Fighting to Survive: The Last of Us Review
The ultimate swan-song to the PS3 and to fans of the console.
Developer: Naughty Dog Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment System: Playstation 3
Release Date: June 14, 2013 MSRP: $59.99
by Terry Randolph
Very few games have kept me glued to my seat, playing non-stop into the early hours of the morning only to stop from sheer mental exhaustion. The fact that the journey, especially the ending, lingers long after setting the controller down is very telling of how remarkable a game is. If there is anything to say about The Last of Us, it is the fact that it is an accomplishment in storytelling that is character driven. This is not a story about a post-apocalyptic world, but the story of two people and the human condition. This is a tale of survival and the desire for social interaction in a world indifferent to humanity’s plight for survival; two contrasting ideals that can either mean life or death. To say this game is not the front runner for Game of the Year, let alone of the greatest this console generation I think would be a travesty. The Last of Us is a beautiful, dark, somber, and most importantly personal tale accentuated by the subtle moments that happen along this epic journey across the hauntingly gorgeous America. The game is also bolstered by the performances from both Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie), the evocative and ambient music along with the art design. This is another great title for the accomplished studio Naughty Dogs.
20 years from now, human civilization is close to extinction; a fungus called Cordyceps has mutated now has the capability to infect human bodies and results in an outbreak that only continues to spread. Society now rests in small little “safe militarized zones” that are independent from one another. How safe are they? Who really is a friend? Foe? These questions are hinted at repeatedly in many moments throughout the game, especially by a few placed throughout the game you could miss. There is this conflict set throughout the game between the desire for human interaction and the desire to survive at all costs. With a faction called the “Fireflies” who are fighting to “restore humanity, to “Hunters” who kill anyone they want to survive, to those infected by Cordyceps, the world is a morally grey sphere. Only the quickest on their feet survive, and even then you hope you live to see tomorrow. The atmosphere is gritty, dark and morose, creating a world we are all-too-familiar with from many stories already exploring similar concepts. For this particular tale you play as Joel, a man weary of the world around him. Joined by a woman named Tess, you take on a job that seems simple enough; smuggle a girl named Ellie to a rendezvous point to meet with the Fireflies and let Ellie go. Instead, things go haywire and it turns into an epic journey across the haunting landscape of an America from yesterday.
Although using the typical tropes in many zombies mediums, The Last of Us is more like The Walking Dead in using these elements as a way to explore the human condition. Conflicting desire between human interaction and survival is the real heart of the story, examined deeply through Joel and Ellie’s relationship. Their changing dynamic transitions beautifully, punctuated by the subtle moments and optional conversations placed throughout the game. Cutscenes and optional conversations between Joel and Ellie drew me more in than gameplay thanks to the phenomenal performances by Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie). You can feel the transformation of their relationship throughout the journey, resulting into a fitting conclusion that matches the tonality of the game.
What does makes the background story interesting is the way people become “zombies” in this game. The Cordyceps fungus is a real class of fungi that infects insects and can turn them into fungus. Much like we see with germs, virus and bacteria constantly evolving and adapting, Cordyceps mutating to infect humans only adds to the scary, plausible, realistic tone of the story. Facing swarms of various forms of infected are frightening and tense. You can sneak past them if you wish, but if you mess that up, the firefight gets stressful. After taking out the last one, you might find yourself taking a deep breath of relief.
Much like those encounters, the gameplay is NOT fun but for good reason; if it were fun it would not match the tone of the game. Instead, each enemy encounter is stressful because of the various ways you can approach the situation. You can attempt to sneak by, using bottles and bricks as means of distraction to push enemies the other way. If you get into a firefight, it becomes frantic and taxing. Because of the limited amount of resources, you have to think on the fly and adapt quickly. The violence explored and shown is real, gritty and ugly, further punctuated by the reactions from Ellie. It can be hard to swallow sometimes, but the way the gameplay is contextualized into matching the tone of the story is done so well. In a way, these moments are made for us to reflect on the extremes we will take to survive, and could we do that if in the same situation? It is introspective, reflective and fitting to the themes of the story.
The artwork and direction of the scenery is both haunting and breathtaking; nature is reclaiming back land filled with rubble, buildings and cars of a world once before. Much like the book The Road, the towns and cities are haunting landscapes that contain a reminder of what life was once like. Remnants of the past surround the areas you see, adding to the juxtaposing curiousity of Ellie in the conversations with a reflective Joel about random relics. There are many collectibles you can pick up as you go along in the story that expand the mythos of the world; particularly striking are the letters from various people within the world that tell of their plights to survive in this world. Hearing the reactions to the letters from either Joel and Ellie really sell the dread and almost numbing feeling they must have to endure the tragedy around them. All of these factors combined create an immersive experience that is hard to get taken out of.
There are two issues with the game that are minor and do not detract from the immersive experience this game gives. One is both a benefit and a detractor; your allies are able to move around during encounters right in front of enemies without being seen. While that is a great thing because it reduces the hassle of it being an escort mission, it also breaks the illusion of reality that the game attempts to set up. An ally can move right in front of you and keep you from getting in cover, resulting in unwanted firefights. The other issue comes at the conclusion of the opening sequence. While being a pivotal, defining moment it felt like it was forced and out of place. Granted, it set up the internal journey for Joel, something about it just left an odd aftertaste for me.
Overall, it is hard to not argue that The Last of Us is a near hallmark achievement in gaming this console generation. It hits all the right notes when it comes to fitting everything together to match the tone and context of the storytelling. Most of all, the game gives a very layered story full of depth and complexity that is hard to achieve.
+ Beautifully, somber story that examines the human condition and contrast between our interaction for desire versus survival
+Terrific voice acting, evocative music and beautiful artwork, it is a great game to look at
+ Violence is realistic and gritty, matching the tone of the game and also creates moments of introspection
-AI can sometimes break the illusion of immersion for a bit, but does not take too much away from the game.
-Somewhat forced moment in the beginning of the game