“The Last of Us” takes place two decades since a viral outbreak devastated the United States and society collapsed. Its once-great cities now lie in ruins as survivors cling to their humanity in tyrannical military quarantine zones. People have the choice of either you endure the hardship of the QZ, or risk life outside where the infected lurk in the shadows and ruthless gangs run wild.
Our story introduces our two main characters, Joe and Ellie. The veteran Joe has faced with the task of escorting the innocent Ellie through the unforgiving world. And it’s their relationship that defines the beauty that is The Last of Us.
Joel’s years of struggling on the road have made him brusque and practical, yet his character has a strange warmth that’s left behind in his silence. Ellie however, is the complete opposite, having been born after the outbreak; she is spirited and witty, usually indifferent to the desolation around her.
The best thing about the two of them is that neither of the two are a lazy cliché, they both have flaws and traits that set them apart, and are both brought to life with an impressively natural voice acting. Essentially, they feel like real people.
They’re richly painted characters, and the script never betrays the unrelenting bleakness of the world. If you think something is going to happen in the story, your expectations shaped by years of predictable video game writing, it probably won’t. The narrative and characterisation are seriously impressive, and not just ‘for a game’. We’re so invested in the characters that moments of suspense and danger, of which there many, are given an extra urgency.
The enemy themselves are everywhere. They’re real humans that have been infected by the parasitic virus, making their heads sprout with a gruesome fungus and turning them into horribly violent monsters. But like every popular post apocalyptic world, the human are just as much of a threat as the infected. Taking advantage of all the chaos, gangs roam the country hunting for people and camps to plunder. While you meet a couple of survivers throughout the journey, most of them are hostile, giving you no choice but to fight back.
Speaking of fighting, it’s amazing. Joe can usually handle himself, but he’s not an invincible superman. Ammo and health are both limited, so firefights are rarely a good idea. Ideally, combat is something you’d rather avoid altogether, instead, it’s encouraged to actually use your brains to outsmart enemies with stealth. Using the game’s listening mode, you listen for footsteps and enemy chatter, any noise that would reveal their location. From there, you can try to sneak past them, or you can throw objects that’ll lure them away, giving you a chance to slip past, or separate them from the group and take them out.
The few times you do engage in actual combat, you immideatly see that the fighting is incredibly brutal. Yet, you never really feel the impact of slamming a steel pipe down on somebody’s head, or dig an axe in their neck. It’s basically never feels gratuitious, but in this barbaric world, it’s fight or die.
Another beautiful thing is that the game isn’t afraid to slow things down, and moments of calm are common. This gives you time to admire the gorgeous world, get to know Ellie, scavenge for supplies, and learn more about the outbreak. Your post-apocalyptic road trip takes you through crumbling cities, abandoned suburbs, flooded subway tunnels, and stunning countryside. There’s a huge variety of environments here, with the mood, weather, and scenery constantly changing around you.
Environments are large, detailed, and littered with secrets and optional buildings to explore. It’s a linear game, but it masks it well. The level design also complements the dynamic combat, with multiple entry points and escape routes. The art design is outstanding as well, with a striking attention to detail. From sun-dappled forests to rain-soaked city ruins, every location feels lovingly hand-crafted and drenched in atmosphere.
Occasionally the game spoils its exquisite atmosphere with slightly clumsy, illusion-shattering moments, like when Joel is strung upside down in a trap and inexplicably has unlimited ammo to fight back waves of infected – even though up until that point we’d been carefully conserving bullets. The level design also slips up sometimes, and you’ll know enemies are about to appear because of the sudden appearance of convenient, waist-high cover and throwable objects.
But that’s all the complaints I have, and honestly, it took me a while to find them. The Last of Us is a remarkable achievement, and it’s one of those rare games that you never want to end as you approach the finale. It tells a moving story that linger in your mind long after the credits have rolled, but it never loses sight of the fact that it’s a videogame, not a film. It’s a masterful marriage of storytelling and game design, and easily one of Naught Dog’s finest moments.