If there’s one genre that’s been done to death, pardon the pun, it’s zombies. From the ongoing saga of The Walking Dead comics and TV show to the upcoming Brad Pitt blockbuster film World War Z, to the Left 4 Dead and Dead Island and – yup – Walking Dead games, pop culture is literally awash in shambling monsters. That’s why, when I first heard that developer Naughty Dog’s next PlayStation 3 exclusive would be a survival-horror zombie game, I was crestfallen. I was worried the studio was wasting its efforts on a genre I’d very much like to see take a rest.
On the other hand, this is Naughty Dog we’re talking about – the same people behind Uncharted, one of the best game series of this current console generation. And once I dove in, I found that The Last of Us stands head and shoulders over not just other zombie games, but most other action-adventure-stealth titles.
That said, the first few hours did more to confirm my initial trepidation. The game starts off very slowly, as we learn of a virus that has decimated the world and turned infected people into flesh-hungry monsters. The story proper kicks off decades after the outbreak, with nature starting to reclaim abandoned and bombed-out cities.
Humanity, meanwhile, has been reduced to pockets of survivors who live in heavily fortified urban fortresses, defending themselves from the constant attacks of crazed “infected.” Daily life, when not fending off zombies, is spent scrounging for food and medical supplies in an effort to maintain the species.
Into this post-apocalyptic world steps Joel, a grizzled survivor who has lost much to the plague. In short order, he is paired with Ellie, a teenaged sidekick who holds humanity’s last hope. Joel must trek across the ruins of the United States, from Boston to Salt Lake City, and deliver his young charge to the Fireflies, a paramilitary resistance group based there.
The zombie fiction tropes are all present. Slow-moving monsters that want to chomp on humans; other human survivors who sometimes turn out to be more monstrous than the monsters; moral dilemmas of what to do when loved ones are infected. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
Similarly, all of the action game standards that have been institutionalized over the past few years are all here too. Like Batman in the Arkham games, Joel has a sort of detective vision that allows him to track enemies through solid walls, with the only difference being that his sense is based on hearing rather than sight. Standard-issue weapons – pistols, shotguns, rifles, bombs – can be found, upgraded or crafted. Skills, such as more health or faster crafting ability, are also improved by finding experience points.
To cap off all the familiarity, The Last of Us is a very linear experience. Just as with the Uncharted games, there’s only one way through and there are no outcome-affecting choices to be made. The gameplay is just one large vehicle for getting from one story-telling cutscene to another.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? So how the heck does The Last of Us warrant a nearly perfect review score of nine out of 10?
The first reason is technological: The Last of Us has perhaps the best artificial intelligence I’ve ever seen in a game. The enemies, whether they are mindless zombies or clever human “hunters,” behave in amazingly realistic ways, forcing the player to think up equally smart strategies in each encounter.
Human enemies are profoundly smart in that they work together to flank Joel and Ellie – they’ll often yell out their positions to each other, followed by instructions on how to get clear sight lines on their prey. Or when they hear the telltale “click” of Joel’s gun running out of ammo, they’ll advance on him or charge.
The zombies, meanwhile, are truly terrifying in their unpredictability. Some can see Joel coming but others, like the deadly “Clickers,” are blind and depend on their hearing. Every encounter inevitably requires the player to think stealth, with an action plan as backup.
The difficult combat encounters makes those upgrades incredibly necessary. The Clickers, for example, can chomp Joel to death in a heartbeat so he needs to learn to craft better shivs, which can be used for defensive stabs. Other weapons, meanwhile, need to be improved so that they load quicker or carry more ammo, both of which are vital when time is of the essence – and it always is.
Many games have an upgrade system that feels tacked on or irrelevant, but the high level of AI in The Last of Us gives it a holistic necessity. Joel and Ellie must scavenge around for every spare part they can find in order to make it through the tough encounters, which feeds into the story’s survival theme and narrative. The battles make the world seem more real.
The second way in which the game achieves greatness is through its creative choices. The story, although linear, is exceptionally well written and entirely believable, despite the fantastical premise. Joel and Ellie’s relationship starts off as stand-off-ish, but as they survive one peril after another, it deepens into an unspoken bond, with unspoken being the key word.
I kept waiting for some sort of cheesy obvious exposition about how important one character had become to the other, but it never came. Instead, the relationship unfolds in subtle ways. Near the beginning, for example, Noel is unwilling to talk about his past, but towards the end, he opens up more. Ellie, meanwhile, swears like a sailor at the start, probably as a way to show how tough she is, but I couldn’t help but notice how her foul language tapers off somewhat as the story progresses.
I also couldn’t help but notice how little music there is. Indeed, the game is almost devoid of it, which adds to the believability of the setting and the story. The world has been devastated, after all, with very few people remaining, so it makes sense that there would be long spells of silence.
That goes double for the frequent quiet between the two characters. Unlike so many games out there, The Last of Us doesn’t fill dead space with pointless chatter – it allows for the gravity of situations and the few words that are spoken to sink in. It’s a great example of how sometimes the best part of the artistic process aren’t about what to put in, but rather what to leave out.
Suitably, the story’s ending featured more of that creative excellence. Such big-budget “triple-A” games aren’t made without sequels in mind, so I was wondering how The Last of Us would end – how could it tell a satisfying story, yet still tantalize with more to come? Without getting into spoilers, let’s just say the ending is kind of happy, but also downright creepy. The game world could end perfectly well with just this installment, but I for one would really like to see what might happen afterward, because I’m fairly sure it’ll be riveting and unpleasant.
The Last of Us does have an online multiplayer mode, but the official servers weren’t active before the embargo on reviews expired. We’ll add in some thoughts on this feature after it goes live, but I honestly can’t see multiplayer – which will either be a welcome bonus or an irrelevant tack-on – having an effect one way or the other on the game’s score.
The single-player campaign, with its super-sharp AI and emotionally compelling story and characters, manages to overcome the thematic and gameplay tropes in spectacular fashion. The Last of Us doesn’t just stand out as one of the year’s best games, it’s also a refreshing gem in a genre that is woefully oversaturated right now.