It is obvious right from the start that The Last of Us is not your typical game. Naughty Dog has earned a reputation for creating transcendent experiences that are simply presented as games. With the Uncharted series, the developer created an interactive adventure, designed to keep your heart pumping. Those games are high octane, playable versions of Indiana Jones, with all the tropes that come with that style, including the death-defying escapes and the underlying romance. The Last of Us shares some of the same storytelling mechanics, but offers a very different experience.
Where Uncharted wanted you to believe in the adventure, The Last of Us wants you to believe in the relationship between the gruff and weathered Joel, and the young and still relatively innocent Ellie. That might seem like a predictable formula for storytelling, and in some ways it is, but adding the playable component elevates it to a level that has rarely been seen before in gaming, and makes for one of the most emotionally charged stories ever seen in video games.
Don’t Call Them Zombies
It all stars with a fungus known as ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a parasitic fungus from the Cordyceps family. The fungus is parasitic, and can take control of the host’s nervous system in order to move it in a direction that will ensure further dissemination of more spores. Basically it can take over a host and force it to attack others. And the pant-soiling truth is that it is real thing, found in insects, generally in South and Central America.
The game takes that concept just a single, terrifyingly believable step further. In the game, the fungus evolves to the point that in can infect human hosts. Those hosts then become mindless carriers, hell-bent on passing the infection on through any means possible, most commonly through a bite. This may sound like a zombie outbreak, but there is one key difference between the enemies in the game and zombies: the game’s enemies are called “Infected.” Beyond that, they are pretty much zombies.
The story begins 20 years after humanity has been forced into small quarantine zones, and scattered communities fighting to survive. Civilization is a memory, and survival is almost all there is. There is a war brewing as well, although to call it a war with scant few survivors left to fight it may be giving it too much weight. On one side are the forces controlling the quarantine zones, a militaristic faction that believes in order at all costs. On the other hand are the Fireflies, a militant group dedicated to bringing back an elected government. Stated ideals aside, there are no good or bad guys in the new world, just shades of despair.
It is in this gray world we meet Joel, a smuggler and a survivor. After a botched weapons shipment, Joel takes a job to smuggle a 14-year old girl named Ellie out of the Boston quarantine zone to the Firefly camp outside the city. That plan falls apart quickly, and the pair are forced into a cross country journey across the ruins of an America quickly being swallowed back by nature.
Trust No One
What sets The Last of Us apart from other post-apocalyptic games is the emphasis on the high quality of the writing. It is not just the driving force of the game, it is very, very well done.
Joel is not a good man. Thanks to some cleaver writing and the unavoidable connection you typically form between yourself and any playable avatar, you find yourself rooting for him. But he can be unlikable, and every time you think he will redeem himself, Joel will surprise you. Ellie, on the other hand, is just innocent enough that you can’t help but feel protective of her. From her inability to whistle to her fiery nature to her optimism, the writing for Ellie is so deep and layered that you will forget that she is basically just an occasionally helpful AI NPC. Thankfully, as an AI she never becomes a hindrance.
Ellie’s story arc in particular is endearing and even moving. She is a child of the new world, and the simple pleasures of the old, things like watching movies and sleeping a night in perfect safety are so foreign to her that can be heartbreaking.
There are deep themes at work here, and dark story threads that really cast a pessimistic, but not unrealistic picture of humanity as a whole, many of which center around Ellie. You will want to see her safe, although Joel’s intentions are often more complicated.
Even when you think you’ve seen the story laid bare, it can surprise you and drag out a surprising emotional response. From humor to shock to an incredible conclusion that you probably won’t see coming, the story is not just good for a video game, it is good for any medium.
A Minor, but Familiar Complaint
The story is so strong and powerful that it is easy to overlook some of the more flawed pieces. The Last of Us is a fantastic game, with moments that border on brilliant. The combat, however, is not one of them.
This is a complaint Naughty Dog has heard before, and it is apt here as well. The combat isn’t bad by any means, it is just wholly unremarkable.
You face two enemy types throughout the game: humans and infected. Both have their own AI systems that are typically very good and can even react on the fly to you. This helps to alleviate the sense of repetition that would otherwise certainly set in. The game introduces a stealth element that helps with this, but unless you plan to restart repeatedly until you memorize locations and patterns, opening fire is generally easier, and is almost always a faster solution.
The gameplay also lacks some of the moments that made the Uncharted series so memorable – those “big” moments, like when a ship would suddenly begin to sink, a train derails, or an attack helicopter chases you across rooftops. The gameplay just becomes a funciton of the story, and one you’ll typically race through to discover the next plot point.
That Old, Familiar Feeling
The multiplayer component offers an interesting twist, but it is very much a secondary feature to the campaign – and a limited one at that.
After choosing one of two nearly identical factions, Hunter or Firefly, you begin a 12 week mini-game. While playing in one of the two 4v4 modes offered -Supply Raid which has limited respawns, or Survivors, with no respawn – you attract survivors to your personal clan (who are represented as numbers only). The bigger your clan, the more supply parts you will need to find lying around in the game, or by looting enemy bodies. Do well and everyone is happy; fail to find the parts and people become sick and infected. After a 12 week cycle (12 weeks in the game, not real time), the more clan members you have, the better your reward. You then “prestige” and start over.
As for the gameplay, you are limited in resources, from your bullets, to the pieces you collect to craft items like medicine or Molotov Cocktails – a mechanic the campaign shares. Because of the limits, a run-and-gun approach is impractical, leading to a more tension filled hunt.
It is a fun addition, but an ancillary one. And with just two modes, it isn’t likely to carry a crowd for too long.
Minor quibbles with the combat aside, Naughty Dog proves once again that it is among the best in the business. It also once again pushes the envelope of what a video game can be. The writing and the story of The Last of Us are not just good by gaming standards, but good by the standards of any medium. It is a dark and mature tale, and while the obvious comparison is to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, the better comparison might be The Walking Dead. It is a brutal story that will continue to push your conception of what a video game story can be, and it is easily among the year’s best releases thus far.