The Last of Us: the swansong of the seventh gen. Heavy praise and high reviews are aplenty for the not-quite-a-zombie-game-but-it-feels-like-a-zombie-game, and despite my scepticism of the hype and the generally positive mainstream reviews, The Last of Us truly did manage to tick off a lot of boxes for me. This is Naughty Dog’s labour of love, a tale of drama and human development mixed with raw violence. I believe that no game is perfect, but this one comes damned close.
Joel, single father and protagonist, was there when the virus hit; a parasitic cordyceps spore began infecting our brains and turned us into mindless aggressors. Eventually the spores developed into hardened shrooms that grew over the host’s skin and distended our bodies with fungal growth. 20 years have passed, and there’s still no cure.
Joel passes the time as well as anyone could. Everyone in the game has been shaped by the events of the past two decades. People are quiet, cynical, and not afraid to exact violence in order to survive. The infected have pet names like “clicker” and “bloater”. The routine of being scanned by soldiers is an everyday occurrence. Gas masks are instinctively pulled on as soon as spores are spotted. Everyone knows what to do. The game’s world is shown rather than told to the player, and it works.
Ellie, a teenager, knows little outside the walls of a quarantined city, and she asks the questions that we want answered. Joel explains what happened during the years before she was born as he escorts her across the country. At times, we feel a sense of recognition in the world as well as we come across ice cream trucks, record stores and posters of old movies and supermodels.
The game is essentially a prolonged escort mission, but Ellie is well behaved and efficient. She may not be a constant inventory fountain like Elisabeth in Bioshock Infinite, but Ellie will hide when required, distract enemies as needed, and fill in the quiet moments with some banter.
It’s a good thing that she is competent, because the action is brutal. Combat is a constant cat-and-mouse dynamic. You can choose to save precious supplies by sneaking around and choking out enemies, or you can blow bandits to chunks with nail bombs and shotguns. Being overrun with infected is a harrowing experience; I wildly mash the punch button despite myself, hoping to knock out the zombie before another comes along and blindsides me. Sometimes Joel will fold under the onslaught of punches, and I’m forced to eject him from the fight with a dropped shoulder and flailing elbows.
Item crafting is a simple addition that encourages scavenging from the environment. The recipes are crude, yet effective: alcohol and rags can make sterile bandages for a medkit, while melee weapons can be enhanced by duct-taping some blades onto one end. Weapons range from the simple bow and arrow to the overwhelming flamethrower, all of which can be upgraded using scavenged parts and tools.
The minimalist HUD and swinging camera, however, can make things difficult during confrontations – mistiming a button press can alert enemies to your presence, and it can be difficult to determine whether or not a hunter actually sees you, as you only have a hollow whistling noise to indicate if you’ve been spotted or not.
Gamers who are looking for a more open-world experience will also be disappointed by the linear presentation: Joel and Ellie will come across several “arenas”, populated with cover and enemies, but that’s as open as it gets. There are no choices and no decisions to make; The Last of Us is telling us a story, and we are simply along for the ride.
Having said that, this is why I play games. This is an opportunity to step away from the deathmatches, the trash talk and abuse, and the endless grind. At the heart of Naughty Dog’s story is the tale of a man who has lost everything, and whether he has the capacity to find something worth living for (or dying for). Just how influential can one teenage girl be? You’ll have to play to find out.