Make me feel something; I dare you. This is the demand that we put on art. Wait, don’t let those first sentences stop you, I promise not to hammer on about videogames as an art form since it has been beaten to death already by those better equipped than I. As I get older and the gaming community has gone the way of the web, though, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep from being too cynical. As a game reviewer, though, it is important not to go the other way and blind oneself in the drug that is nostalgia. I stayed away from this game at first, sticking my nose up at the praise it was getting and, I don’t even know why I get that way (perhaps a case of hipster is setting in). If you can tell by what I’ve said thus far, this game deserves the attention and praise it has received. Here is my take on The Last of Us.
There are so many examples of game developers doing what works and running with it to the point that it becomes tired. I was starting to feel this way with the Uncharted series. Eventually, running around as a fast-talking wise-ass who shoots anyone in his path to the holy grail, climbing on things, and narrowly escaping from the umpteenth impossible situation wore thin for me halfway through the third entry. In a move toward freshness, Naughty Dog decided to do their take on the zombie infested, post-apocalyptic scenario. It is a trope overplayed of late, but The Last of Us is anything but tired.
I won’t spoil the plot, even though the limitations on spoilers for a game half-a-year old seem spoiled themselves. You are Joel, a man who has lost most of his life, as everyone has, to a world-wide infestation of zombie-like creatures which began twenty years before. As a man-for-hire, you unwillingly take a job transporting a teenager, Ellie, to the other side of the country. Joel is fresh because he is anything but the John Everymans of so many games and Ellie, though inexperienced in combat, is not the escort-quest baggage that needs constant attention. There are main sections of the game, deftly set by the seasons, and the relationship between Joel and Ellie has plenty of room to develop as the year progresses in cutscene and through gameplay dialogue alike. Rich is a good word for the story that develops and I have to say that what I like most of it is how big it is despite being small. To clarify, the apocalypse is the setting not the story. These two people are the story and, eventually, all the player will care about. The ending is supposedly controversial and, as promised, no spoilers, but I’d like to mention that though I was surprised, the ending is a brave, interesting, and original—far better than the formulaic or at least more expected alternative.
It was hard for me to decide whether this game is a straight third-person shooter or the next iteration of the survival horror game. The main zombies of the game are runners, with the interesting injection of “the clickers” who, blind from their zombification, use any small sound to pinpoint their human prey. Rather than Romero-flavored, these zombies are controlled by a fungus. The more prevalent enemy of the game is the human. All these enemies can be felled by Joel’s ever-increasing arsenal, but there are rarely ever enough bullets to do the job. Instead, he must often employ stealth. Except on rare occasion, this choice is that of player preference, a welcome option too rarely given in most titles. Stealth punishes the careless and rewards the patient. Taking a hostage, throwing an old bottle as a distraction, silent takedowns are all on-the-table and in many cases, avoiding conflict altogether is a difficult but possible outcome. Being overly aggressive can be advantageous too, but how organized the A.I. can be in these situations surprised me, as more than one enemy can quickly close in. What surprised me the most was how desperate I could feel in the game. Bullets are scarce enough to be wasted and the alternative methods of combat like melee needed to be reserved as a last resort or as a finishing touch for the few remaining enemies.
Scavenging is so wonderfully rewarding. As you move through tattered America, opening drawers and searching down a seemingly pointless hallway will uncover parts for upgrading weapons, food for health, bullets for you-know-what, pills for human enhancements, and average household goods which Joel can transform into shivs, Molotov cocktails, and nail grenades. Pieces of information in diaries, audio logs, and memos do even more to enhance the narrative. There is an additional multiplayer mode which I didn’t experience, but it sounds like superfluous icing on what is already the perfect cake.
What is most notable about this game, aside from the fantastic writing, cast, and gameplay, is the atmosphere of it. At every turn, you are moved by the game—it is fierce, fast, and violent punctuated by moments of slow, painful silence as you sneak by a clicker or an armed soldier, then coupled with moments of miniscule happiness or, at the very least, well-earned reprieves. The zombies are frightening in that they are a wall of hungry flesh and the humans are a more intelligent, ignorant, and unyielding force. I couldn’t decide which deserved my scissor-cobbled shiv more. The violence shocks and adds to the claustrophobia caused by the enemies, human and not. To add to that, the graphics do all that the PS3 is able. The apocalypse has never been more beautifully realized.
The Last of Us is a game that moves. It boldly challenges the notions of heroism in a world that has none and asks us to sympathize with characters closer to real people than is often comfortable. It is a masterpiece that marked the end of a generation.
Vinny Orsillo | @VinnyOhGames