You’ve probably been hearing critics compare The Last of Us to a bunch of films and literary works. Some reviewers have even been calling it the Citizen Kane of games, which in my opinion gets thrown around a little too readily these days. Critics really seem to be looking for a game that revolutionizes the industry in the same way that Citizen Kane did for film, enough so that I have to hear that comparison made at least once a year.
While I can’t say that I agree with this comparison, I will say that those who compare the main plot and setting elements of The Last of Us to Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road and to Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of Children of Men are pretty much spot on. The game is very dark, and unforgiving in its treatment of the player.
You will do questionable things and you will feel the weight of those actions; there’s no way to keep your hands squeaky clean like in most morality driven games. There is no illusion of choice. The world outside of the Boston Quarantine Zone is a grey place based on a kill or be killed mentality.
The player tackles these moral lapses in the shoes of Joel, a worn-out smuggler living in the Boston Quarantine Zone, one of the few quarantines zones left standing throughout America. These “safe zones” are essentially military controlled city-states that were established at the start of the fungal pandemic that ravaged the world and as such, are just about the only places left in the country with any vestiges of government presence. While these zones tend to have a much smaller presence of the ravenous infected, they are still far from safe and supplies are always stretched thin.
These dire circumstances lead people to do terrible things, things that weigh heavily on Joel’s heart and led to him becoming a gunrunner in Boston. Through his interactions with Ellie, a girl he begrudgingly agrees to smuggle out of Boston, we learn little by little just what Joel has done over the twenty years that have passed since the pandemic began and how those actions has driven him to become the person that he is today.
Even more importantly, the player will see an excellent relationship develop between Joel and Ellie during the course of the game which is, in my opinion, one of the greatest triumphs of the entire script (which, given the surprising length of the game must have been fairly beefy).
Almost as poignant as the relationship between the two is Ellie’s development as a character in her own right. When the player first meets her, she acts fairly recklessly and seems rather unaffected by the world around her, as she was born into this vicious existence. As the game progresses, however, she quickly finds herself subjected to the brutal nature of the people that once lived in the world that we know today, and she begins to realize just how fragile life is.
This frailty is conveyed incredibly well through the combat mechanics, the only aspect of the gameplay that I’m going to touch on in detail. Enemies are tough, yet surprisingly vulnerable at the same time. Humans and recently infected enemies can only take a few bullets or strikes from a melee weapon (only a single blow from something like a machete or shot to the head), but are adaptable in the ways that they attack.
Humans will flank you and try to grab and strangle you in the same ways that you use to subdue them, and infected will swarm around you as they try to grapple you to the ground. On harder difficulties the only real way to survive is through a combination of stealth, traps, and careful conservation of your limited ammunition.
Even more deadly are the enemies possessing later-stage infections. One type is capable of instantly killing you upon contact without a specific combat skill, and the other is met in a handful of areas and could be considered the closest thing to a boss creature that you will encounter. The latter will always be able to kill you instantly and quite horrifically at that.However, the greatest accomplishment of this savage combat system is the way it feeds into the reptilian sections of your brain. I can recall several fights that went from controlled, to panicked, to a downright desperate struggle where my heart was pounding as I bet my last sliver of health on running straight at a reloading enemy rather than reloading my own weapon. These fights (when I survived) always ended in a violent melee that led to Joel barely wrestling the final foe to the floor and crushing their head, ala that elevator scene in Drive.
These exchanges always gave me a sick sense of satisfaction in the split second between the killing blow and the moment Ellie screamed something along the lines of “Jesus Christ, Joel!” In this way, I could see this game serving as a response to the critics that claimed Naughty Dog’s earlier Uncharted games handled killing in an immature, action movie-esque way.
This game made me realize something about the way I view violence.
The best (and least spoiler filled) example is a scene where Joel and Ellie are pulled from a car crash and dragged into a struggle with a group of bandits. After managing to fight them off, a final bandit strikes Ellie and wrestles her to the ground before you regain control of Joel. Now, I still had bullets at this point so I could have simply shot the guy and helped Ellie back up. Instead, I chose to rush headlong at him and pounded on the melee attack button which led to Joel kicking him in the chin and swinging his stunned body to a nearby counter-top, where he proceeded to cave the man’s face in.
This type of violence was completely unnecessary, but I felt compelled to do it. It’s the perfect example of how this game pushes you to do terrible things and then reflect on them afterwards.To talk much more about this game would be to dilute the surprise and discovery, so I’ll wrap up my little review here. Comparisons to Citizen Kane aside, The Last of Us is both a victory for anyone hoping that video games will one day be widely considered a legitimate artistic medium, as well as a victory for the game industry in general. It’s an emotionally taxing game that will make you ponder whether or not you can actually root wholeheartedly for a character like Joel, but if you have the means to play it I highly recommend that you do. Otherwise you’re really missing out on what I think will become one of the most important games of this generation.
Through the development of the relationship between Joel and Ellie, the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack composed by Gustavo Santaolalla, and the grim atmosphere that occasionally yields a much needed moment of joy, The Last of Us is not just the best game that I’ve played this year, but one of the best I have ever played through, period.