Regardless of the medium, whether you are discussing film, television, literature, or video games, eliciting a genuine emotional response from a story is difficult. As a genre, horror has the benefit of begin able to generate fear, an emotional response from deep within our reptile brain, and can often manipulate our expectations and our responses… but sadly, story is usually not the genre’s forte. The Last of Us, the latest game from Sony’s Naughty Dog, which brought us the Uncharted series and Crash Bandicoot, manages to marry both horror and an incredible story to an amazing degree that had me gripped from the moment the game began to the strange and complicated end.
In development for over two years, The Last of Us has had gaming fans giddy with anticipation, myself very much included. Nominally, this is a zombie game… although, much like 28 Days Later (one of the many influences for The Last of Us), the “zombies” are not undead, they are infected with a mutated cordyceps fungus that wraps itself around the hosts brain and causes them to rage and attack anyone who comes near. Those that have been infected longer become what is known as “clickers”, people so far gone that they are blind and physically mutated beyond recognition, but will attack upon the first sound they hear… and one bite is all it takes to kill.
So yes… there are zombie-like creatures to battle and kill throughout the game… but this is not what defines The Last of Us. If anything were to define this game, it would be relationships… specifically, the relationship between Joel, a hardened forty-something year old survivor who must reluctantly travel cross-country with the fourteen year old Ellie, a young woman who may hold the cure for humanity. This is the relationship at the game’s core, but is hardly the only one that matters. In fact, many of the more emotional relationships that occur over the course of the year the game takes place in, or the twenty-plus hours I spent playing the game, are spread throughout, or simply understood through a deft script, amazing graphics, and a willingness to have some faith in the player’s ability to connect the dots and not have everything laboriously explained to them as so many other titles feel they must.
Honestly, I could go on and on about the emotional impact The Last of Us left me with… whether it was having fevered nightmares of stalking clickers after playing for a couple of days (I did have a fever, so that didn’t help), or outright tears flowing following a number of events, or finding myself yelling at my television in either fear or joy… the impact was great, and by the end I felt emotionally spent and rattled. But the game also offers some great action and some of the smoother mechanics that I’ve yet seen, plus, the visuals are stunning throughout with very few apparent glitches. In fact, this felt to me to be the most well developed and beautiful game I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.
Visually, the world that Joel and Ellie are making their way through is both horribly depressing and breathtakingly gorgeous. To see cities such as Boston, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake City devoid of the civilization we know and overgrown with twenty years of nature is spectacular. Not once did I ever feel as though I had seen the same thing twice. Every room you enter has a distinct feel and a sensation of something having gone terribly wrong… there is dread and a sense of desperation and sadness around every corner, yet, unlike other post-apocalyptic settings, there is still joy to be found… and in one instance, such unbound joy that I was brought to tears (again).
The gameplay itself has you controlling Joel from a third person perspective. You spend much of the game scavenging for various weapons, ammo, parts, and supplies that you can craft into useful objects such as shivs, medical kits, and bombs. This serves two functions; giving you the choice of supplies to keep on hand, and those choices can have dire consequences (you must use the same two supplies to make either a med kit or a Molotov cocktail), and allowing you the opportunity to investigate and explore the rich and varied world around you. What makes this so special though is that every time you craft an object or go into you bag to switch weapons or get something out, it happens in real time… there is no pausing in this game… other than the actual pause. This simple little tweak makes for some seriously stressful situations once you have some baddies bearing down on you. Are you carrying a gun that’s not currently loaded? Better take a moment to check… because when an infected runner comes for you, you won’t have time to load it up… better hope you have a melee weapon handy.
Along with crafting objects, you will also pick up supplements along the way that allow you to upgrade Joel himself. You will find tools and parts that allow you to upgrade your weapons as well… but be aware, you can’t upgrade everything with one single play-through. I haven’t delved into the multiplayer yet, but I understand it lets you pick a faction; government, hunters, or Fireflies (the group you are trying to get Ellie to), and here you can get more upgrades for your single player campaign.
If I were to go on any further with plot or specific events it would take away too much from the experience. Although I plowed through the game thanks to being sick at home for a couple of days, I would say that The Last of Us is best allowed to wash over you… to take in as much as you can and to explore each and every nook and cranny. If you like earning trophies, good luck. The game is very stingy with handing out awards… I completed the game, and thought I was being thorough, only to discover I had earned a total of three trophies amounting to 5% of the total. These are awarded through completion of various searches and upgrades… and I believe this is meant to encourage both multiplayer and multiple play-throughs. With that in mind, search everything, and be mindful of what you have on hand at all times… you never know when you will need something.
The Last of Us may very well be the swan song of the current gaming generation for the Playstation 3… and what a way to go out. Until I see something that can match it’s power and remarkable storytelling, I may have to go on record as saying that this may be the greatest video game experience I have had the pleasure of experiencing. I could not recommend something more highly… and I’ve never been so eager to jump into a pandemic afflicted world.
The horror… the horror,
Cornelius J. Blahg