If you thought The Last of Us was just going to be just another zombie game, you could be forgiven for having it so wrong.
A mutant strain of the cordyceps fungus has spread to humans and the world is facing a devastating pandemic. Flesh hungry infected humans roam about spreading this infernal plague with their bites, turning others into creatures with deformed faces bursting with pustules. Sure, some of the specifics have changed, but it’s still a post-apocalyptic journey through a zombie outbreak. But its unparalleled execution and more resonant themes make you forget how entrenched in tropes and cliché it all is.
The Last of Us starts out 20 years before the world has fallen to ruin. The game spends its opening minutes focusing not on disease or misery, but on a tender exchange between a loving father, Joel, and his daughter. It isn’t long before the imagery becomes far more intense and brutal and we see the advent of the outbreak. This opening scene is important as it sets the mood. It tells us that we’re in for a game that will be about loss and misery as well as the evocative human interactions that gives those tragic moments their punch.
Following the events of the prologue the game cuts to a quarantine zone where marshal law is in effect. Joel, voiced by Troy Baker, is now an embittered smuggler. Before long he happens upon a job for a militia group known as the Fireflies to smuggle 14-year old Ellie (Ashley Johnson) out of the zone. Ellie is tough without being bitter, chipper without being naïve about her circumstances, and sassy while avoiding being a comic relief sidekick
It isn’t long before they exit the zone where Ellie was born and raised and the game unleashes all of its horrors and brutality on the intrepid duo. Right as they exit the zone they are stopped by guards. Ellie distracts them, giving Joel and his partner, Tess, an opening to kill them. Ellie reacts with shock and remarks that she thought they were just going to stick the guards up. For characters who aren’t well versed in just how harsh and ruthless the world has become, this shock never quite wears off. This reaction to the intense violence persists long after characters become a willing participant in the violence itself. It grounds the story.
Violence in The Last of Us is framed as a brutal necessity. It contextualizes the harsh world in which the game is set. It never feels excessive due to the game’s subdued survival oriented leanings. Ammunition and supplies are scarce. The game has you spending a large portion of your time scrounging for bullets, first aid kits, and crafting materials all of which are rare to come across. To further exacerbate the scarcity of supplies, many craftable items have overlapping material requirements. First aid kits, for instance, share the same components as molotv cocktails. Firefights are approached with reluctance. Methodical play will allow players to silently pick off threats one by one or avoid them all together.
Sooner or later, though, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty. One of the earliest combat encounters after exiting the zone sees Joel face down a group of patrolling infected runners and a clicker. Clickers are blind and emit a hideous noise that sounds like a combination of a click and a croak as a form of echolocation. And they kill you immediately as soon as they grab you. If you approach them silently and slowly you can get the drop on them and you can kill them if you’re willing to sacrifice one of your extremely hard-to-come-by shivs. This room must be cleared out and it’s meant to teach the player a hard lesson about the necessity of being methodical and emphasizes pragmatic stealth over wasteful gunfights.
Gunplay on a technical level is sound enough not to offend, but loose enough not sacrifice the cohesiveness of the world, and the use of the game’s weaponry is punchy enough to feel right. While aiming the reticle sways gently as if it were a boat on a nearly placid sea. It serves the purpose of further discouraging playing the game as a third person shooter while also highlighting that Joel might have some experience, but he’s far from the Terminator.
In a straight forward gun fight you have a decent selection of weapons to choose from including hand guns, a hunting rifle, and a bow and arrow. You will need to switch between all available weapons due to limited ammunition and each one requiring a different ammo type. Rounding out your stock of offensive options are makeshift bombs and molotovs.
Switching between guns of the same type is not immediate. You start the game with a holster for a rifle and a holster for a handgun. Extra guns are stored in Joel’s backpack and a series of inputs and a non-trivial amount of time is needed for Joel to kneel down and rifle through his bag. It took a while for this system to click for me, but I eventually came to admire the genius of forcing players to commit and leave themselves exposed if they run out of ammo and have to switch to a new gun. It should be noted that you can purchase an additional holster for both types of guns.
One of the few aspects of the game I found lacking was the way cover worked. You don’t snap to cover or fluidly position yourself behind it. You just shuffle about crouched trying not to leave a limb exposed. The problem is that the camera is clumsy when interacting with cover and doesn’t shift over the shoulder unless you enter aim mode and hit R2.
While engaging in stealth you can throw bricks or bottles to distract enemies briefly, giving you enough time to run up behind them and either use a shiv to kill them quickly and quietly, strangle them which takes far longer, or avoid them. Your stealth options don’t get much more robust from there, but the element of horror and desperation makes encounters tense and exciting. One particular example of how brilliant the game can feel despite limiting your options in stealth is a section where you’re dropped into a room filled with clickers. They shamble around tightly packed in this room emitting their signature click. They’re far too numerous to pick off due to the limited number of shivs you can hold. Shooting your way out of the room is out of the question. Your only option is to wander perilously close and slowly weave through them to escape. It’s horrific and I loved every muscle-tensing moment.
The fact that The Last of Us blends stealth and survival horror into what is essentially an escort quest concerned me greatly. I was afraid that the allied AI would be clumsy and that I would wind up hating Ellie for getting me spotted and killed repeatedly. The Last of Us works its way around this concern by having Ellie be more or less invisible to infected until Joel causes an alert, and her behavior around humans while Joel is sneaking is inconspcuous enough that I never had an issue getting spotted because of my companion.
In fact, not only is Ellie not a burden, she proves to be invaluable in many situations. Every now and then she’ll hand you an item you failed to notice, but more importantly she’ll do her best to assist you when things go south. If you are caught off guard and grabbed she sometimes will straddle the attacker allowing the player to break free.
One of The Last of Us’ many triumphs is its ability to seamlessly shift mood and gameplay style. It spends the majority of its time being subdued and evoking dread and tension, but when bombast is called for Naughty Dog knows how to answer without making action oriented sequences feel over the top and dissonant from the rest of the game. It is a masterful example of how to blend stealth and action elements into a traditional survival horror without making severe compromises.
Something that impressed me over and over again was meticulous attention to detail which further sold me on the believability of this brutal world. For instance when you strangle an enemy they lash wildly behind you trying to grab hold of your face and pry themselves free.
As with the gameplay, The Last of Us’ score is well endowed with details that are aural flourishes. Gustavo Santaolalla’s soundtrack bears the mark of a true master. Santaolalla can evoke more stirring imagery with a few chords from an acoustic guitar than most games accomplish with an entire orchestra at their disposal.
The look of the game is similarly wonderful. One of the game’s core conflicts is man vs. nature and that’s well represented by the artistic direction. The game depicts ruined urban sprawl being reclaimed by nature. Despite how bleak the game is it doesn’t feel the need to hide its beauty in washed out muted colors. The game is furnished with lush environments, painstakingly detailed cityscapes and buildings that remain a feast for the eyes in spite of their dilapidation. The production value is marvelous and especially impressive for a console going into its 7th year.
The Last of Us perfectly demonstrates a big budget game can also contain a focused and cohesive vision. Everything coalesces. The gameplay, the artistic direction, the soundtrack – each individual component is great, but together they provide the foundation to service the gripping journey of Joel and Ellie.
There was a section where I heard a strained, wet, breathy sound and the hair on my neck bristled. I almost afraid to turn around in fear that a runner would be right behind me. It turned out to be Ellie who was trying to learn to whistle. This was after escaping something horrible happening. Relief washed over me and I smiled. In a world so bleak and brutal these moments don’t feel out of place. They make the world more believable. If the world went to hell, wouldn’t you savor every light moment that let you escape gravity of your situation? Hardship is juxtaposed with astonishing beauty, and it makes both elements all the more poignant. Heartfelt moments between Joel and Ellie endeared me to the them, and when something bad happened the knife cut that much deeper.
Joel and Ellie develop in such different ways and cover each others’ weaknesses so well, and they both spend the game affecting one another. Ellie acts as a surrogate daughter and helps Joel regain some of his humanity, while prolonged exposure to Joel and the world of violence he drags her across has a noticeable impact on her.
There is a moment later in the game that perfectly characterizes this growth. It’s Winter and Joel has been injured. The camera zooms in on a rabbit before showing an arrow piercing it. Ellie is out hunting while taking care of Joel. She has spent the game up until this point being helpful but still reliant on Joel’s protection, but now she is perfectly self reliant. This section has you hunting a deer using the same stealth mechanics Joel has to employ – the same careful monitoring of the environment and slow approaches to minimize noise. After killing the deer she encounters someone new. She’s more pragmatic and capable now, but her and Joel’s encounters with other humans who are vicious and calculating have also made her more cynical. She reacts not with her signature upbeat demeanor, but with distrust and hostility.
I’m going to walk on eggshells in regards to the ending, but it’s too remarkable not to comment on. It does what games often struggle to do and provides perfect closure to an already razor sharp script, and it did so in a way I wasn’t expecting.
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson do an exceptional job of breathing life into their characters. Their performances are vivid and will be earning them accolades for a very long time. Ashley Johnson in particular hits it out of the park with an award worthy performance that will immortalize Ellie as one of the best characters ever portrayed in a game. Even among the supporting cast there isn’t a bad apple in the bunch. The performances featured in The Last of Us are nothing short of bar setting. Every discussion and every argument are made all the more gripping by virtue of the expressive facial capture and superb delivery. It really cannot be overstated just how wonderful the acting in this game is.
The Last of Us is beyond first-rate and cohesive in every way. Even its multiplayer feels like an extension of the single player, albeit less emotionally enticing. From start to finish the game is an enthralling expertly paced journey full of vibrant writing and well executed gameplay that works hand in hand rather than adversarially. It tells a complete story full of characters that I came to love and moments that I will not soon forget. Faults are difficult to find and they all feel trifling in comparison to what I got out of Naughty Dog’s latest and greatest.