‘The Last of Us’ Review: A Swan Song for a Generation
When I first learned about The Last of Us, I was greatly underwhelmed.
Say what you may about it being emblematic of our collective societal subconscious, the zombie apocalypse has been done to death this generation. The premise of a middle-aged man and a young girl on a journey through a hostile world seems like a repeat act in light of similar narratives from the recent Bioshock Infinite and The Walking Dead. In light of such conditions, what then is left to get excited about with The Last of Us? Simple, because it was developed by Naughty Dog: one of AAA gaming’s most renowned studios and the creators of the seminal Jak and Daxter and Uncharted trilogies.
The year is 2033; two decades have passed since a fungal outbreak crushed civilization. Mankind’s brief chapter in Planet Earth’s story has concluded. Humanity’s mighty cities crumble into Edenic forests as nature reclaims its colonized territories. As the age of anthropocentrism closes, small pockets of people remain scattered across the country.
The Last of Us begins with Joel, a world-weary smuggler, who lives a lonely, rugged existence in the militarized Boston. One day, he receives a job from the Fireflies, a rebel militia spread throughout the country. The “package” in question is Ellie, a 14-year old girl mysteriously immune to the infection, mankind’s only hope in discovering a vaccine. Thus begins a cross-country journey to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies’ base in hope of deriving a cure.
This irreconcilably bleak setting frames the entirety of The Last of Us. The game’s lush, postapocalyptic environments channel The World Without Us; sparsely populated cities left without societal infrastructure crack and crumble as wildlife and vegetation repopulate the Earth. Joel’s journey will take him through imaginatively realized environments with a palpable sense of history. While retaining a directed and focused linearity, The Last of Us is remarkable because its levels are believable. The last defenses erected by bewildered families and their hastily abandoned homes are imbued with narrative weight and contextualize the game’s action. The groundedness extends to the level design, and a single combat area may encompass several looted, multi-level storefronts, streets littered with the husks of cars, and an overgrown park. Resources for crafting makeshift weapons like Molotov cocktails, spike-bombs, and shivs are scattered around the world, as well as scrap, used for upgrading Joel’s guns.
The Last of Us’ lovingly crafted environments serve the two leading characters. Joel’s lonely weariness is expertly expressed by Troy Baker’s characteristic Southern drawl, his palpable jadedness imbued into each of his animations. Conversely, the tough, vulgar, and capable Ellie, having been born after the pandemic, cannot grasp a world without the Infected. She looks at the world with a sense of awe, the mundanity of suburban American life being foreign and exotic to her. Despite only knowing a joyless world steeped in despair, Ellie shines a natural light of levity in this bleak land, sometimes pulling out a jokebook to share painful puns, or commenting on the remnants of the world that came before with wonder and curiosity.
Nuanced animation drives these characters both in and out of cutscenes; subtle changes in facial expression convey unspoken emotions without a line of dialogue. The fifteen-hour game spans four chapters over the course of a year, spinning an emotionally draining yarn without yielding to the unending stream of escalating plot twists common to game narratives. An unflinchingly courageous ending concludes the adventure perfectly, and will leave players with something to bring back into their own lives.
That said, The Last of Us’ evocative story and setting would be for naught if not supported by its mechanics. And to that, The Last of Us delivers. There has been an ongoing discussion about how Bioshock Infinite’s violence was dissonant to its narrative, and how its flashy, gory combat disrupted the aesthetics of the story. Thankfully, The Last of Us’ combat system averts a problematic degree of ludonarrative dissonance.
Players going into The Last of Us expecting Uncharted with zombies will be surprised. The game’s combat sections, punctuated with long swaths of exploaration and scavenging, resemble something more akin to Resident Evil 4. Fighting in The Last of Us is grounded in semi-realism, pitting Joel against groups of three to five enemies across complex, multi-level environments with plenty of strategic freedom. The scarcity of ammo forces tactical thinking; the system encourages planning guerilla-strikes and Batman-esque escapes, with several backup plans should one fail to a botched assault. Clever sound design notifies when the player is visible to enemies with the harrowing howl of wind.
However, what is most incredible about combat in The Last of Us is that fighting is disempowering. There is no regenerating health. Enemies are absurdly powerful, and a single shot will knock Joel off his feet, a few more will kill him. Human enemies are also smart, and they will investigate sounds, footprints, and otherwise unexpected disruptions to the area. Infected enemies are vicious, possessing the ability to kill on touch, and when alerted, attack in savage hordes that leave no option but terrified flight. This is a dynamic that truly comes alive at the game’s hardest difficulty, where the tense dread becomes particularly pronounced due to an increased scarcity of resources, coinciding nicely with the game’s narrative.
Yet, enemies can be tricked. Combat areas are complex yet maneuverable. Joel has an advanced sense of hearing that reveals nearby enemies to the player, while this mechanic may slightly diminish the sense of dread accompanying each fight, it becomes essential to traversing through encounters. While each enemy may be dangerous, Joel has numerous ways to solve these brutal puzzles. He may construct traps, sneak behind and choke enemies or dash in to fire a few shots before escaping into a smoke cloud to craft a makeshift Molotov. Against human enemies, combat becomes a dynamic game of hide-and-seek. The nauseating tension of combat is relieved only by the cathartic release of survival, its intoxicating relief comparable only to Hotline Miami.
Modern AAA games are known for “set-piece battles”, and The Last of Us delivers some of the most dynamic, interactively meaningful, and thrilling that I’ve seen. One pits you against a sniper in a suburban cul-de-sac, forcing the player to dash madly between cover between bouts of tense planning. Another takes place in a blizzard, where the roar of snow and wind muffles sound reduces visibility both for you and your enemies. Certain sections of the game shift the perspective over to Ellie, making for the game’s most moving and powerful segments.
The Last of Us is not flawless though, while narratively assonant and cognitively tense, combat has a substantial learning curve. The disempowering feeling of playing a comparatively weak character will surprise players expecting to play the game like a shooter. A number of Infected types with instant-kill moves enforce the necessity of escape, which might be frustrating for some players. A number of playability-promoting measures, like friendly NPCs invisible to enemies, becomes disruptive to immersion.
A major concern about modern AAA games is the forced multiplayer necessary to remain competitive in a space where used sales are disruptive to profits. Unwanted and thematically dissonant multiplayer modes were criticized in Tomb Raider and Spec Ops: The Line, and ended up as ghost towns only months after release. The major concern going into multiplayer with The Last of Us is how the draining tension of the single-player adventure would conflict with the goofy glibness of competitive multiplayer.
Thankfully, The Last of Us addresses these concerns by daring to be different from any multiplayer shooter out there. This is not a competitive shooter, but rather a competitive survival horror game. 4v4 team-based matches move at a snails pace, shots are deadly, and tactical flanking, teamwork, and stealth are essential to survival. Ammo is scarce, and players usually spawn with only seven rounds of ammunition for their weapon, forcing players to scavenge the maps for ammunition and crafting supplies. Complex environments with plenty of cover allow for the single-player game’s nauseating cat-and-mouse battle and cathartic survival to translate to multiplayer combat. Finally, a measly pool of 20 respawns, (or alternately none at all) makes every preventable death a crushing loss for the team, reflecting the insurmountable stakes alluded to by the mode’s narrative.
The slow, tense combat is driven by a rudimentary camp-management metagame. Success in the two deathmatch variations accrues resources like food and medicine, thus expanding the camp. Consistently failing in multiplayer results in losing survivors to hunger or disease. There is a goal to the multiplayer mode. Players must maintain their camp for the twelve weeks it takes for extraction to arrive, with each match taking up a day of in-game time. This goal can be failed if all the camp’s survivors die. Unexpected Facebook integration names the camp’s survivors using player’s friends list, lending a personal stake to every loss.
There is something about the creeping inevitability of doom that is appealing about the zombie apocalypse, explaining its growing presence in pop-culture in recent years. One assertion that I’ve encountered posits that this is in response to the problems faced by millennials like environmental degradation, the increasing stakes of national security, and the uncertainty of stable employment, all of which we have little control over. What The Last of Us posits is that in light of the terrifying future we face, there is still strength and safety in the relationships we have to those we love most. While I doubt that The Last of Us will enter our American cultural canon in the same way that Invasion of the Body Snatchers did by channeling Red Scare-era fears into a work of fiction, I cannot help but praise The Last of Us as a significant title of this console generation.
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