Review: The Last of Us paints a brutally honest picture of an apocalyptic world
The Last of Us is not a "feel good" game by any means. Rather, it's a brutally honest take on a humanity's survival in a post-apocalyptic world. While the use of zombies, or in this case zombie-like infected, is nothing really new -- zombies being one of the most milked ideas in video games, movies, and television -- The Last of Us is about more than just survival. It paints a grim picture of humanity 20-years after a horrific outbreak, while exploring human emotion and evolution during such a horrific time. I'm not talking physical evolution (aside from becoming an infected), but rather the mental transformation one must undergo to get into the mindset of "survival of the fittest." You won't be proud of your actions in the game, but you'll damn well have to do some pretty horrific things in order to survive.
Joel, a smuggler with a dark past, is tasked with escorting Ellie, a fourteen year old who only knows life inside the quarantine zone, across the United States to meet up with a group of survivors known as the Fireflies. The relationship between the two characters is some of the best I've seen in a video game. The back-and-forth dialogue between Joel and Ellie -- and any character you come across through your journey, for that matter -- is authentic and believable.
Naughty Dog wasn't joking when they said The Last of Us was heavily story driven. Seeing this father-daughter-like relationship develop between Joel and Ellie grow as you progress is as beautiful as it is terrifying. For fear of losing either one of them is always on your mind -- especially toward the latter half of the game. Throughout the 10 to 12 hour story, you become invested in this developing relationship between this bitter older man and this innocent young girl, and the transformations that take place as the story progresses. It's this type of investment that leads to a constant state of paranoia and fear of death.
While the narrative is easily one of The Last of Us' strongest elements, it also becomes one of its greatest obstacles. For the story is so enthralling that gameplay, at times, seems to get in the way. The Last of Us prides itself on offering a realistic take on an apocalypse. To its credit, it mostly does a good job of being a believable story. But as many games tend to do, especially as you build up towards the end, it loses focus on narrative as the main driving point and begins to rely on combat -- lots of combat. In turn, the narrative gets disrupted as you're forced to eliminate wave after wave of enemies (again, especially towards the end) before the story progresses.
The problem isn't necessarily the combat itself; The Last of Us' gameplay is actually some of the best I've played (I'll touch more on that later). Rather, it was the actual process of the combat sequences that took me out of the mood. I was so captivated by the characters and story, especially as the tension builds towards the end, that I found myself annoyed by the disruptions. And part of that is how the game handles death. Naughty Dog has attempted to build a believable world, where humans are reacting realistically to the apocalypse around them. You lose that sense of realism when you start to encountering unbelievable amounts of enemies and, particularly, when you die. It really took me out of the mood and by the time I found that by the time I got to the next cinematic to move on in the story, I wasn’t as into it. The combat effectively took me out of the mood.
Again, that’s not to say the combat or gameplay in The Last of Us is bad, because it’s not. In fact, it does a fantastic job of balancing that survival element with action gameplay. Thanks to the limited supplies at your disposal, each encounter is heightened – do you choose to engage in combat or do you prefer to sneak around? Unlike what you may be used to with Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, it’s sometimes better to avoid combat altogether than to run in guns blazing. A useful crafting system also makes scavenging for supplies a central focus throughout your exploration.
The decision to avoid combat is important for two reasons: one, ammunition is scarce (especially on the harder difficulties) and two, shooting or any type of noise is sure to attract Clickers. Clickers are the final stage of the infection and are absolutely terrifying. One wrong move around a Clicker will definitely result in your death. As you can imagine, some of the more intense gameplay moments in the game occur with infected.
Clickers are easily the most interesting enemy in the game because of how much they emphasize the stealth portion of the game. With the infection completely taking over their brain, these creatures are completely blind and are able to locate you only by sound. For this reason, sneaking up behind them and driving a shiv through their head is often the wiser choice, but is easier said than done. Oftentimes, Clickers are in the same room as those less infected who can not only see you, but will make noise that also draws the Clickers to you. Each encounter must be carefully planned before going ahead. Making use of glass bottles and bricks to create sound in a different area will aid you in your sneaking.
Planning and stealth are a pivotal aspect in gameplay. It’s often wiser to sneak around than to attract decision. With Clickers attracted to noise, sound in The Last of Us is a key feature. Listen Mode allows Joel to get more in tune with his senses, really focusing to locate the enemies around him. This allows you to plan your moves accordingly to the hostiles in the area.
Unfortunately, your AI companions are not always on the same page as you. Though they won’t be detected if they are spotted in the open – to avoid punishingly difficult gameplay – some of their decisions are questionable. The second you get into a scrum with an infected they start shooting up the place, resulting in even more enemies swarming the area. But for as absentminded as your companions may be at times, they do have their moments of usefulness.
As the story progresses and Ellie becomes more of this hardened survivor she becomes more useful in combat. Her transformation shows as she begins to help you when you’re in trouble. I’m not talking sitting back and tossing ammo your way, but literally getting in the middle of the danger and stabbing an enemy who may be distracted by you. Seeing her character grow – or evolve, rather – is even more rewarding when you see the effects in combat rather than in a cinematic.
For as much as I’ve talked about the deadliness of Clickers and infected, they surprisingly aren’t your only enemies. For the ones you must fear the most in The Last of Us are other survivors. As you see with Ellie as the story progresses, it is kill or be killed. Humans have adopted the mentality of survival of the fittest and seeing this play out through both narrative and gameplay is sickening, yet eye opening – simply for the fact that it is realistic. The Last of Us beautifully portrays human emotion and reaction to situations we’d be forced in during an apocalypse and doesn’t hold back on bringing them to light and addressing them through its story. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s a welcomed honesty that you don’t often see video games tackle.
In terms of gameplay, the human on human violence requires a completely different approach. While you can still rely on stealth to sneak around them, the actual fighting is more gun-based as they’ll often rely on a duck and cover system rather than just charging at you. During these sequences, The Last of Us is more reminiscent of Uncharted and loses its feel of a more stealth-based game. While this change in gameplay may be welcomed by some, I felt the gunplay to be repetitive and jarring.
The Last of Us paints an honest depiction of a brutal apocalyptic world. And the dynamic between Joel and Ellie further drive home the fact that when faced with death, humans will resort to desperate measure for survival. We adapt, or we die. We become the very things we are attempting to survive from, monsters. The Last of Us handles these often uncomfortable topics beautifully and while it’s one of the best story experiences I’ve seen in a game to date, I don’t think we’ve yet to fully figure out how to successfully blend storytelling with combat. Still, The Last of Us goes down as one of the best current-gen (or any gen) titles I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. As we usher in next-gen consoles and games, The Last of Us is a nice tease of what to expect for the future of gaming.