violence is necessary, it is ugly and brutal. You quickly learn the type of man Joel is by how he dispatches someone, regardless of their age or sex or infection level. The only way to survive this game is to adapt to each threat and you’ll learn how, but expect plenty of checkpoint restarts along the way. Some instances took me multiple tries before I realized I needed to zig instead of zag.
As tough as the game can be at times to endure, given the content and some of the not-so-pleasant events that unfold, it will keep pulling you back in, again and again, thanks to the compelling twosome of Joel and Ellie. As they come to rely on each other more and more as the situations they deal with get bleaker and bleaker, you’ll see the shifts in how they view each other. There’s one scene in particular, a rather big moment for Ellie, that’s shocking but also right for the character at that moment. Not only does it save Joel’s hide, but it’s the perfect moment for that particular event to happen. And it’s at that moment that you see a shift in behavior. Joel, while remaining the same determined and slightly psychotic survivor, starts to let his guard down, just a bit. And Ellie starts to realize the harsh truth of the world she’s in and starts to bottle up. Jokes, while still there, come less and less. As the perspectives of the characters constantly shift and evolve, yours do too. You start to rationalize and approve of things these characters do that you never would have before, until all those changes and justifications come to a head in a riveting and mind-blowing finale.
That ending, one way or another, will disturb you. It gets ugly, it’s hard to stomach, it’s a difficult experience. It’s the perfect culmination of that white-knuckle intensity the game dished out ever since its opening minutes. You will feel exhausted and uneasy, your nerves will be frayed and you will feel on edge. Each showdown with the infected always ends the same way – with the heart racing and you being barely able to relax. Such feelings never cease, even in the moments of false safety.
But for all the pain and ugliness, there is so much beauty to be found in The Last of Us. The visuals are utterly fantastic and, occasionally, breathtaking to behold. The cinematics are stunningly animated, with the acting so expertly directed. Without giving any spoilers, the final moments of the game are a masterpiece of character acting, animation, and plotting. It is perfect. Yes, the game does have a few glitches here and there, particularly with the sometimes buggy A.I., but honestly, that’s no different than any other video game. It’s easy to predict when some foes will pop up, while there also seems to be an abundance of cover or items to pick up. Some moments in particular, especially toward the end as you face wave after wave of foes, do seem staged more for a standard shoot-em-up first person shooter than The Last of Us. But the production values make that easy to overlook, even with the odd illusion-shattering bug. The voice acting, especially from Troy Baker (Joel), Ashley Johnson (Ellie), and Nolan North (I won’t spoil it), is spot-on and flawless, and helps to successfully sell the game as something more than what it is.
If there’s any knock toward the game, it’s how the growing supply of health and ammo in the final portion of the game can make things bit too easy. Early in the game I found myself being as tactical as possible to save health and ammo, but by the final level I found I could easily take plenty of hits and waste plenty of bullets and always have some around to pick up. The game becomes a bit too liberal with it toward the end, and I found that made the last portion of the game a bit too easy compared to earlier points. While that could have been due to my constant exploring and item-hoarding (there is so much awesome stuff to find here), this does take away from the game’s intensity.
In all honesty, there’s also plenty about this game that could be considered cliched. The relationship between the two leads that starts out as just a typical delivery – a gruff dude hired to get some person from point A to point B, no emotion attached – becomes more as they start to care for each other. Nothing new, right? The same goes for the idea of a devastated country ruined by a cataclysmic event, or a long arduous journey full of peril. But it’s what Naughty Dog does with the story and the characters that makes everything old feel new again. There are a couple bumps, sure, but the story is a true nail-biter and a thoughtful exploration on the end of modern civilization. It’s heavily inspired by The Road, which should give you an idea on how this all plays out.
Also deserving a special shout-out is the game’s use of sound. Be it the sparse score (which is excellent, by the way), or the eerie quietness, sound is a crucial character in this game. Pay attention – it can honestly mean the difference between life and death.
With The Last Of Us Naughty Dog continues its winning streak, bringing us probably the best game for this slowly ending console generation and making sure the Playstation 3 will go out on an undeniable high note. Countless other games have tackled the apocalypse before, but none have approached it with such bleak earnestness. The game constantly reminds you who the true culprit is for all of this misery, that you are never truly safe, that there is no hope. It presents a world you want to visit and a journey you want to be part of, no matter how difficult it gets. The complex and multi-layered story, intense combat, and beautiful presentation makes this not only a great game, but also an unforgettable one. More than even a classic, The Last Of Us is an experience.
The Playstation 3 edition of this game was provided by the studio for reviewing purposes.