Zombies! Again?! Jeez, aren’t they over flogging this undead, post-apocalyptic, trope laden horse yet? And now Naughty Dog’s jumping in for their piece of the pie! "Pfft, I’ll give The Last of Us a miss, methinks."
This would arguably be the worst decision anybody could ever make, and Atari okayed the Jaguar AND Jaguar CD! It’s with this comparison that I must implore you to play The Last of Us.
The world of The Last of Us is an unapologetically bleak, brutal and confronting place. 20 years have passed since a mysterious fungal outbreak has caused society, as we know it, to collapse quicker than an Ikea coffee table. This has caused what’s left of humanity to splinter, either fending for themselves in the danger-ridden wilderness or taking up refuge in the tyrannical, military-run quarantine zones.
This wonderfully nurturing environment of military oppression, abject fear and limited resources has caused smuggling to be one of the only viable ways of life, a skill known all too well by Joel. After having his hand forced into smuggling a young girl, Ellie, out of the quarantine zone, the two them embark on a quest across the savage remnants of what was America, in hopes of delivering her to a group of freedom fighters, who are desperately researching a cure.
Now this may sound like a par for the course, zombie story cliché, I know. What really defines this adventure and sets it apart from its contemporaries, however, is the focus on evolving realistic relationships that develop over time and the emotional quality of the story's convictions.
Joel is a product of when a man loses everything (which you play in the opening moments and is genuinely one of the most soul-destroying moments I’ve experienced in gaming, like Iron Giant soul destroying) and is forced to survive in this hostile new world. Often stoic and closed off, Joel rarely revels in small victories, often commenting that their luck will eventually run out. In what sounds like a script for an after school special, he slowly starts to lower his guard and let Ellie in, except it’s handled naturally, over a realistic period of time and never seems ham-fisted.
Ellie is the perfect antithesis to Joel, often outspoken, talkative and upbeat. Quick to become aggressive and boisterous when threatened or during combat (her language bordering on Martin Scorsese level expletives), Ellie encapsulates a young girl lost in a bigger world. She really shines during the quieter, more sombre moments of the game though, when she exudes childlike naivety and genuine honesty, often asking Joel about how life was before the outbreak and breaking the tension of disheartening situations with light-hearted jokes.
Both characters feel and behave like fully realised individuals, each with their own flaws and differences. Thanks to the amazingly natural voice acting supplied by Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) and phenomenal facial animation, the characters are able to convey such subtle emotions and gestures, that you can’t help but become fully invested in their individual struggles and small victories.
The narrative and dialogue stays sharp throughout and never betrays the overpowering feeling of bleakness and desperation, which is also compounded by the litany of varying environments the duo is tasked with navigating. Whether it's claustrophobic tunnels or entire abandoned suburbs, strewn with once precious keepsakes, each environment is filled with detail and begs to be explored and marvelled at. The Last of Us excels at creating this unsettling scenery by taking the familiar and making it alien and devoid of humanity (much like Joan Rivers).
The sound design perfectly accentuates our survivor’s isolation, featuring a minimalistic and hauntingly beautiful score by Gustavo Santaolalla, but is mainly comprised of the ambient sounds of nature and the groaning decay of the surrounding man-made structures, creating eerie atmosphere where human voices, let alone gunshots, carry an imposing weight.
But when it comes down to it, it’s the gameplay that that makes a game right? Well, The Last of Us sure as hell delivers on that front. It’s a survival horror at its core and damn fine one at that. Resources for crafting vital items like health kits and good ol’ reliable prison shivs are few and far between and often require the same components, forcing you to decide whether a med-kit or Molotov will be your new best friend. Likewise bullets are sparse and firing them is a last resort carrying a real weight and sense of desperation, often alerting nearby enemies and all but ensuring your timely and often brutal demise.
This is where the game throws another, more viable option, your way, stealth. Tactfully utilising the environment to remain hidden or to distract your enemies can result in completely avoiding conflict all together. This results in some of the most tense and terrifying hide and seek I have ever experienced to date in a game.
Sometimes though, in a moment of cold calculation (or panicked screaming if you’re me) the best course of action is to silently take down an enemy blocking your path. This comes with an emotional price though. Often the game will humanise your ‘enemy’ as they walk around talking amongst themselves, bringing up their families or friends. Once you commit to the kill, the game forces you to watch them panic and struggle as the life disappears from their eyes as you choke them or slit their throats. The idea of black and white morality turns all shades of grey, and the concept of ‘bad guys’ is an interesting one that many other games never address. It's made especially poignant in a game where everyone is just trying to survive.
I would like nothing more than to say that The Last of Us is a perfect game; however that would be amiss of me. The game takes its time and does an amazing job of immersing you in its realistic world, only to pull you back out again with occasional unrealistic mechanics and set pieces. Something I experienced far too often was Ellie sporadically standing up from behind cover or bumping into enemies whilst I was hidden and eliciting no reaction from my opponents at all. Or in one set piece, you magically gain an infinite amount of bullets for your revolver until everything’s been filled with enough lead to sink a sailboat. It’s moments like these where the game is at odds with its own universe's laws and it’s unfortunately jarring. That being said, these are nitpicks in an otherwise near-perfect game.
In an industry where solid narrative and human emotion plays second fiddle (hell, sixteenth fiddle), to explosions and soldiers with more perks than CEO’s of banks, The Last of Us is a shining beacon of what can really be achieved. Artistically beautiful, engaging, tense and honest, The Last of Us is a fantastic journey nobody should miss and easily top contender for game of the year... screw it, game of the decade.
Forged haphazardly from discount parts and blinded by the old world ideals of Sega fanboy-ism. Jonny Robot is half man, half machine and runs on the unstable fuel source of lukewarm coffee. He also owns an Atari Jaguar but can't justify why.... a burden he bears to this day.