By Marty Mulrooney
The Last of Us is a survival horror action-adventure video game developed by Naughty Dog, creators of the critically acclaimed Uncharted series. Published by Sony Computer Entertainment exclusively for the PlayStation 3, the game puts players in control of Joel, a hardened survivor who is travelling across a post-apocalyptic, monster-infested United States in the year 2033 to deliver a 14-year-old girl to a mysterious resistance group known as the ‘Fireflies’. The Last of Us was released worldwide on the 14th June 2013.
The Last of Us begins with one of the most tense, hard-hitting and shocking openings of all time. It’s a sequence of nightmarish events that will reverberate throughout the entire game (and gamer’s minds) and shouldn’t be spoiled here or anywhere else. 20 years later, Joel is slightly more grey-haired and a lot more world-weary. He was always a man of few words, and now those few he does choose to utter are laced with threat. He’s a violent smuggler who trades in guns and drugs, working with his partner Tess. Theirs isn’t a relationship of romance or even friendship – they’re partners in crime, working together but at the same time remaining very much apart. It’s a new world (brave has nothing to do with it), with every man, woman and child out for themselves.
The player’s introduction to Joel sees him travelling within the bleak Boston quarantine zone where he now lives to hunt down a local gangster named Robert, who has sold off a large cache of their weapons. After dealing out brutal – and lethal – justice, Joel and Tess are pointed toward the resistance group known as the Fireflies. Their injured leader Marlene offers them a proposal: she’ll double their stolen cache of guns if they will smuggle something out of the city to the other members of her group. The something in question? A 14-year-old girl named Ellie.
Joel isn’t interested in getting to know Ellie, or making small talk. She’s cargo and an inconvenience – her worth is only as a means to an end, nothing more. In this world, having somebody to look after is only good for one thing. Gettin’ ya killed. Venturing out into the apocalyptic night under cover of darkness and pouring rain, the situation heats up fast. After nearly being killed Ellie comes clean, admitting that she is infected. But she swears that her bite is over three weeks old, which is impossible: after being bitten, everyone turns within two days. Not knowing what to believe, Joel and Tess push forward to deliver the girl as fast as possible and then get the hell out of Dodge.
Taking place across the sprawling landscape of a crumbling America reclaimed by nature, as well as the advancing seasons of the year, Joel and Ellie must face military soldiers, bandits and Infected. They must use any means necessary to survive. Environments range from abandoned skyscrapers and flooded subway tunnels to snowy woodlands and even a hydroelectric dam, houses left empty long ago by families that never stood a chance. The infection that changed the world is caused by a fungus that attacks the brain – spores in the air force Joel to wear a gas mask at certain points (Ellie doesn’t need to) and the Infected themselves (once regular people, now mutated into hideous monsters) can turn a human with just one bite.
The gameplay is mostly eerily quiet exploration and climbing punctuated by short bursts of visceral, explosive violence. Joel has guns, but his aim has a tendency to waver (wouldn’t yours?) and bullets are scarce. You have to make every last shot count and when using guns isn’t an option, a wooden plank or lead pipe will do. The best way to approach the gameplay is via stealth. Joel can move in a crouched position and sneaking up on an enemy undetected will give you the option to take them down silently. Bottles and bricks can be thrown as a distraction or smashed into the face of an enemy. Full-on running and gunning is best saved as a last resort.
Fighting human enemies compared with the Infected offers a completely different experience. Bandits and raiders can be deadly in numbers but will retreat and seek cover if they come under attack for too long. The Infected are altogether more terrifying, especially when encountered in the close confines of an abandoned office complex or sprawling underground basement. Turning off Joel’s flashlight to avoid detection and sneaking in the dark gets the heart pounding as subhuman moans fill the air. Joel can focus his hearing to detect enemies, turning the world black-and-white and showing enemies in a ghostly white outline. This system is balanced just right: it never feels like cheating.
The Infected come in several different varieties. Runners come directly for you, have good eyesight and are deadly in numbers – it’s often best to just turn, run away and hide. Stalkers are even worse, as they will act in a far more calculated manner and strafe from cover to cover. Clickers are one of the most deadly enemies in the game. Completely blind, sneaking past them is possible but once alerted they enter a state of frenzy and rush at you with their arms outstretched. Early on in the game, if they grab you it’s game over – Joel’s throat is gruesomely torn out. Later, shivs can be crafted and if used quickly enough, will kill the Clicker and keep Joel’s throat intact. Bloaters are an entirely different matter…
Shivs aren’t the only item that can be crafted. Joel’s backpack is accessed in real-time, pulled from his back and delved into at the push of a button – therefore, it’s advisable not to do so during combat. Using supplies scavenged throughout the environment (scissors, alcohol, rags etc.), Joel can create health kits, Molotov cocktails and even nail bombs. Guns can also be upgraded at specific tables using collected parts, for example adding extra firepower to a shotgun or increasing the range of a bow. It’s all handled very well, making progression feel like a direct result of the ordeals you’ve had to endure. Health and other abilities can also be upgraded by finding bottles of pills.
The combat is effective precisely because it’s so brutal, especially against human attackers. Hitting somebody with a pipe in the face is bone-crunchingly violent, as it should be. Joel is a fascinating central character – at one point Ellie asks him how he knew they were about to be ambushed. He replies that he used to be on both sides. She asks if he’s ever killed innocent people before. He doesn’t reply. The combat and action sequences are peppered throughout – and they’re thrilling – but some of the most memorable moments are simply when travelling on foot, with Joel and Ellie slowly getting to know each other. Ellie will often stop to look at something of interest and Joel can interact with her. It must be remembered that she was born into this world – the old one seems as strange to her as the new one must now appear to Joel.
Following his incredible performance as Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite, Troy Baker gives the performance of his career as Joel, complimented beautifully by Ashley Johnson as Ellie. Their combined voice acting and motion capture is awe-inspiring. The Last of Us could easily be accused of being derivative – there have certainly been plenty of post-apocalyptic books, films and games released in recent years – but the characters of Joel and Ellie (much like Lee and Clementine in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead) elevate the entire experience to a whole new level. Whereas The Walking Dead was about choices, The Last of Us is about following something through to the end no matter what the cost. The minimalistic and dissonant score by two-time Oscar winner Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla tightens the emotion to breaking point.
No game is perfect and The Last of Us undoubtedly has its moments of annoyance – the AI for Ellie can often put her in harm’s way, but enemies won’t notice so long as Joel is in cover, momentarily breaking the illusion of the incredibly realised game world. The horse riding near the end of the game can also feel slightly wooden at times. The multiplayer (which features two modes, Supply Raid and Survivors) is fun, but by no means essential. These minor issues can be forgiven. There are too many incredible moments to get hung up on small imperfections, such as when Joel and Ellie team up with a loner called Bill (voiced and motion captured by W. Earl Brown of Deadwood fame) to fix up a car, and a plot thread involving voice actor Nolan North (Uncharted’s Nathan Drake) as you’ve never seen or heard him before.
The Last of Us is well-deserving of all its accolades. It’s a graphically stunning escape into a post-apocalyptic world where the man you’re rooting for is arguably just as bad as the people he’s fighting against. It’s the story of a man who has forgotten how to be a father and a girl who never had one. It’s not about friendship in the face of adversity, or even love – although traces linger. It’s ultimately about selfishness, self-preservation and survival. The ending will leave you reeling and is guaranteed to be talked about for years to come. Naughty Dog has given the PlayStation 3 its swan song, with one of the most emotionally engaging and harrowing experiences ever committed to the video game medium – it will ricochet within gamer’s minds, hearts and souls long after the final credits roll. In short, The Last of Us will invade your head: it’s the best infection money can buy.
10 OUT OF 10