While video games and zombie apocalypses are certainly no strangers to each other, The Last of Us rises above and beyond the self-cannibalizing genre for one simple reason: It cares.
The Last of Us cares about the finer details in its gameplay, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with developer Naughty Dog’s previous works. It cares about its story and characters, and it cares about the experience.
The story of The Last of Us sees the world overrun by an incurable outbreak that turns people into zombie-like creatures, sending the world into chaos. In the early years of the outbreak, a man named Joel lost his daughter – not to the infected, but to a soldier – as they tried to find safety. As the years pass, the loss of his daughter has turned Joel into a bitter and hopeless man. Eventually, Joel finds himself in the company of a girl named Ellie. Ellie could be humanity’s salvation, as she is immune to the deadly infection. It becomes Joel’s mission to escort Ellie to a research facility, so that she might be studied and a cure can be found.
Of course, the plot unravels into something far more complex – both narratively and emotionally – and includes twists and turns, deranged villains, and the experience of one loss after another. But what makes the story of The Last of Us escalate into something more is the core relationship between Joel and Ellie. Ellie becomes something of a surrogate daughter to Joel, and their interactions and banters come off as something smart and heartfelt. The game is wise enough to provide some quieter moments of character development between the two of them, and not just focus on the dread of the apocalypse.
It would all be for naught though, if the game itself couldn’t hold its own. Thankfully, The Last of Us succeeds just as much in gameplay as it does with narrative.
The Last of Us is a third-person action shooter, like so many games of today. But it again sets itself apart from the crowd for rewarding patience and strategic pacing over simply shooting everything in sight. Stealth and cover is placed intelligently, while still allowing players plenty of opportunities to test out Joel’s weaponry in more action-packed moments.
Ellie, as well as a few other occasional allies, aid Joel with items and backup support in combat. Ellie’s presence ensures that the story and character growth are weaved into the game at all times, but she and the other friendlies also give the game more urgency, as their safety is as important as Joel’s. Joel’s allies help him out, and players must make sure he in turn helps them.
Unfortunately, with these allies comes one of The Last of Us’ few drawbacks: The friendly AI isn’t always reliable, and you’ll often find that you’re walking a mile ahead of your partners, as they’ve wandered behind or got stuck after a hectic encounter. The friendly AI never feels broken, but it can get distracting when you’re trying to hear one of Joel and Ellie’s conversations, only to resort to reading Ellie’s subtitles, as she’s so far away her voice is only audible in a distant mumble.
The single player campaign is an engrossing affair, with solid storytelling and emotion that finds its way into gameplay as well as cinematics. But Naughty Dog saw fit to add multiplayer into the equation. Although these multiplayer additions were (strangely) given little fanfare before the game’s release, they are as deep of gaming experiences as the story campaign.
Multiplayer comes in three varieties: ‘Supply Raid’ and ‘Survivors’ both serve as team death matches, and see two factions of players facing off against each other, using the same guns, melee weapons and makeshift explosives found in the story mode to try to outwit and terminate the opposing team, with Survivors being notable for its lack of respawning. The third mode is ‘Interrogation’ in which players “interrogate” their rivals after their defeat to learn the location of the opposing team’s lockbox. The team that captures their opponent’s lockbox wins. All three multiplayer modes are engaging, and give the game even more longevity and depth than it would already have.
The Last of Us is a hefty gaming experience, complimented by a memorable musical score and detailed visuals. There are a few downsides however: Along with the inconsistent AI of ally characters, the story – while mostly stellar – does fall prey to some cliches of the genre. Notably, the concept of survivors being more dangerous than the infected – a frequent theme of zombie stories – comes into play repeatedly, with the introduction of a primary antagonist late into the game almost feeling excessive. A number of instances where Joel is required to push Ellie on a makeshift raft are fun at first, but as they increase in frequency they begin to affect the pace of the game.
These are small complaints when taking the whole into consideration, however, as Naughty Dog has delivered one of the most ambitious titles of the past several years. The single player campaign is one of the best in recent memory, and it is greatly complimented by strong multiplayer modes.
It may not quite be an experience unlike any other, but The Last of Us exudes enough excellence in its execution as to be an experience that stands proudly above most.