These days, when most people hear the term “post-apocalyptic”, their first inclination is likely to groan and roll their eyes out of boredom. And why not? Considering how over-saturated today’s media is with zombies, bleak grey landscapes, and other forms of doomsday end-of-the-world fiction, to say that the post-apocalyptic setting has grown tired and stale is a bit of an understatement. But every now and then, a new concept manages to work its way through the tedium and completely redefine what we think of when we hear the familiar “post-apocalyptic” phrase. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is one such concept.
The story behind The Last of Us kicks off with protagonist Joel having to escape his hometown in the middle of a severe viral outbreak that has turned his neighbors into raving monsters. The prologue ends with a shockingly grim event that leaves Joel a changed man before the game’s narrative jumps ahead twenty years. Joel, now a smuggler operating out of a quarantine-zone Boston, gets hired for a rather unusual job: smuggle a teenage girl named Ellie out of the city so she can meet up with a group of freedom-fighting rebels.
What starts out as a simple job quickly evolves into a country-spanning journey that takes Joel and Ellie to abandoned cities, lush countryside, snow-covered forests, and straight into the heart of danger. Along the way, the pair meets a small handful of helpful survivors but, for the most part, encounters with other living souls become a desperate fight for survival. Fortunately, the bond that Joel and Ellie eventually form becomes an integral part of not only the game’s narrative but the combat encounters as well.
When the player isn’t taking the time to admire the game’s beautiful environmental backdrops or listen to the haunting music and audio (such moments don’t happen often but they do happen), they’re likely fighting to keep Joel and Ellie alive. The pair has to deal with a variety of enemies during their journey including armed bandits and roving infected humans who have been mutated into fungus-sprouting monsters. What Joel lacks in grace and formal combat training he more than makes up for with ingenuity and sheer brutality. By scrounging supplies and using the game’s intuitive crafting system, the player can fashion a number of different armaments including guns, bullets, and melee weapons.
Much like Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth, Ellie proves herself to be an invaluable combat asset as well as she distracts enemies with thrown objects and shouts, helps Joel spot hidden foes, and even gets directly involved in combat encounters when she sees Joel getting overwhelmed. Don’t expect any fancy combos or chain-kill headshots here, the combat in Last of Us is dirty, it’s simple, it’s violent, and it will likely make you cringe more than once. Seeing how Ellie reacts when Joel slams an enemy’s head onto a hard surface or buries a shiv in their neck forces the player to constantly remember that the violence in Last of Us isn’t meant to be glorified; it’s meant to make the player consider the consequences of their actions.
Fortunately, all-out combat isn’t Joel and Ellie’s only option. Precious bullets, first aid kits, and other resources can be preserved by sneaking through enemy-infested environments. Using Joel’s “listening” mode, players can determine enemy movement and patrol patterns as well as spot discarded weapons and distraction items. Stealth becomes an especially viable approach when encountering infected “clickers”; heavily mutated humans who emit an audible clicking sound and can instantly kill Joel if they detect him. Thankfully, clickers are also blind which means cautious players can use audible distractions to either sneak by them or take them out.
Overall, The Last of Us’ single-player story plays out like a tense, foreboding, grim, and yet at times strangely optimistic journey that isn’t afraid to show the heights of human connection and friendship right alongside the brutal, callous, and cold depths of what people are capable of when their lives are threatened. The stellar voice acting and superb motion-capture help to make both Joel and Ellie feel like real people with real aspirations, hopes, and fears.
My one minor complaint would be that the game eventually does get a little predictable with setting up its combat encounters (“oh look, a large room with conveniently-placed waist-high cover and discarded supplies. I wonder what’s going to happen next…”). But even that doesn’t take away from the brilliantly told tale that Naughty Dog has managed to craft in The Last of Us.
In addition to the single-player story, the game also comes with a competitive multiplayer portion that actually manages to transfer over the game’s oppressive and desperate tone of survival rather well. Two teams of survivors must battle it out while scrounging for supplies so they can craft weapons and first aid kits on the fly in a variety of game modes while also maintaining their own group of survivors back at their home base. The resource scrounging and base management help to add an extra layer of desperation to a typical match while also forcing each player to carefully consider their in-the-moment actions.
Since the game’s launch, it has received a few DLC updates including new multiplayer modes and a multiplayer map pack. Another map pack is planned for release in the near future as is a single-player story expansion which will feature an entirely new playable protagonist (Naughty Dog is keeping mum on the details at this time). So if you’re tired of the same old “post-apocalyptic” setting and you’re hungry for an engaging character-driven experience that will challenge all your expectations and keep you occupied for hours on end, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is a game you have to play.