By Andrew Dodson on July 18, 2013 at 8:20pm
Let me set the scene:
The road is dark, lit only by a set of headlights from an old SUV speeding perhaps a little too quickly down the road. The lights illuminate a family of three walking down the side of the road. The driver slows down and says, "Lets see what they need."
"What do you think you're doing? Keep driving."
"They have a kid, Joel!"
"So do we. Keep driving."
The driver hesitates an instant, then accelerates, leaving the pleading man and his family to be consumed by the darkness behind the car. The girl in the backseat watches them until they're lost to the night. Her voice is barely audible. "We should've helped them."
"The Last of Us" is the latest from the American developer Naughty Dog' best known recently for the "Uncharted" series. As of the writing of his article, "The Last of Us" has sold 3.4 million copies since its release on June 14 - just shy of a million copies a week. It is fair to say that Naughty Dog has delivered a hit.
It's hard to get excited about another "zombie" game and on the surface, "The Last of Us" treads that very familiar ground. It's a 3rd person survival horror game set in a post apocalyptic world. What "Naughty Dog" delivered with that package is something that maintains all the dark grittiness that you'd expect from an end-of-the-world game but also something that is unapologetically human.
The story largely revolves around Joel (voiced & mo-capped by Troy Baker), a survivor both before and after the mysterious cordycep infection wipes out humanity. He isn't a soldier, he's not trained in any kind of real survival skill, and he isn't really that great of a guy. It becomes increasingly obvious as the game progresses that Joel has done some pretty terrible things in the past. When the player arrives in the actual story of the game, it is safe to say that killing comes easy to Joel. But that is just the kind of person that the post-outbreak world of "Last of Us" creates. The game is sure that you know, especially by the end, that Joel is not a hero (at least not in the traditional sense); he is just a survivor.
Ellie (voiced & mo-capped by Ashley Johnson) is the reason for "Last of Us." She is a 14 years old, and the modern world had ended long before she was even born. Quarantine zones, military police states, and the infected are all normal to her; anything she knows about a pre-cordycep life is from secondhand accounts. She is a sarcastic, feisty teenager and knows more about what's going on then the adult characters typically give her credit for. From the very beginning, it is very hard to not like her.
Initially, Ellie is just cargo for Joel to take from point A to point B. But as the two travel the ravaged remains of the United States, their relationship becomes less smuggler-cargo and more father-daughter. It is this gradual shift that makes "Last of Us" such an incredible experience. The phenomenal writing and incredible voice acting combine seamlessly with the brutal world of the game to create some of the most human characters that I've ever met in a video game. The game forces you to feel real emotion for the characters.
There were times when I was playing, and something happens to separate Joel from Ellie, and I found myself rushing through sections of the game to get back to her - forgoing stealth and passing up potential loot. I did not want to leave her alone in "The Last of Us" world any longer than I absolutely had to. I got that involved with the game over what is (mostly) an NPC. That has never happened to me before in a game.
The game itself takes place over a year with each season marking a new chapter of the game. While each season has incredible moments and are all important to the story and development of the characters, I want to take a brief moment to talk about Winter.
I don't think I've ever played a game with a part as intense and as emotionally draining as Winter in "Last of Us." It's the only part of the game where the player controls Ellie as well as Joel as they struggle with severe injury, hunters, forced separation, and Winter itself. Both characters brilliantly rise to the challenges that are set before them, but you are also forced to see them at their very worst: Ellie dealing with a very real threat that will make you cringe and Joel doing absolutely anything he has to to get back to Ellie. The chapter is dark, frightening, and fits so perfectly in the world that Naughty Dog crafted for us. The Winter chapter kept me on the edge of my seat and is probably the most unforgettable section of any game that I've ever played.
The Bad Guys
It's hard to say whether we're getting tired of all the zombies in popular culture today or if we're still okay riding that wave, but in "The Last of Us," the concept of the zombie is given a very unique spin. The cause of the outbreak is not a virus or a weapon or an act of God. It's just some spores that made the evolutionary leap from affecting bugs to affecting humans. Cordyceps, a type of fungus that actually exists, gets into a host's brain, and through the release of chemicals, gains some semblance of control over the host. In real life, it simply makes ants climb to the top of grass which is ideal for its life cycle. In "Last of Us," it causes people to go crazy and become super aggressive with each bite or scratch they land on a victim spreading the infection. A dead infected will continue to grow fungus over their body until they eventually burst, releasing tons of spores which make the very air something that can infect. Joel and Ellie encounter many different kinds of Infected in the game, all with different strategies for how best to overcome them. I found a simple strategy that was effective in every encounter with the Infected, and that was to simply kill them with fire.
The other main enemy that Joel and Ellie encounter are "hunters." Hunters are human survivors that live outside the safety of quarantine zones, and they are typically found in big groups doing whatever they need to to survive, which often means preying on those weaker than them. They utilize traps, cover, sniper rifles, Molotov cocktails, and all manner of group tactics when they are trying to take down their target, and very rarely do you ever see the AI of the game trying the same strategy twice. The interesting thing about hunters, however, is that you realize very quickly that for all the immoral things that they do, they are just trying to survive like everyone else. When civilization collapses and the state of nature rears its ugly head, are these bandits really doing something all that wrong? Especially when you consider that the supplies that they're getting are going back to feed, clothe, and help their own friends and family. Or when you consider that perhaps they're hunting you, because you killed their friends and family through Joel. As satisfying as it is to break a pipe over a hunter's head, the game won't hesitate to make you feel bad about it if you give it half a second.
The multiplayer mode for "Last of Us" is called "factions," and it attempts something fairly interesting. When you start the mode for the first time, you choose whether you want to be a hunter (a bandit) or a firefly (a rebel), and then the game creates a small clan for the player. As you play the team-based deathmatches that make up the meat of the multiplayer mode, you collect supplies - either through killing enemies or actually finding supply boxes in the level. These supplies make it back to your clan as points and if you did well, your clan expands, unlocking new weapons, custom items, or skills for your character. If you do poorly, the people in your clan can get sick or die, making it harder to advance.
To keep the multiplayer fresh, every couple of matches, the game will throw a challenge at you - raiders attacking, a disease outbreak, or something like that. The player chooses how they want to complete the challenge from a list - most of the options having to do with killing enemies in a particular way. The player has three matches to overcome the challenge and reap a big benefit for your clan ... or stop something horrible from being as horrible. If your clan gets wiped out, then the game returns you to a starting clan, and you have to build your way back up again.
Another interesting thing with the factions mode is that it can draw names from your Facebook friends list and randomly fills your clan with friends. It doesn't affect the game at all, but it is cool to see an update from your clan saying that one of your friends is skinning a raccoon or building a fence. It adds some good flavor to the multiplayer game and can make it a bit personal if you're trying to keep your best friends alive.
It would be too easy to review"'Last of Us" and not mention the game's flaws. One of the biggest issues that I had with the gameplay was how the AI reacted to various things - mostly other AIs. If the player as Joel steps a bit out of cover or knocks over a bottle during a stealth section, all manner of hostilities would descend upon him. If Ellie, mostly played as an AI, sprints across the room, bumps into an enemy, and then gets behind cover, the enemy AI will not react at all. I appreciate that the game doesn't punish the player for AI silliness like this, especially since "Last of Us" is essentially a huge escort mission, but there was more than one occasion where the intense atmosphere of a scene was shattered by Ellie tap dancing in front of a clicker (an infected that hunts with its hearing) and suffering no aggression at all.
Another issue had to do with some of the gameplay itself. While the game manages to keep combat and stealth sections fresh and intense, it is outside of these moments that the game loses some of its momentum. The game's attempt at "puzzles" seem lame and repetitive compared to what the rest of the game offers. Ellie can't swim, so it's up to Joel to find ways for her to get across bodies of water - which mostly means he finds a piece of wood to float her across on. Or there are plenty of instances where you find a ladder, and you have to find the right place to put it in order to advance. Nothing complicated but nothing exciting either. You just had to do it.
With "Last of Us," the developers at Naughty Dog have taken the tired post-apocalyptic survival genre and turned it into an experience that feels fresh and new. Through the eyes of Ellie and Joel, we are able to explore a world that is horrifying, intense, dark, and oftentimes, overly brutal. The fact that there are any survivors at all seems absurd in some sections of the game. It seems even more impossible that someone can live in this world and still have an optimistic outlook on life, someone like Ellie. But that is what separates the world of "Last of Us" from any post-apocalypse game. The game makes itself painful for anyone with the slightest bit of empathy. As the game progresses, you'll find yourself lost in the dark of a half-collapsed building, reading a suicide note of a long-dead family, or being surrounded by so much unnecessary death; what Naughty Dog managed to accomplish was to punctuate all the blackness it throws at you with moments of light. Joel and Ellie will have time to appreciate a sunrise over a city being reclaimed by nature, Joel will have to explain exactly what an ice cream truck is and when the coast is clear after particularly tense moments. Ellie will break the silence by reading from an old, corny joke book she has.
It's those moments that end up sticking with you while playing "The Last of Us." The world in "The Last of Us" is a fantastic representation of what life at the end of civilization may look like - nasty, brutish, and short. Those little moments of light, however, keep popping up almost in spite of the Infected and the hunters, and even when things are at their worst for Joel and Ellie, there is always a little bit of hope and humanity left to bring them back up. Naughty Dog created a masterpiece with "The Last Of Us," which should earn a rank as one of the best games of 2013 and definitely raises the bar for any game that comes after it.