Title: The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: June 14, 2013
To say zombies have been over played in media would be an understatement. From the Walking Dead, to Dead Rising, zombies have almost become a genre unto themselves. So for Naughty Dog, the creators of the beloved Uncharted series to make their last PS3 debut with a zombie game, you might wonder if they’re just playing it safe. Luckily The Last of Us is anything but by the numbers.
Emotionally exhausted, confused, and tired. These were the thoughts running through my head as the I finished The Last of Us. The story is a subversive take on the zombie genre, that’s an odd mix of survival horror, 3rd person shooting, and stealth gameplay. Everything in the world is designed to build tension, from the densely packed environments, frantic fire fights, and the gut wrenching story.
You play Joel, a once hard working father turned emotionally ravaged survivor. of the apocalypse on the wrong side of forty. Joel etches out a bitter existence in one of the existing militarized zones. Through a series of events Joel gets paired up with the 14 year old girl Elii, who happens to be immune to the fungal infection, and the two travel to across the urban jungle to meet up with a group called the Fireflys who are seeking to find a cure.
The story is nothing special, swap out fungal infection for zombie virus, and nothing would change. It’s the characters that absolutely sell this game, they’re so likable and endearing that you can’t help but feel committed to seeing them to their journey’s end. Joel is blunt and impatient, the ravages of time and the demands of survival have stripped him of much of his ability sympathize for others. Ellie is sassy and occasionally too smart for her own good, but there’s always an undercurrent of maturity beyond her years, brought up by the harshness of her surroundings. It’s a testament to the team at Naughty Dog that they can cover such a well trodden setting without falling victim to genre fatigue.
The Last of Us‘ minute to minute gameplay is best described as a frantic game of cat & mouse, that at any moment the roles can be reversed depending on how well you play. One moment you could be picking off enemies like flies, only to be running for your life the next.
Mechanically ‘The Last of Us’ feels like a hodgepodge of different games. The shooting still feels like uncharted, but it has the resource management of a survival horror game from the 90s (not enough ammo to deal with every enemy), and the stealth mechanics from something akin to splinter cell. The survival horror aspect is entirely mechanical. Especially on the higher difficulties were your always scavenging just to scrounge up just the bare minimum to survive. This ties into the games crafting system that allows you to make various health items and weapons, but usually there’s only ever enough to create one or two items.
One of the strongest aspects of The Last of Us is the effort put in to ensure the violence is never desensitized. Your constantly reminded (by Elii’s reactions) that your acts of violence are cruel and brutal, and no matter the justification, it’s still the worst form of human expression. This works to re-frame the meaning of “survival at all costs,” the mindless drive to exist becomes it’s own form of zombification.
Except for a few location, combat can be avoided almost entirely through sneaking your way through an environment. The trade off is, you can’t explore the whole area to gather more resources, but your also not wasting any on fighting either. So each group of enemies could be sitting on a box of goodies, or turn into a resource sink. Stealth is especially useful around the infected called ‘clickers’ who are entirely blind and hunt through sound.
The gun play and stealth while are both serviceable, do become a little grating towards the tail end of the game.
Multiplayer uses the same mechanics from single-player, including the crafting mechanic, and the real-time pause to switch out gear. There are two modes Supply Raid and Survivors. Supply Raid follows a traditional team death match, but each team is limited to 20 respawns. First team to zero loses. Survivors plays similarly to Supply Raid, except there are no repspawns and it’s the best out of seven matches.
The game can feel a little stretched out at times, and the stealth mechanics feel a little wonky at times, but The Last of Us is a truly special game that shows true craft. Narrative in games is still in it’s infancy, and it’s still too common an occurrence to see games aping the techniques found in movies, thinking they will translate flawlessly. The Last of Us tell a story that’s both captivating and bleeds sincerity. It’s a rare case of a narrative that wouldn’t work in any medium other than video games.