The Last of Us review: A violent, emotional, satisfying adventure of a game
The Last of Us
The Last of Us focuses on two people, thrown together by circumstance, who have to make a long distance trek across a post-apocalyptic world. They both have secrets, and a past, and reasons for their actions throughout the story. The Last of Us provides what so many games lack, and that’s human characters with recognizable motivations who may do things with which we disagree.
This isn’t a game like The Walking Dead, filled with binary choices that you have to make at surprising times. Instead it’s a much slower, deliberate game that takes time for these two characters, and the people they meet along the way, to talk, and joke, and yell at each other, and disagree. The ending is going to get people talking, although I don’t even want to hint at the final outcome. Many of the clichés of this sort of story are neatly avoided, however, and that’s quite the trick.
It’s easy to lapse into hyperbole, having just played the game, and I’m sure the conversation will continue as more people play and discover the story inside. But for now I can say that I’ve had several long, drawn-out talks about the events in this game, and the motivations of the characters. The writing, voice acting, and performances aren’t “good for a video game,” they’re just good, full stop.
Let’s dig into what makes The Last of Us so unique.
Joel and Ellie and the rest of the world
A sort of fungal infection has swept across the world, turning the infected into murderous Runners, think fast zombies, or Clickers who have been fully infected and feature disturbing mushroom-like growths on their face and body. They see using sound, and make a clicking noise to find their prey. The few survivors live in quarantine zones, or try to make their own way in the countryside or the abandoned cities. It’s a brutal, violent existence.
You play as Joel, a smuggler who is used to running goods from one place to another. He’s not a good guy, nor is he a bad guy, he is a person who is used to doing what it takes to not get killed. During one scene he recognizes an ambush, and during a tense confrontation he kills all the men involved. “I’ve been on both sides of those,” he tells Ellie after they’re safe. Ellie asks how many people he’s killed, and no answer is given.
Ellie is a young woman who has grown up in the quarantine zone, carries a knife, and is at turns naïve and pragmatic. This isn’t an escort mission. Ellie knows how to get out of trouble, and will even help you fight if you get overwhelmed. People will draw comparisons between Ellie and Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth, but they are two very different characters, and Ellie frequently helps to guide the story and change the course of events. During one scene Joel tries to explain the importance of college, of adults studying things and finding out what to do with their lives. Ellie takes it in, but you can tell she doesn’t understand. What she does with her life is try not to get murdered.
“Is this all they had to worry about?” She asks Joel at one point, while she’s reading a teen magazine. “Boys, and doing their hair, and matching skirts?”
Sometimes Ellie will try to teach herself how to whistle, or she’ll ask about what one did in a coffee shop. Sometimes she sings to herself. Other times she breaks the fingers of people who are trying to hurt you. You know, teenage girl stuff. She never comes off as too precious, or in need of rescue, or a stereotypically wise-cracking kid sidekick. She’s a person who is asked to deal with impossible situations and does so in imperfect ways.
And this is where the game excels. Naughty Dog is comfortable slowing things down and giving us scenes where characters just talk to each other, and it’s all very well done and adds to the sense of desperation and danger. You’d think this setting would seem stale by now, as the pseudo-post-zombie apocalypse wasteland has been featured in more games, books, comics, and movies than one could conveniently count, but there are still interesting things to be done in this space.
The story itself moves at a good pace, introduces characters well before resolving their story, and it will leave you running to the forums or your friends to discuss things by the time it’s over.
Now let’s talk about how the game plays.
Ellie can’t swim
Joel and Ellie will travel across an abandoned and overrun United States, and the combat ranges in scope from sneaking around a blasted-out convenience store to take down two or three human enemies to trying to evade a horde of the infected. The game does a moderately good job of setting up conflicts that two people could reasonable fight their way through or escape from.
Neither character is a super hero; you may be able to heal most wounds with one of those magical health kits, but you’ll get knocked on your ass when you get shot. The hand-to-hand combat, whether you’re on the receiving or giving end of the beatdown, is appropriately brutal. Joel uses his surroundings and various melee weapons found around the ruins to take down enemies, and you’ll want to conserve bullets as much as possible.
Stealth is usually your best bet in most situations, but shooting your way through a confrontation is always an option. The game’s art director told me that The Last of Us is a “crawling game,” and you’ll die if you try to rush through any situation. I found that advice to be absolutely true, although there were a few moments where the enemy saw me that felt a little like bullshit, but overall sneaking around the world worked well. There are moments when the game ditches the tension and turns into an action game, but those are mercifully brief and kept towards the end of the game.
The game’s moments of stillness, and the quiet as you skulk around overrun buildings, are more effective than the roar of gunfire. You can throw bottles or bricks to distract the enemies, or you can throw them at the enemies and then take them down when they’re stunned. Each of the game’s melee weapons will only last a limited number of hits, but you can upgrade them with sharp objects and tape to make them kill enemies with one hit.
The crafting system is basic, but it gets the job done. You collect a few different types of items, and you can turn them into health kits, shivs, explosives, smoke bombs, or Molotov cocktails. This doesn’t take a ton of micromanagement, just make sure you convert the raw materials into usable items often to keep room in your inventory, and use your more powerful items with care. You can also find spare parts that you use with workbenches to upgrade our various hand guns, shotguns, and rifles. I put as much as I could into my bow and arrow, prizing its silent ability to kill enemies from a distance. Arrows, as you can imagine, are scarce, and you won’t be able to pull them from your targets every time.
The human enemies talk to each other, they look for you when you hide, and they actively try to take you down. The runners simply charge at you, and the clickers are the least interesting of the enemies. They mumble around, clicking to themselves, and prove fatal with a single bite until you unlock the ability to take them out with a shiv when grappling. There is little margin of error when trying to sneak, and you can be easily overwhelmed, even when you have a solid plan of attack. Expect to die often, even in the moderate difficulty settings.
There are a few puzzles here and there, but they’re easily solved. Ellie can’t swim, and that means you’ll be stuck finding a pallet for her to float on time and time again, but don’t expect any brain busters stopping your progression. What’s tricky is simply finding where to go next, as your path is rarely marked, and it often takes extensive exploration to find out how to move to the next area. This is realistic, I suppose, but some may find it frustrating.
Survive, and endure
The game came with a long list of things we weren’t supposed to talk about, and that’s fine by me. You’ll want to go into The Last of Us as blind as possible, and I’ve done my best to avoid directly describing or discussing many of the game’s best moments and situations. Once the game has been out a while I can’t wait to share some more thoughts on the story and the ending.
Until then, the game’s combat, story, interactions with other characters, and even the notes you find scattered around the world work together to create a convincing look at what happens when the world goes to shit. The core of the game is the relationship between Joel and Ellie, and that relationship is built up in a way that makes sense, and both characters grow as their journey wears on.
This would have made a wonderful book, or a fine movie. I’m happy it’s a game.