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In The Last of Us, you have to earn the right to survive (review)

The Mayans were wrong. The year 2012 came and went without any apocalypse in sight. Yet we’re still fascinated by dystopian fiction, stories that reduce humankind to its base desires because of war, disease, or any other planet-wide catastrophe that writers can think of. Many developers have tried wrangling with this genre with varying degrees of success, but most take the easy way out by sticking to zombies and calling it a day.

Now we have The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s newest third-person action game (out June 14 for the PlayStation 3). It depicts an Earth ravaged by potent fungi, one that spreads through either bites or in the air via deadly spores. The Cordyceps invade the limbic system, taking over the brain and transforming its host into ravenous killers and mutated beasts. Heroes Joel and Ellie must avoid them as they travel across the United States to reach a destination that may or may not exist.

The Last of Us is a radical departure from the developer’s previous franchise, the Indiana Jones-inspired Uncharted. But whereas Uncharted’s happy-go-lucky attitude would feel right at home in theaters alongside other summer blockbusters, The Last of Us feels like something you’d find at an independent film festival. While everything in it looks expensive — such as the detailed cutscenes or the lush expanse of the American countryside — the story is an intimate affair.

Joel and Ellie aren’t fighting to save the world. They’re fighting to save each other.

The Last of Us

What you’ll like

The relationship between the characters

At first, the diametric pairing of Joel and Ellie plays like a weird buddy cop film. Joel still remembers what life was like before the Cordycep fungus began to spread, but in the 20 years since the outbreak hit, he has become an efficient killer — he accepts the brutality that is now a part of everyday life. Ellie, only 14-years-old, grew up in the Boston quarantine zone, and she has no idea what the world is like outside the zone’s high walls. In the beginning, unexpected circumstances force the two strangers to work together. But neither of them likes it: Ellie’s expletives makes that clear, while Joel’s irritated tone doesn’t try to hide that fact that he wants to get rid of her as soon as possible.

After enduring trial after trial of horrific events, however, they soon grow close. Actor Troy Baker brings Joel to life with a delicious Southern drawl filled with nuance and complexity. You can hear Baker slowly peeling away the layers (and years’ worth) of Joel’s pent-up bitterness and pride — which usually comes through in punchy verbal assaults when he’s angry — but he gradually sounds warm and inviting as the story goes on. Ellie (with a similarly stellar performance by Ashley Johnson) never lets go of her fierce rebelliousness, but she, too, starts to bring down the barriers she put up as she learns to trust Joel.

The paternal bond the two share is ripe for moments of much-needed levity. Ellie wanders around the levels and notices particular details of a time she never knew, like commenting on the absurdity of fashion models who intentionally don’t eat to keep their slim figure (“That’s stupid!”), or sharing her disbelief over the idea that small trucks used to drive around neighborhoods to sell ice cream to children (“You lived in a weird time!”). Joel humors her, acting as both postapocalyptic tour guide and protector as they trek across the country.

Though strong roles on their own, Joel’s and Ellie’s story wouldn’t be as effective without the large supporting cast. These men and women represent a broad spectrum of people you’d expect to see in such dire circumstances: the kind (and not-so-kind) strangers, the gangs, and even estranged family members. The collapse of modern civilization affected everyone in different ways, and the stories behind these characters give you a small snapshot of what that fragmented society looks like.

The Last of Us

You rarely feel safe

One of the most terrifying moments of The Last of Us happens early on when you meet your first Clicker, a faceless creature with a loud, haunting rattle (it sounds like a mix between a dog’s yelp and the croaking ghost from The Grudge). While Clickers can’t see, they can hear supernaturally well, and if they feel like they spotted you, they’ll convulse with excitement as they shuffle to the spot where they last heard you — they’ll kill you with one bite if you’re not careful.

The Clicker is just one factor (and only one type of the infected) that contributes to the relentless tension. Human opponents, while not as scary as their infected counterparts, are a threat simply due to their numbers and their guns. Joel dies after just a few shots, so you can’t run in and shoot up the place like in other third-person shooters. Ammo is also scarce. You have to scrounge for raw materials in each level, like scissor blades and tape, to make new weapons. Oftentimes, the best tactic is to sneak behind the enemy and take them down silently.

Because of the do-it-yourself crafting system, Joel never felt too strong or overpowered. I had just enough supplies to make what I needed in almost any given situation … but the nerves start kicking in when you know your supplies are running out. At that point, your options are either to sneak from Point A to Point B without alerting anyone or to get rid of them one by one with just your bare hands (some instances require you to kill everyone in the room). Ellie does her best to help you out: If you engage in open combat, she’ll throw bricks or stab anyone who tries to grab you.

Each encounter serves as a stark reminder that you have to earn the right to survive. Sometimes, I’d start levels over because I accidentally used my guns, which alerted every enemy in the area. Joel is no ninja — he’s slow and heavy — but I was still able to deftly overcome the infected and humans with distractions (tossing empty bottles or bricks), traps (placing a bomb full of shrapnel near a door), or the good ol’ throat stab with my shiv. I wanted to feel like they were the ones invading my territory, and not the other way around.

The last third

After a knockout opening that had me tearing up within minutes, the first dozen hours of The Last of Us settles into a repetitive routine: exploration, combat scenario, exploration, and cutscene. It wasn’t boring by any means, but it starts to feel a little too predictable. A little too familiar. Maybe even a bit lethargic. I thought I had The Last of Us figured out — I successfully predicted an emotional turning point late in the tale, and when I watched it, I was sure that it was also the ending.

“Is that it?” I thought. “Is that really it?” As if on cue, the screen cut to black after the scene was over. The developer already had an answer … but it was an answer I wasn’t expecting. The gameplay undergoes a fundamental shift while retaining its core survival mechanics. The pace quickens. And the stakes rise exponentially.

Naughty Dog’s assassins will murder me in my sleep if I were to give you any hint of what happens here, so I’ll leave you with this: This portion convinced me that The Last of Us isn’t just a good game but a great one. A game that, in spite of some small flaws, you’ll be proud to have on your shelf.

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