The Last of Us (2013)

Unearthed from the hoard this week!

Before I begin this review, here are four pet peeves I can’t stand in video games:

  • Stealth.  I’m surprised my Hitman boxed set didn’t fly across the room every time some mook shot at my disguise. The same goes for Link’s castle infiltration adventure early in Ocarina of Time and that Final Fantasy VII Shinra Building bit. I hate stealth. Despite it. I’d rather slaughter my way through bad guys than sneak past them. Stealth sequences are where games cheat.
  • Quick time events. Push X to run fast! Faster! Smash Square to pull up that gate before it’s too late! Tap Triangle to climb onto the lift! No. How about you quit recycling Dragon’s Lair?
  • Zombies. Yeah, I’m tired of zombies, and not just in video games. They’ve over-saturated all media. I don’t care if they’re fast or slow, rail-thin or obese monstrosities. I’m even bored with the kind that use mauls and guns.
  • The Experience. Too many modern games come across like barely interactive art films. There’s nothing wrong with beautiful graphics, sweeping orchestral scores, background spinny propeller things and insights into the human condition, but there’s a problem when developers forget to put a game in there.

The Last of Us contains all of the above—in one game, burned onto a single Blu-ray. That should be the equivalent of giving me a box full of black licorice, paper cuts and cat piss.

Here’s the surprising part: I did not hate The Last of Us. I didn’t even dislike it or suffer mild discomfort. In fact, I quite enjoyed The Last of Us. Why? This is a game I’m supposed to hate on principle. After all, a majority of it involves sneaking around zombies (or their usual, far worse counterparts, Man), and pressing buttons to start generators or open doors. Meanwhile, all of that is wrapped in The Experience, particularly that of two very human characters journeying across a world too far gone to hell to ever to come back.

The game even opens with the textbook definition of The Experience, the David Cage kind. It begins with you in the shoes of 12-year-old Sarah (voiced by Hana Hayes) as she navigates a working class home in a Heavy Rain way: picking up a framed photo, opening a birthday card, catching a frantic emergency televised bulletin, and answering an even more frantic phone call from her Uncle Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce). All of Sarah’s mundane normalcy falls away with every action. Then her father Joel (Troy Baker) bursts through the door to shoot their neighbor. A ride in the family SUV through panicked, burning, screaming streets, a car wreck, and a run-in with a solider who’s Just Following Orders later and the world as we know it is over. As for Sarah, well…

20 years later, an older, downtrodden, grizzled Joel survives as a smuggler within a military ruled quarantine zone. A spore spread disease has swept the planet, leaving Earth ruled by two dominant species, Infected and Uninfected.

Infected come in three terrible varieties, depending on how long they’ve been alive. The freshest Infected are Runners, your typical rage zombies. Runners are distractible enough to take out with a shiv or crowbar, but they’re a nightmare in large numbers. Next are the Clickers. At this stage the fungus has grown so prominently over their faces that they are blind, but Clickers use echolocation to flail in on their targets. The slightest noise stirs them into action. Finally, and unfortunately not least, are the Bloaters. They’re huge, they’re strong, they still have echolocation and to make matters worse, they throw acid bombs.

In the midst of eluding soldiers and Infected, Joel takes a job from Marlene (Merle Dandridge), leader of the Fireflies, a resistance group struggling to restore what once was. Joel is to smuggle a curious package out of the quarantine zone: 14-year-old Ellie (Ashley Johnson). In a perfect world, Ellie would be a typical angst-ridden, precocious teenager. But this is far from a world where anything happens the right way, or ever will again.

Nothing goes as planned at the rendezvous point, of course, but before that Joel learns Ellie is immune to the disease. She’s no longer a pubescent burden he must move across a decimated United States, but a living vaccine, the last lingering hope for humanity. Thus, Joel and Ellie’s journey begins in earnest.

It’s not just any journey either, but a sad, poignant, tragic one. This is a story where hope and complacency are fleeting and finite, where no one we meet is guaranteed plot armor, not even children. That Naughty Dog developed this somber, post-apocalyptic swan song to humanity’s last good days may be the oddest thing of all. We’re a long way past Crash Bandicoot, people.

Returning to my original question, how did The Last of Us defy my expectations? Why didn’t I hate it despite the game being composed of everything I always hate?

First, stealth is optional—often a necessary option, but optional nonetheless. Each lengthy level has Joel and Ellie walking through peaceful ruins, talking, searching out supplies, enjoying the quiet. Then an enemy battalion, either made up of Infected or rational thinking bandits, ruins the serenity. From there it’s up to you how to deal. You can go in guns and bombs blasting, or take the quieter, stalker-from-the-shadows approach.

Typical of survival horror, ammo and craft supplies are in limited quantities. It’s not wise to waste bullets on small fry and take unnecessary damage when bigger threats loom ahead. Part of the fun is seeing how a plan will work out. Sneaking is practical, but it won’t always end well. One screaming Runner or unseen Clicker can send your whole play into orbit, and at that point you’ve got to run, shoot, or die trying either.

Second, the quick time events don’t make up such a tremendous part of gameplay that survival rests on them. The better portion of The Last of Us deals with how well you can aim or how quiet you can be, not how fast you tap the gamepad. While I would prefer developers not use QTE’s at all, they’re such an afterthought here they get a pass from me. Despite appearances this is an action title, not a button smashing one.

Third, The Experience is omnipresent throughout The Last of Us, but Naughty Dog has created enough of a fun and engaging game to accompany it. There are enough shootouts and harrowing encounters between the ‘art’ to keep trigger-happy and ADD inflicted players alike entertained, and many options for neutralizing enemies. Throw a bomb to send them scattering. Plant a trap and wait for unsuspecting fools to wander into it. Sneak up behind a tender skull with a crossbow. When the action halts, it’s rewarding to wander off the beaten path in search of bullets, helpful supplies and collectibles.

Finally…zombies. Yes, they are here, and clichéd as ever. They even come with the too-often visited trope that they aren’t the worst monsters. An Infected is dangerous in any capacity, but they have a disease. Uninfected humans, on the…dammit, never mind. You’ve heard it before. You remember it when the biker gang invaded the mall in Dawn of the Dead, when the safe haven in 28 Days Later was full of thirsty rapists, that the true evil is the human tyrant drunk on power. Yeah.

Here’s the caveat, though. The Last of Us isn’t about the zombies. They’ve ruined civilization, true, but in the end the Infected are background noise. Your adversaries could be swapped for post-nuclear raiders or dinosaurs. It wouldn’t change the entire narrative being built on the evolving, complicated relationship between Joel and Ellie. So there’s the adage of a post-apocalyptic hellzone with maniacal ghouls shambling around. However, Naughty Dog freshens it up by layering something new and very human on top of it.

That being said, does The Last of Us have issues worth pointing out? Aside from a few scripted sequences where you provide your companions cover fire, followers are such a nonissue they might as well be invisible. It made me realize companions can be too good at hiding. I found it odd how Joel can attract Infected like he’s wearing strobe lights and a Klaxon siren, yet Ellie can parade in front of three Clickers without a single one taking notice. This cuts down on the tension for me. I was hoping for a game where followers could accidentally ruin my plans.

As harrowing and life-threatening as the enemy encounters are, checkpoints are abundant. If you die you can pick up close to where you left off and try until you get it right. Most modern games with this feature trade that off with a penalty for failure. For instance, BioShock: Infinite autosaved frequently and took a little change out of your pocket whenever you died. The Last of Us doesn’t punish you at all, except for a reminder that pops up after you’ve fallen an embarrassing amount: “You can change the difficulty settings at any time.” Yeah, okay. I get it. I’m an idiot. Rub it in harder.

Overall, Naughty Dog has accomplished a feat often unheard of these days: blending a narrative and character heavy presentation with a game worth playing. I’m happy to say The Last of Us surpassed my expectations. It manages to be more than a boring interactive movie, and with all the annoyances excused, more than the sum of its parts. It’s pretty damned good and worth an investment of money and effort.

It stays.