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Warning: Some smaller spoilers.
As the current video game generation winds down, it’s nice to see that Sony and Naughty Dog have hit their creative peak with The Last of Us. This moody post-pandemic video game is a masterpiece of the PlayStation 3 generation. As Sony and Microsoft prepare to move on to a new generation, it will be hard for them to top the emotional impact of the story and intense character development. As you prepare to say goodbye to your old consoles, don’t miss the experience of playing The Last of Us. The game, available now on the PlayStation 3, represents the very best of what video games can be.
The Last of Us tells the story of survivors who try to outrun a deadly fungus that turns people into the Infected, or zombies. Infected via bites or deadly spores in the air, humans become beastly killers. The virus spreads and turns the world into a wasteland. The remaining cities are turned into quarantine zones under martial law. It is a melancholy portrait of the dying human race, besieged by growing numbers of the Infected. In this environment, we meet Ellie and Joel. (Check out Giancarlo Valdes’ review of The Last of Us).
I can’t say that I’ve ever come across a character as compelling as Ellie, the 14-year-old heroine played by actress Ashley Johnson. Every thing from the freckles on her face to the cuts on her skin reveal an intense focus on realism. She’s a normal teenager, not a superhero. And I can’t tell you what a relief it is to find such a person in a video game. But it’s not just Ellie that is compelling. It is her interaction with Joel, an aging tough guy who has walled himself off to feeling emotions, that becomes the emotional crux of the game.
Ellie is full of life and has a sense of humor. Under pressure, she has courage beyond her years and a foul mouth that provides the emotional intensity to the horrifying attacks of the Infected. She tries to draw out Joel, a ruthless killer who sympathizes with other tough survivors who don’t want to be surrounded by anyone weak, like kids. Joel cares only about survival and cashing in on a deal. They make a trek across the ravaged country, which is overgrown with vegetation and is in a general state of decay about 20 years after the infections began. Joel tells Ellie about life before the fungus. Slowly, they begin to trust each other and become inseparable companions as they survive one deadly encounter after another.
The Last of Us is a brutally violent game, and I killed more than 900 things before I finished with it. I also died 213 times. It isn’t a run-and-gun experience. Each kill is a life-or-death struggle, where you barely escape with your life or kill the enemy with your last bullet. But it’s not the combat that stays with me. It is the cinematic sequences in between the gameplay that are memorable. These characters are a crowning achievement for Naughty Dog, which made the Indiana Jones-style adventures of Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series. They are so much more believable because they are as close to normal as you can get. They are the sane characters in a world gone insane.
Ellie has no idea what the land is like outside of the Boston quarantine zone. The world they travel through is an ugly and dark one. The apocalypse has hit, and humans have survived it only for the time being. The Infected are everywhere. The minute you become attached to a character, the storytellers at Naughty Dog will take them away. As they do so, they give you a sampling of the different moral reactions to the apocalypse and the idea of surviving while everyone around you isn’t.
The characters aren’t cannon fodder. They often make a difference in how Ellie and Joel see the world and each other. As I met all of these characters and saw them disappear, I had a growing sense of dread. What would happen if one of these two main characters didn’t make it? It was an overriding fear that stayed with me through the game, and it showed how much I had come to love these characters and the way they interacted.
The enemies behave like zombies, but they’re not those undead walkers. The most severely infected creatures are called Clickers, because they make a clicking sound and walk about like chickens. They’re blind, but they can zero in on victims by listening. Once they close with you, they can rip your throat out. Runners, by contrast, are less powerful but are extremely fast. They can win the contest for fastest zombie, so you better be ready when you wake them from their moaning dreams.
The Last of Us is very difficult to play because it doesn’t come with all of the excesses of other video games. You don’t have unlimited ammunition. In fact, you must constantly scrounge the country side for weapons, spare parts, bullets, bandages, and things you can craft into something useful. At times, I enjoyed this exploratory part of the game and liked how much the scarcity turned me into a pack rat survivor, grabbing everything I could and shooting only one bullet when that was enough to get the job done.
Joel is a demon in combat, showing no mercy and always fighting to survive. Ellie contributes little at first, but as she journeys from one combat situation to the next, she learns how to be effective, throwing bricks that distract enemies or stabbing anyone who grabs Joel.
Each encounter with enemies is different. But more often than not, it pays not to be a hero. If you go in with guns blazing, you’ll run out of ammo and you’ll draw the wrath of the enemies, who gather together and make a desperate charge at you.
Sure, the Last of Us has annoyances. No game is perfect. I got mighty tired of giving Ellie boosts so that she could open locked doors for me. And I also grew weary of opening garage doors with Ellie’s help and pushing dumpsters in front of walls so I could climb up to a higher level. I suppose that makes you realize how indispensable Ellie is to Joel. But it’s tedious in gameplay. These sorts of things would have been quite simple in other games, where you could simply use a pistol to knock open a lock or do a big superhero jump to get over a fence.
But these obstacles reinforce the point that these are normal characters, not your typical video game heroes. Every battle is a life or death struggle. One well fired bullet means the difference between winning or losing a one-on-one duel with an enemy.
As you play, you have to think strategically about the bullets and other resources at your disposal. I discovered a little late that the powerful pistol in my possession was capable of firing armor-piercing rounds. I never found these rounds in the game, but they sure would have come in handy against the tank-like boss creatures that were the most difficult enemies to defeat. Instead, when I ran into these creatures, I pumped them full of lead and homemade bombs while circling them at a high speed. They eventually toppled. But in a world where every bullet is precious, these were very expensive kills.
I only felt like Joel tipped the scales in his favor when he found a flamethrower late in the game. I made good use of the flamethrower in fights with the Infected, but the weapon wasn’t as useful against human enemies, who had the good sense not to charge into a wall of flame. Other useful weapons include a shrapnel bomb which you can plant as a trap bomb or toss at a group of enemies. The Molotov cocktail is also quite useful, turning your enemies into flaming hulks that can easily burn other Infected to death. You can’t switch your weapons easily in this game, much like in real life. That means you have to go into each firefight with the right weapon selected. Otherwise, the Infected will be on you so fast that you won’t have time to change to a more suitable gun. That’s part of the more realistic combat, but it’s a little frustrating if you are a fan of action shooters.
I won’t give away major plot points or the ending. But you’ll want to stick around. It’s not a short game. I played it on the Normal setting for 22 hours. That’s a huge value for a gamer. But I thought it became repetitive and went on a little too long. The combat situations become more predictable, but they are also a lot more difficult. They serve to stress you out as you await the verdict. Will Ellie and Joel survive? Will any of us survive?
Once you finish the game, you may want to think about a quote that was uttered in Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, about the man who saved Jews during the Holocaust. It says, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” That quote came to mind as I finished the game, and it’s rare for a video game to inspire that kind of thinking.
Like I said. I have never become more attached to video game characters. Bravo for Naughty Dog for building this game. Bravo for Sony for publishing it.