The last time a game’s ending kept people talking for weeks after the game was released was because fans were virtually rioting. Players petitioned the FCC to punish Bioware because of Mass Effect 3’s ending and the way it was handled (no spoilers in this review). Now, almost a month after The Last of Us hit store shelves, people are still stunned by the game’s ending…well, more than just the ending. The Last of Us offers gorgeous cinematics, action-packed combat, gut-wrenching horror, and one of the strongest storylines to grace gaming to date.
20 years in the future the humanity is all but consumed by a vicious viral outbreak. Those infected become shells of their former selves, hosts to a fungal parasite that takes over their actions. Society is in shambles, and the US government funnels the uninfected into quarantine zones where it reigns with martial law. A renegade group of rebels called the Fireflies fight against the government for freedom. Joel doesn’t care about any of that, though. He’s a smuggler with a simple goal: get the package to its destination and stay alive. As he travels with 14-year old Ellie they encounter hordes of infected, as well as military troops and roadside bandits, all of which tend to shoot first and ask questions later. Welcome to the world of The Last of Us.
Writing this review without spoilers is ridiculously difficult because the highlight of the game is its storyline and plot development. The Last of Us might look like just a “gritty Uncharted” at first glance, but it’s much more than that. Don’t expect a bunch of witty dialog or crazy, 80s-style action scenes; Joel and Ellie are up to their necks in the dark, bitter world of a civilization near destruction, and more often than not they’re too busy trying to survive to make witty retorts or banter. That’s for the best; The Last of Us delivers with spectacular writing and some of the best voice-acting gaming has ever offered, period. Combined with stellar cutscenes, watching someone play through this game is like watching a movie, but not just in a good way: it’s in a great way.
Cinematic finesse finds its way into every aspect of The Last of Us. From the lavish backdrops and textures of the cities you travel in (and seasons you travel through) to the ways the camera shifts and rocks during combat to raise the tension of the scene, nearly everything about the game feels polished and purposeful. Playing the game with either high-quality speakers or a good headset is a must, as the sounds of birds in the trees and water rushing through narrow creek beds is beautiful and just as immersive as the murmurs of Infected creeping through dank, decimated buildings. Most enjoyable of all is watching the relationship between Ellie and Joel progress throughout the game, to see the pain and history they struggle through to survive, and the ways they grow and change as time progresses.
For all the movie-like glory it offers, The Last of Us is a game for good reason: it takes survival horror in an action-packed direction that’s as fun as it is terrifying. Combat feels like a hybrid of the jarring, nightmarish visuals of Resident Evil bred with Uncharted. Joel and Ellie switch between twitch-reaction shootouts and slow, methodical stealth at a moment’s notice, and when that happens is almost completely up to you. Most conflicts in The Last of Us can be resolved through stealth, gunplay, or a combination of the two, but often times the deciding factor will simply come down to ammo.
The world has fallen apart for EVERYONE, and many times enemies will come at you with nothing more than metal pipes or their fists because they don’t have any other options either. Even so, Joel will still gain access to short guns like pistols and revolvers as well as longer rifles and a bow-and-arrow that’s great for silently killing unaware enemies. But there will be plenty of times where hand-to-hand combat is necessary, and even with a simple, one-button combat mechanic the fighting feels fluid, dynamic, and intense. Contextual kills are all over the place, so expect that if there’s a window or desk nearby while you’re punching out a bandit, his head will go into it or through it rather soon. As for the Infected though, their variety and power will generally make you stop to think out a plan of attack.
I’ve avoided saying the word “zombie” during the course of this review because the Infected don’t feel like run-of-the-mill zombies. The parasite responsible for possession in The Last of Us is based on a real-life parasitic species of fungi called “cordyceps” which burrow into ants’ brains and control their nervous systems and actions. In the game, as the fungus takes hold of people they slowly progress from being crazed, bloodthirsty humans to “clickers:” crazed monsters that use echolocation to find and kill their prey. Clickers evolve into bloaters over time, super-strong beasts with thick fungal growth plates for armor. Contact with either of these Infected results in instant death, and trust me, the death is neither quick nor painless. Thankfully, there are plenty of offensive/defensive tools to craft and wield ranging from molotov cocktails to nailbombs, the game’s makeshift frag grenade. Many items require the same crafting resources though (like molotovs and health packs), so you’ll have to choose wisely to survive.
With as much as The Last of Us offers to gamers, perhaps its chief issue is that it sets its own bar too high, then fails to deliver on some unspoken expectations. In one location I crept around enemies trying to avoid combat, then unknowingly walked into a plastic crate. It rolled along the floor, making banging noises on the stone…and nobody came or commented. Another time I snuck through subway tunnels with hordes of clickers lurking the halls, and Ellie came up behind me and started practicing whistling. Really.
These are minor problems, but as deeply immersed as I felt in the world of The Last of Us, little moments like these broke the spell and made the game feel inconsistent. Similarly, though guns do serious damage in the game, too often I’d simply bumrush opponents because I knew I could punch them out, then heal my wounds with a medkit and save my ammo for stronger Infected. For those of you up to the challenge, play your first playthrough on Hard: as one GotGame reader put it, “It’s the difficulty I should have been playing the game on all along.” The more you feel the drive to survive, the fear that comes with being put against the odds, the more this game delivers (particularly when you fail).
The famous philosopher Aristotle said, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” I’m pretty sure that he never got his hands on The Last of Us, but I’m also pretty sure that if he did, he’d agree that this game is great because it becomes more than each of its already-great parts. The story, the visuals, the combat, the landscapes, the voice acting, the soundtrack…they’re all great in their own right, but the combination of all of these facts creates a stunning game that’s going to give Bioshock Infinite a run for its money in the Game of the Year department. But more than the possible awards, The Last of Us is a game that tests our personal mettle and our hearts, one that makes us ask ourselves what we would do in a world gone horribly wrong, and maybe in today’s world that question is more important than ever.
Final Score: 5 out of 5