Regular readers of my column know my distaste for the zombie saturation that has plagued this gaming generation. As soon as I hear "infected" or "mutated" or "unidentified strain" I tend to tune out. But just like the Walking Dead television series, right from the get-go, Last of Us is less about infected humans and more about a cross-country, character-driven journey of the human spirit.
After a heart-wrenching flashback of Joel losing his daughter in the early days of the outbreak, we flash forward 20 years. Joel is now fighting for survival in Boston. With greying hair comes a worn cynicism, cold and withdrawn. And we don’t blame him. In fact, we empathize. He didn’t ask for any of this. He’s just trying to survive. What starts as a revenge run to get guns back from a rebel group becomes a humanitarian mission to smuggle a girl, Ellie, to safety.
Ellie allows the game to stand out emotionally and visually. Don’t let the innocent face fool you. Her fully-realized facial expressions are matched only by her impressive spunk and attitude. This girl is a survivor and hearing her blast out a string of expletives when treated unfairly is not only contextually realistic, but also surprisingly amusing. You’ll love the toe-to-toe flurry between her and the burly, surly Joel.
Yet the rougher realism in character is juxtaposed with moments of vulnerability when you remember she’s just a kid – a girl with no memory of the world as it once was. This is a kid who is also plagued by a dangerous secret: she may hold the key to uncovering an immunity for the infection. Her fateful meeting with the reluctant Joel sparks an epic journey across crumbling cities – from Boston to Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City – and other relics of a decimated civilization. It’s a journey that is more within than without as Joel learns to both depend on and protect Ellie, yet never losing the curmudgeonly realism imbued by lessons from his tortured past.
This is a game in which you’ll live for the cut-scenes – the best you’ll find. Clothing, skin and hair textures border photorealism, but the greatest asset to the game’s polished feel is the way it never lets you forget the post-pandemic setting and oppressive social element in which you find yourself. The game is crafted to capture the decades-old destruction and destitution while subtly developing depth and dynamics between characters and the true-to-life struggle of maintaining humanity. Whether you’ll love them or love to hate them, characters across the game will strike chords as you become one with their single objective: survival.
In Last of Us, survival is brought to a level of realism so dominatingly palpable that it may begin to wear you down. You may get tired of the cheerless reality in which survival is not in any overarching goal or plan, it’s in finding the few scraps of ammo or trinkets surfacing from the despair-soaked squalor with which you’ll craft makeshift supplies. You may get tired of being outmanned and outgunned, being constantly on edge, waiting in shadows, listening for enemies and stealthily making your way through corroded buildings and along narrow ruins to avoid detection. But again, that’s all part of how Last of Us thrusts you unknowingly and reluctantly into the situation. Just like Joel.
If this frustration doesn’t get to you, minor annoyances in the gameplay might. You’re somewhat hobbled in strategic choice. Due to the insanely sparse ammo, you never have the option of going in guns a blazing so the game strongly encourages – forces – you to use stealth. However, you’ll find that sprinting through enemies can, at rare moments, be just as effective as taking the silent route. This reveals the game’s troublesome AI. While enemies – made up of military, guerilla fighters, and infected subhumans – are insanely tenacious and dangerously accurate, a lobbed bottle or brick intended to distract often leads enemies to converge on your position.
But all these annoyances are spot-on given the oppressive circumstances, hence my five-star rating. If you have the stomach and grit to endure the harsh, surprisingly lengthy journey that Joel and Ellie undertake, you will find a masterpiece that changes how you see video games. Cinematic characters with unparalleled voice acting, blended with a vivid presentation rich in an emotional, real-world plight, makes Last of Us a pinnacle of this generation and raises the bar for the next.
When he’s not teaching high school, St. Albert Catholic High School alumnus Derek Mitchell can be found attached to a video game console.
Rating: M (brutal violence; language)
Platforms: PS3 exclusive
+ Cutscenes border photorealism
+ You’ll love the Ellie-Joel dynamic
+ Epic story; pinnacle of character design
+/- Despair is palpable
- AI frustrating at times