The Last of Us – or, how do I classify this game? Action, stealth, craft, shoot, survival horror-’em-up – or all of the above? Developer Naughty Dog’s revered 2013 PlayStation 3 title is faultless in its storytelling and cinematic action, and The Last of Us will be remembered as a modern classic for its characterization and plot, if not for its gameplay.
Mild spoiler warning: this article touches on plot points.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A post-apocalyptic America: the world has been ravaged by an infection that has turned most of the human population into zombies (that’s not a spoiler). The Last of Us follows Joel, flawed and stoic, in his efforts to smuggle fourteen-year-old Ellie to the Fireflies, a resistance group that opposes the police state now in power. Ellie has a natural immunity to the fungal infection, and is humanity’s only hope for a cure. We’ve been here before of course – 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead by way of The Road and Children of Men. But Naughty Dog invests The Last of Us with maturity and emotional depth that makes this game much more than a zombie shooter.
Let’s talk about that zombie shooter first though. The Last of Us invites comparisons with Half-Life 2 (particularly in the one-two punch of zombie and authoritarian enemies, and the linear action) as well as Resident Evil 4 (limited health and ammunition, hordes of enemies, and the now ubiquitous over-the-shoulder camera view). Action is visceral and on-the-nose, drawing on Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted series – bullets crack, blood spatters, punches and steel pipes land with wince-inducing realism.
The Last of Us combines stealth and action relatively well, for the most part. Enemies advance through stages of infection, creating varying levels of difficulty: early-stage Infected are simple enough to pick off, but the more advanced Clickers are in many respects the stars of The Last of Us.
The Cordyceps Brain Infection itself is terrifying in its possibility (Naughty Dog were inspired by the BBC documentary Planet Earth, which depicted a fungus that takes over its insect host, ultimately leading to death). And the worst examples in The Last of Us are Clickers – humans overcome by the fungal growth which has erupted through their heads and turned them into bloodthirsty monsters. Now blind, Clickers emit eerie clicks and cries, using a form of echo-location to detect their prey. Clickers are a unique twist on the zombie theme, all too real and disturbing – and they can result in instant death if you make too much noise. Silently stalking them and using a homemade shiv is the best course of action here, since gunfire only draws more Infected down on top of you.
In an effort to level the playing field, Naughty Dog gifted Joel his own version of echo-location. Even though he doesn’t have the mystical powers of an assassin, or the high-tech visor of Batman, “listen mode” enables the player to “see” enemies beyond your line of sight. And yet, the stealth sections – and there are many of them – can be frustrating. Very frustrating. As with all 3D stealth-based games, the rules are not entirely clear – how far can the Infected see? How well can they hear? The Last of Us often devolves into tedious stretches of creeping around, although being sneaky only takes you so far, since human enemies pose a tougher challenge.
Combat against the human monster – heavily armed police state shocktroops, or vicious gangs of cannibals – is even more trying. Naughty Dog should be credited for the AI though: once spotted, bad guys will work together, some hanging back to provide covering fire, while others rush and outflank you. But where’s the fun in that? Clever planning can help even things out, and The Last of Us features a neat crafting system, with the ability to cobble together items like alcohol and rags into Molotov cocktails. Yet one dead body (or misstep) will alert enemies to your presence, leading to typically desperate weapon wrangling and frenetic melee fights to survive.
All of this is compounded by some iffy gunplay. As I suggested in my recent article on the end of motion control, the aiming and shooting in The Last of Us cannot compare with the sublime Wii controls of Resident Evil 4 or Metroid Prime. Even with auto-aim, shooting tends to be inaccurate, leading to greater frustration as enemies swarm you.
I have to admit to being disappointed overall, especially since the gameplay – when it works – features the best cinematic action this side of Half-Life 2. Weapons, upgrades, stealth, and combat are all brilliantly imagined, if not brilliantly executed.
Call Me Ish
The Last of Us challenges the player in a different way, and it’s during the quiet moments between tense set-pieces that the game excels.
Stealing through long abandoned homes for food, rags, and other bits and pieces to craft makeshift bandages and weapons, Naughty Dog’s attention to detail is remarkable – from family photographs stuck to fridge doors, to old computers and furniture, to toys in children’s rooms. For the player, the overwhelming feeling is one of being an interloper – these homes were lived in, and taking supplies feels like a transgression against people who may also have survived.
The suburbs section of The Last of Us is the somber tale of the apocalypse in microcosm. On escaping hunters in Pittsburgh, Joel and Ellie must work their way through a sewer system. As you move deeper into the tunnels, notes left by a character named Ish recount the survivors’ story:
Yesterday I met with some people who did not want to shoot me on sight. Shocking, I know. We traded some supplies and went on our merry way.
They had kids with them and they seemed pretty scared. I almost told them about this place. What if they’re like the others? What if…
You know what? I don’t care. What’s the point of surviving if you don’t have someone to laugh at your lame jokes?
Tomorrow, I’m going to search for them. See if they want to join me in here.
Even more than the uniformly excellent cutscenes, the scrawled notes immerse you in the world of The Last of Us. As Joel and Ellie explore the public works system, Ish’s story is revealed: he has banded together with other people to build a community, tucked away underground, secured from outside dangers by layers of concrete, complete with showers (notice the improvised rain-catching set-up), sleeping quarters, and a colorful kindergarten. Yet from the start of this section the player is under no illusion as to what happened here – and you are almost invited to make a judgment about the terrible decisions that must have been made. Those poignant moments in the kindergarten will not be forgotten quickly by anyone who has played The Last of Us.
Gustavo Santaolalla’s score will also stay with you – downbeat and heavily evocative of things past, the Academy Award-winning composer’s work on The Last of Us raises the game above its roots as a survival horror title. The “games as art” debate inches onwards (indeed, will be the only constant for video games) though The Last of Us goes some way to drawing a line under the argument. The opening credits sequence highlights Gustavo Santaolalla’s moving score, while brilliantly contrasting sterile news reporting about the deadly outbreak against imagery of the organic, relentless spread of fungal spores:
The Last of Us is worth experiencing for the score and production design alone.
Sidestepping the grand pretensions of many post-apocalyptic stories, The Last of Us instead focuses on a more personal narrative. Joel and Ellie’s father/surrogate daughter relationship asks the question: how far are you willing to go to protect your family? The answer, delivered in the finale, will no doubt divide opinion, but the developers pose this existential question with maturity and the right amount of ambiguity.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, the game becomes easier – and more enjoyable – towards the end. By then the player will have hoarded enough weaponry to render the formerly fearsome Clickers into zombie cannon fodder. Leveled up with Molotov cocktails, nail bombs, and a brutal jerry-rigged flamethrower, the sections in Salt Lake City’s tunnels have the player drawing out and cutting down packs of Infected in open battles they have no chance of winning. Finally the player is given full control over the environment, and the contrast with earlier painstaking stealth is marked.
And so The Last of Us is a tough game to review. Naughty Dog’s survival horror has been universally admired by critics and gamers since its original release in 2013, and undoubtedly raises the bar for production values, writing, voice acting, and characterization in video games.
Technically though, The Last of Us hits its stride too late in the day: the game is somewhat imbalanced in earlier chapters, and the stealth-based gameplay can be a grind. Tighter aiming may also have helped lessen the frustration level.
But I’m missing the point, as The Last of Us is not another zombie shoot-’em-up. The Last of Us is an artistic vision more so than a technical one, and for that Naughty Dog deserve all the praise, especially for creating fleshed out characters and a truly unique gaming experience.