Zombie apocalypse settings are everywhere in games. One can’t throw a brick without hitting at least one videogame that has either zombies or a bleak near-future plagued by zombies. We’ve had mature zombie games like The Walking Dead, bloody and visceral zombie games like Resident Evil and Dead Space, even silly zombie games like Plants vs. Zombies and Dead Rising. In this sense, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us doesn’t re-invent the wheel or change up the formula of a zombie outbreak story. What it does is remember what made such stories so compelling and seeks out to recapture that essence. The result is something not exactly innovative or groundbreaking, but something very special.
The story begins twenty years after a deadly spore infects the majority of the human population, turning them into mutated monstrosities, leaving what is left sequestered in military-esque quarantine zones. You are Joel, a socially distant man who makes a living scavenging city ruins for food, medicine and the like. He is charged with the simple job of escorting a young woman called Ellie across the country to an organization called The Fireflies. Not an easy task since the world outside of the quarantine zone is full of infected horrors and dangerous bandits.
The story of The Last of Us isn’t a sprawling multi-layered epic so much as it is a set-up. It doesn’t dwell on social commentary or even anything heavy-handed as would be implied by the zombie outbreak of this story being Mother Nature fighting back and reclaiming the world. From a pure storytelling perspective, the setting of the game doesn’t endear itself to deeper analysis other than elements that have already been examined in previous zombie stories. As a matter of fact, the simplicity of The Last of Us’ narrative is its greatest strength. It allows characters who would otherwise come off as token or shallow have enough time to grow into fully realized people which goes a long way to breathing life back into an otherwise worn and tired genre.
In fact, the characters and their journey are the real stars of this game. Joel, Ellie, and the sparse supporting cast they meet are all flawed, yet charming and endearing. Ellie’s colorful vocabulary and obsession with pre-apocalypse comic books comes to mind. Even while some characters fall into familiar tropes and archetypes, it is the presentation that helps alleviate any feelings of boredom or staleness. Particular mention must be made of Ellie and Joel’s relationship. Early Game of the Year contenders seem to be following the trend of strong female characters assisting or becoming compelling protagonists, but in this respect The Last of Us manages to put the likes of Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider 2013 to shame. I won’t spoil how, but both characters manage to successfully grow and rise to every new challenge in such an intimate organic fashion, balancing out the dark tone and setting with moments of joy and levity, that it has raised the bar for characterization and writing in this medium.
Gameplay-wise, The Last of Us is easily mistaken for a third-person action title but is actually a Survival Horror game. There is cover-based shooting, but ammo is very scarce and Joel isn’t some hypercompetent military trained soldier so his aim is shakey at best. Regenerating health is nowhere to be found, instead you must find first-aid kits and stay hidden long enough to wrap up your injuries. There is melee combat that is kinetic and effective, provided you get the drop on the opponent in question, along with melee weapons that break down as you use them There are stealth elements where you can avoid combat all together if you are careful enough. Finally, there is a crafting system where you can reinforce weapons or make your own supplies from whatever you find around you. If you are lucky or feeling bold, you can create some more exotic weapons such as smoke bombs or molotov cocktails or stick to more mundane yet pragmatic constructs like metal shivs or reinforcing a wooden plank with some nails. All of these elements mix together to form an experience where you have to make every single bullet count and be very careful in planning your next move, assuaged in terms of punishment or tedium by plentiful auto-saving checkpoints. And this is before the “zombies” in the game make their appearance.
There are some issues to be found. While the controls are solid and offer lots of depth and choice in terms of how you can tackle the various challenges the game provides, arguably its greatest strength, there are moments where the overwhelming atmosphere and the verisimilitude of the game’s systems are dropped. As much thought as Naughty Dog put into the gameplay of The Last of Us to make it feel completely different, there were certain moments that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a sequel to Uncharted. Moments where you must hold off a hoard of enemies only to discover you can be liberal with your shots because the ammo counter has vanished. Otherwise normal human opponents being able to survive a point-blank blast of buckshot. Requiring multiple headshots to kill an enemy by sheer virtue of him wearing a helmet regardless of the size or precision of the shot. Fixed sequences where only stealth or only combat or running away works. These moments are always jarring when compared to tension generated by organic player agency. A personal example comes from where I was surrounded by multiple bandits and was completely out of ammo for all weapons I had on hand. I managed to turn the tide of the ambush by whipping together a smoke bomb made from items I grabbed five minutes ago, blinding the group with it, bashing the bandit in front of a doorway out with a steel pipe, escaping through the door and running out of their sight. When all three gameplay elements of stealth, combat, and crafting mix together like the example mentioned above, The Last of Us is a testament to sound game design, enemy AI, variety, and difficulty.
The Last of Us’ Multiplayer is difficult to praise or criticize. It face-lifts the meticulous gameplay from the singleplayer mode wholesale and puts the players in the role of one of the two factions of the game, the hopeful Fireflies and the more Darwinian Hunters. There are customizable load-outs and unlockable boosters you can obtain through continued play, and there is enough variety to be had to not make the whole thing feel tacked-on, even if the entire mode feels so anyway compared to the meat of the single-player story. It’s nothing amazing, nor is it completely awful, but it is a nice extra and should be treated as such.
This should come as no surprise to fans of Naughty Dog’s previous work but The Last of Us is visually amazing. Bright warm colours help otherwise standard environments pop. The art direction focuses on nature slowly retaking man-made structures. The lighting is crisp and just right. Water glistens and sparkles. Gold stars must be given specifically to the motion capture performances of both in-game models, and during cut-scenes. Facial animation can only be described as photo-realistic, save for some minor issues with the eyes in some spots, but the writing and performances complimenting such visual spectacle help it come together into a very engaging whole. There are some moments where the framerate drops, but they are few and far between.
The soundtrack of The Last of Us is a minimalistic, but nonetheless atmospheric, guitar performance which manages to be both as dour and bleak or as warm and uplifting as it needs to be to suit the mood of the moment. What was truly impressive was the voice acting. Troy Baker has been great in his many other roles in games but he absolutely morphs into the role of Joel, providing an American Southern drawl and a bitter world weary affect that was so impressive that I had to double-check the credits to be sure it was the same voice actor from the likes of Injustice or Persona 4. Ashley Johnson pulls her weight as well as the voice of Ellie, pulling off the deceptively difficult task of voicing a young woman in a world gone to ruins that can handle herself, while also being youthful and naïve.
The Last of Us is a great time investment. The single-player story can take about ten to thirteen hours to complete, depending on how you handle certain parts or are a thorough hunter of collectibles. It has a New Game Plus feature if you want to jump back into the action or just want to play the story again. But the real strength of value is the game’s scale. When the credits finally roll, it will feel like a great journey is over, complete with an unconventional ending that will leave people talking.
The Last of Us is the game equivalent of a famous comedian doing a string of jokes one has heard multiple times before. We know the beats, we know the set-up, we know (mostly) what is about to happen. Yet how the whole thing is delivered makes it feel fresh and new again. There are some breaks in immersion here and there, but the core of the game remains intact and solid. The Last of Us is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise overused setting, I just pray it won’t be the last.
AAG SCORE: 9.5/10
- Great Art Direction and Graphics
- Intense Survival Horror Gameplay
- Top Notch Writing and Characters
- Framerate Issues
- Immersion Breaking Set Pieces and Scripted Sequences
- Perfunctory Multiplayer