It's official: Naughty Dog has a formula: take a well-known type of action story, add great characters, then polish it until it gleams like a diamond. The thing is that George Romero/The Walking Dead-style zombie apocalypse narratives have produced a lot of diamonds in the gaming world, and The Last of Us faces a “for better and for worse” struggle with the raging overuse of zombies. Fortunately, there's a lot more “better” than “worse”: the weaker parts of the game come from hitting the required beats in a zombie story, the way the Uncharted series closely followed the major tropes of classic adventure stories. However, the excellent characters, seasonal scenery changes, and levels that keep the combat changing before a player can get bored, lifted me past my utter boredom with zombies to a thought-provoking and poignant ending. This tale of survivors, and the various reasons some people keep going even when life completely sucks, is visceral, emotional, and very human.
By the end, it's not really a zombie game, which is why there are times when zombie conventions weigh it down. These moments are minor, however, and the game's narrative never completely derails. The rest of The Last of Us is truly a bloody, burned-out masterpiece. Like the game itself, there's a lot of ground to cover in a discussion of it, and I'm going to constrain this review to the two main characters, gameplay, and main themes, because it would be easy to write a five thousand word review and still not cover every great performance, breathtaking visual achievement, and neat moment. And the less you know about the details of the game going in, the better your experience will be.
The story begins during the initial chaos of the cordyceps outbreak, a zombie plague based on a real life fungus that takes over the brains of bugs, then erupts from their heads as they grow. Naughty Dog's attention to detail is so great that they even replicate the spastic movements of cordyceps insect victims in their versions of zombies. Other zombie games concoct silly origins for their plagues, but all shamelessly crib from George Romero. The Cordyceps are inspired by a gruesome, but strangely beautiful, part of mother nature.
None of this really matters to Joel, a hardworking average Joe who is compelling, if not entirely likable, in his extremely simple classic Texan motivations. Joel starts the game as some sort of contractor, and, after a 20-year time jump, becomes a smuggler in Boston. By this point, Joel is likely early-to-mid fifties, which is pushing it in terms of the physical requirements of a video game protagonist, but not impossible. Joel's done a lot of hard living in those 50 some-odd years, and it shows in his heavily-lined face.
Joel's a man of action over words, and he's not especially introspective. These are both important survival characteristics, but it made Troy Baker's job of bringing him to life that much tougher. I thought Baker's work as Booker DeWitt was vaguely soporific, but as Joel, he's an uncut diamond. There's no question that Joel is a blunt instrument, and as much as I warmed to him by the end, his quiet menace meant that I wouldn't want to meet a guy like him in a dark alley. Joel is not a conventional hero, but The Last of Us isn't a game about heroes. It's a game about survivors.
This distinction is central to the game's themes, its plot, and the choices the characters make. The examination of what it is to be a survivor is revisited again and again, and is especially relevant during the game's last third. And while the game's prologue may seem, on the surface, to be a pathos grab, it's actually setting up integral elements of Joel's character: his ability to have heroic moments has to do with his priorities and circumstances before the pandemic. Pay special attention to the seemingly bland opening moments, because they're huge character points: every phone call, muttered piece of dialogue and greeting card give you an insight into him. There's a near-Shakespearean appreciation for the quite nobility of the everyman before things go to hell.
And now, back to the apocalypse...
After Joel and his partner Tess get screwed out of a weapons deal, Joel gets offered a job smuggling something out of the city to a resistance group called the Fireflies in exchange for an even bigger haul. That “something” turns out to be Ellie, a fourteen year-old with a trucker mouth and an indomitable spirit that will get thoroughly and repeatedly tested before the credits roll.
Joel is very reluctant to do this at first, but that's because he doesn't know that Ellie is a five-foot-three, red-headed bundle of raging awesome. While The Walking Dead's nine year-old Clementine made you want to protect her because she's adorable, Ellie has never known a world that didn't contain flesh-eating monsters, so she's deadly with a switchblade, but she can't swim. It's not like there was ever an opportunity for anyone to take her to the beach or a public pool.
Ellie can look after herself in a fight, but not in the “hide in really stupid places” thing Elizabeth does in Bioshock. Refreshingly, she doesn't require Joel's constant one-sided protection. She's brave and has a sense of purpose, and is highly unlikely to be compared to any Disney Princess. Instead, Ellie's character is a balancing act similar to Joel's although the results are very different, and Ashley Johnson plays her with just enough edge to feel real: the wreckage of Boston is the only thing Ellie's ever known, so she doesn't have a sense of bitterness or loss, but neither does she display privilege or a tendency toward first-world problems.
It's not accurate to say she's fearless, but her bravery comes from a very complicated place. She's smart, determined, and she has a sense of wonder rarely seen in zombie games. Yes, things are trying to kill her, but she's also never been outside the city before, so her sense of awe and adventure overwhelms her with an earnestness and joy that cuts through the nihilism that makes some zombie fare insufferable and tiring. Joel is the grounding wire of The Last of Us. Ellie is the current running through it. It's this combination that allows the game to electrify without setting itself on fire.
Joel and Ellie embark on an unexpected journey across America through cordyceps, various hostile survivor factions, and natural environments the like you've never seen before in a video game. The Last of Us starts as a combination of Dead Space, Fallout, The Walking Dead, and Bioshock Infinite, but gradually morphs into all the hallmarks of a Naughty Dog adventure: breathtaking levels, great characters, crazy action, a very personal story, and an element of sweeping majesty.
The first encounters with the monsters known as “Clickers” can be a bit annoying, due to heavy reliance on stealth tactics before the player gets a chance to really get a feel for the controls. It's that survival action element of setting up very likely early deaths so that players get a good look at the grisly playable-character-gets-killed sequences. Predictably, the facial expressions and animations are awesome, but don't be ashamed to drop down the difficulty if it gets too frustrating, because you'll likely want to play through the campaign at least a second time. There's a lot of film-style symbolism that really pops during a second play-through when you're not overwhelmed by the shock of the new.
The game establishes its bleak “legit post-zombie apocalypse cred” early so it can get on with the business of telling the story of Ellie and Joel, although they return to beating that zombie-genre drum again later, but more on that in a bit. The Last of Us explores many themes related to survival: loss, guilt, grief, and living with the consequences of difficult choices. Joel is bitter beyond his years while Ellie is wise beyond hers, and there are moments of comedy and poignancy that come out of the huge generation gap between them. Take advantage of every optional dialogue opportunity. It's worth it. There's even a brief goof on the Twilight Saga which is completely confusing to Ellie's post-pandemic perspective. Naughty Dog accomplishes the seemingly impossible video game task of making a 14 year-old girl the coolest thing on the screen.
You may have noticed that up until this point, I haven't touched on gameplay. The Last of Us is so cinematic that it runs the risk of being examined too much like a film. It stands up to this sort of analysis, but it's just as good as an interactive experience. The survival action control scheme is definitely designed to make you feel vulnerable. It takes some getting used to, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do. Foraging and environment exploration are key components, not only for resources, but also to level up survival skills and get a greater sense of the game world. However, foraging and crafting are limited enough that you're not carrying around an inventory full of potential junk, like in RPGs.
Overall, the most satisfying approach is a combination of stealth, melee, and, tactical use of nail bombs and Molotov cocktails. The melee combat is uncomfortably visceral. It's one thing to shoot someone with a gun. It's another thing entirely to strangle a zombie to death or stomp its face with his boot. As Joel and Ellie's relationship develops, they fight more cohesively as a team, and she gets in on the fights in a pretty awesome way.
As good as the melee combat is, the ranged weapons are extremely well-balanced too. Every firearm has its place, especially when upgraded. I found the rifle, for instance, relatively useless until I added the scope to it. Similarly, the bow turned out to be useful for attacking with stealth at a distance, since it doesn't go 'bang'. The early-game pistols maintain a late-game sense of purpose because ammo conservation is key.
It's a bit tricky to change weapons on the fly, because, well, it's a survival game. To make it possible to plan your attacks, Joel and Ellie have highly-tuned hearing which allows them to locate enemies though physical barriers. The listening tactic is extremely useful for avoiding ambushes, conserving ammo, and staying hidden as long as possible, although there are some levels where you have to keep constantly moving because the enemies you're facing have molotovs that they lob over cover to burn you. As the game progresses, the maps get bigger and the combat gets more action-oriented. In fact, some levels are so huge that they seem to have been developed with the faction-based multiplayer in mind as opposed to the needs of the single player campaign.
Another subtle, but neat, detail is the hint system, which kicks in on puzzles after a certain amount of time is spent without action. The nudges feel like part of the experience, to keep the frustration at a moderate level.
The game also makes it clear when it's okay to stop and smell the roses, and when you need to keep your head down, by creating an adrenaline affect in the characters' animations. When the situation is relatively safe, Joel slows down and walks and jogs instead of flat out running. He is an older guy, after all.
Equally clever is that the level up and inventory systems are designed to reflect the game world. Most bombs, health kits, and some melee weapons are obtained through crafting these items from foraged resources. Want better weapons? Collect parts and tools to upgrade them at benches. Want to beef up your skills? Collect supplements and training manuals. There's even a small use of the long-neglected Sixaxis controls: when your flashlight starts to flicker, you can tap the controller sideways to get the beam steady again.
The ending is every bit the online debate fodder as that of Bioshock Infinite, and while I didn't see it coming, I fully support it. It manages to be ambivalent and satisfying at the same time, and this achievement owes a debt to the strong, consistent character development throughout the game.
So why no perfect score? Two reasons: in one case, I punched a guy and he drifted inside a cabinet. His upper body was sticking out of it, and it was hilariously awful. While it wasn't a catastrophic bug, it did take me out of the game temporarily. We've all learned to accept that Naughty Dog games are buggy because they strive for excellence in other areas, but this quirk is a bit annoying, considering the studio's prestige.
The second reason is that I feel like certain “essentials” in the zombie genre really aren't that essential, and I got bored by certain tropes that are designed to do nothing but disgust and felt decidedly rote. These problematic scenes give Ellie more screen time, but the devices are just tired and overused. There's one later-game character that is a pastiche of too many creepy survivor cliches. There are still great things about this character and what happens around them, but it felt like a small stumble. When Uncharted came out, there weren't a huge number of Indiana Jones/Lara Croft type games on the market. Nowadays, there are zombies everywhere, and quality zombie games at that. There are going to be “The Walking Dead versus The Last of Us” debates based on the similarities in their narratives, even though they represent completely different genres, because the expectations of the zombie genre are becoming badly calcified.
However, if you're not completely sick of zombies, The Last of Us is a no-brainer purchase. If you are sick of zombies, there's still a whole lot to like here. There's also the consideration of the sheer technical achievements PS3 fans have come to love which will make this game a must-see for video game aficionados. The Last of Us is a phenomenal ninth-inning home run at the end of a console cycle, and a gauntlet thrown down for the next-gen systems that says “Beat this!”