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The Last of Us (PlayStation 3) artwork

The Last of Us (PlayStation 3) review

"Instead, Joel’s personal motives are called into question. As his protection of Ellie becomes more and more desperate, the astute gamer will not be able to escape wondering whether Joel is trying to replace his own lost family with this little girl—leading her into an unbalanced emotional reliance in the process."

The first thing I need to say about The Last of Us is that you shouldn’t be reading a review of it. I know that’s not a very compelling argument for my writing, but really this is a game you should be avoiding like hell on Google searches. You don’t want any aspect of the story spoiled. There are enough emotional twists here to leave you bleeding on the floor, and I’m going to tread carefully in this review so as to avoid revealing anything, while trying to impress upon you the power of the game’s narrative.

The Last of Us offers an apocalyptic view of a world overrun by zombies, encased in quarantine zones, and filled with despair. Its plot, of a man ferrying a young girl across the unexplored wilderness to help save humanity, is reminiscent of Children of Men. However, its real heart lies more along the lines of The Road. For those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, The Road details the apocalyptic journeying of a boy and his father, away from their home towards a potential Nirvana, a distant and dim hope that may not actually exist.

The Road tells a depressing tale. If anything, though, The Last of Us is more bleak. After all, the boy and the father in The Road lend each other hope and strength, being family. Joel and Ellie, the main characters of The Last of Us, are not family. Initially, Joel resists even thinking of Ellie as anything more than cargo he’s been hired to transport and protect. And as this wall does start to break down between them, it doesn’t lead to a hopeful, supportive relationship. Instead, Joel’s personal motives are called into question. As his protection of Ellie becomes more and more desperate, the astute gamer will not be able to escape wondering whether Joel is trying to replace his own lost family with this little girl—leading her into an unbalanced emotional reliance in the process.

These are questions of a depth we’re not often able to ponder in a video game, but are given access to in the Last of Us by a refusal to follow traditional norms of narrative structure in video games. First of all, main character Joel is somewhere in his late forties or early fifties, which is old for video game heroes. If we turn to other Survival Horror games, we’re met with a contingent of teenagers and college prodigies—some of whom were leaders of bomb disposal squads, members of DELTA force, and masters of unlocking by twenty-three. Joel’s past is nothing like that. He is a survivor, a survivor who has done questionable things that have left him not emo, but exhausted. He doesn’t cleave through enemies one second and bemoan his fate the next. Instead, he’s quiet and taciturn, conjuring up his smiles past an unyielding protective wall he’s built around his emotions. And in another departure from the video game norm, his questionable past didn’t entail “being a bad-ass for the greater good.” In fact, Joel’s past, revealed in very small snippets throughout the game, will be legitimately sickening to most players, while simultaneously being unglamorous. They are moral wrongs we can understand, that don’t involve needing superpowers in order to experience, and therefore can’t hide behind the veneer of “cool.” They also inform his present choices, and the story very much becomes an exploration of these choices, of Joel’s need for control, and the effects his decisions have on the people around him.

Similarly, Ellie is portrayed with just the right mixture of childlike innocence and survivor grittiness. Her mood can switch on a hair trigger, like a child, but in her mood swings she has access to adult reactions: everything from rampant swearing to physical violence. Just as we’re forced to acknowledge Joel as being more than an avatar we are controlling, Ellie’s realistic treatment inspires us to consider her as more than a little girl and an escort. Part of the draw of the story is watching her reaction to events. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that this is also where the game ends up being more bleak than The Road. There, the little boy is given an almost angelic treatment. He becomes a neutral observer of the world around him, safely uncorruptable in his naiveté. Ellie is anything but neutral. She is a rat caught in a cage slowly filling with water, and watching her decline from passionate struggle to exhausted acceptance is both distressing and heartbreaking. Many times, Ellie’s eyes and halfway-parted lips will reach out to you for a promise of security you can’t give her.

The voice actors need to be given especial credit here. Each line in the game is spoken perfectly, even by the incidental characters; weighted with just the right intonation; and imbued with enough emotion that the cinema scenes don’t have to be thirty minutes long or stop midway through dialog to tell you what you should be feeling. There are no Metal Gear length explanations here, no dossiers to read, no scenes where the characters look into the camera and say “I feel sad.” This, more than anything, is the revolution I’d like to see other video games mimic. The bloated, over-explanatory cinema scene that is such a trend in the modern video game world needs to go away, and in its place gamers need to be treated more intelligently more often.

If Last of Us has an impeccable story, it is less revolutionary in its gameplay. There is a basic formula here that gamers will quickly come to recognize as “explore the area, clear the area, get a story scene, do a quicktime event, and move on to the next area.” Last of Us plays out as a series of locations separated from each other by this formula. When you first come to a new location, you will find yourself enveloped in the melancholic mood of abandonment, as you search through dilapidated houses for ammo and supplies. After a while, you’ll come to a place where enemies appear and then you’ll have one of two choices: fight or stealth your way through. Depending on the enemy, one method is probably going to work better than another. The twitchy, 28 Days Later style zombies are easily alerted and like to rush you in groups, making it most beneficial to find a corner and start shooting, rather then sneak in and get surrounded at an inopportune moment. Another type of zombie you frequently encounter is called "The Clicker." They operate off of sonar, have instant kill attacks, and can hear the slightest sound you make, so these are almost always forced stealth fights. Then there’s raiders, who carry guns and will use smart approaches to combat in order to flush you out of cover—but who can also be led into ambushes by setting traps and making noise.

These raider fights are supposed to be the ones that really offer you a choice of fight or stealth, but in my playthrough I found stealth to be effective for only so long. It served a purpose: the more raiders I silently picked off before gunfire ensued meant my chances of surviving the battle were that much greater. However, I rarely made it entirely to the end of an area with just stealth, and the few times I did I almost always found a locked door that I’d have to break down, or something heavy that I would have to move around, and doing so always alerted the surrounding enemies.

It was also in the stealth mechanics that I found the game had the most imperfections. The companion AI, in particular, is handled poorly. While you’re moving slowly between the aisles of abandoned grocery stores and taking cover behind concrete barriers, your companions (you do work with more than Ellie over the course of the game) will be running around like madmen out in the open. Rather than fix this tendency towards stupidity, the game designers opted to just make enemies completely ignore your companions until a firefight starts. This at least makes the game playable and keeps you from hating your companions, but it also occasionally takes you out of the mood the voice actors and script have worked so diligently to craft. It is completely mood breaking, for instance, when your companions yell “Quiet! There’s Clickers about!” and then loudly clomp around in circles in steel-heeled boots. The dumbest incident came late in the game, when Ellie crouched literally directly in front of two raiders, who gently pushed her out of the way while saying “We have to find this guy and get that girl away from him!”

The companions even got me killed a couple times. When you go into stealth mode, you can activate your hearing to “see” your opponents through walls, and be alerted by a bright light along the edge of the screen when they are sneaking up on you. This is incredibly useful in tracking enemies, as useful as Metal Gear’s Soliton Radar. Unfortunately, your companions also register exactly the same as enemies in this mode, and more than once I blew my cover and ran away from an approaching bright light only to realize too late that it was my companion coming to join me. Other than this, you can lose the game if your companion gets grappled for too long by an enemy (they never seem to actually shoot at your companions) but this takes a good ten or twenty seconds and the only time it happened to me was when I let it happen, to see what that looked like.

The other elements of fighting (aside from the melee, which is controlled by quicktime events), are more fun. Ammo is nicely limited, and the aiming system is intentionally dodgy, with a lot of recoil and unsteadiness built in. Because of this, you have to genuinely rely upon clever thinking to outmaneuver your opponents and give yourself a chance to line up a good shot. Stealth comes into play here a lot, as you’ll be sneaking around even in the midst of a firefight, trying to get behind enemies for a headshot or to do a silent melee kill on them. Another thing that comes into play are the supplies. You use them to craft items like smoke bombs and Molotov cocktails, that can easily turn a fight in your favor. I say easily, but building these items is never an easy decision. Molotovs use up the same supplies as health kits, and smoke bombs (which give a tactical advantage) use almost the same as nail bombs (which can clear large groups of enemies). And nail bombs use some of the same ingredients as shivs, which can instantly kill single enemies and also gain you access to locked supply rooms. I’m a big fan of inventory management. I consider it a lost art of survival horrors, and futzing around with these kind of decisions added a lot to what were pretty standard stealth and action sequences.

I cannot criticize the gameplay too much, as there are moments of brilliance. Especially when the element of interactivity is used to heighten the emotions of the story. I bit my fingernails to the quick during one scene in a basement, where I was alone for the first time in hours with only the illumination from my puny flashlight for company. Well, and the zombies that kept sneaking up on me around corners and bursting out of the shadows. This section ended with the realization that I was overwhelmed and was going to have to run for my life—only I didn’t know where I was going. There hadn’t been anything like this before in the game. The sudden changing of the rules caught me off guard and I was yelling curses at my television as I charged past enemies, seeking the door out. The game had lured me into a trap of complacency and then hit me exactly when it knew I was most vulnerable.

One of the most emotional moments in the game for me also had to do with interactivity. For the entire game, you’re led to understand that getting your companion to do something for you is a simple matter of clicking the right button in the right place. It’s not a difficult thing: it’s just like examining an object, only here your companion will respond by climbing up on your shoulders to grab a ladder, or help you push something out of the way of a door. It was an emotional shock for me when one of my companions simply stopped listening to these commands. This was an amazing highlight of the game playing with my emotions through the controls. Here, a delay in their reaction told me more about what the character was going through than any dialog could have.

Then there’s the entire last stage (I promise, no spoilers). Most of the game, you are pretty clear on where you stand as far as good and bad goes. It’s easy to feel okay killing the unfeeling, mutated zombies and it’s not hard to enjoy shooting the raiders after you’ve overheard a few of their conversations describing rape and eating people. Then, in the last hour, that moral high ground is erased, pulled out from under you. Joel’s final position is the worst predicament I’ve ever seen a video game character in. Many choice-based games have tried to create that situation where no choice is good, but none hold a candle to the place that The Last of Us takes you. The last three times you pull the trigger in the game will be the hardest shots you’ll take.

I promise: you won’t forget them, and the journey there is well worth any complaints you might have along the way.

zippdementia's avatar
Community review by zippdementia (June 30, 2013)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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