The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic survival horror game that released some months ago on June 14th. It's also the best game of the year and an example of what modern gaming has to offer. On the outside it doesn't appear much different than other zombie-related things. The Walking Dead, I am Legend, Dawn of the Dead, The Last of Us in concept looked to be another story taking place in a world overrun by mutants. In many ways that wouldn't be wrong, it isn't too different than those. It does however succeed in two things: cinematic quality and gameplay. Often it's one or the other with games, but with this one it's not only a video game but a movie-like experience too.
The story takes place twenty years after the world is infected with some kind of virus, turning the humans into mindless monsters. Only about 40% of the population remains. Joel is our main character, a smuggler who eventually comes into contact with a 14 year old girl named Ellie. Soon these two are thrust into a dangerous adventure to find the anti-government group known as the Fireflies because Ellie might hold the cure for the infection.
This is a very story based game, heavy on voice acting and characterizations. Characters that appear briefly, such as Bill, are made notable thanks to the game's excellent writing. Survival horror is a popular genre, and The Last of Us uses it well. Despite having an abundance of different weapons, you'll find yourself hiding and making plans to get out of every tight predicament alive. You can keep telling yourself it's just a game, but when you're in a dark room or a place surrounded by blinding spores, you're going to be feeling a sense of dread only the perfect horror film can replicate.
This being heavily story based, characters are of course a major factor. In the game's incredible prologue, we're introduced to Joel and his daughter Sarah. They have a very close relationship, it's nice. (And apparently, it appears he's a single parent.) Sarah is the first character you have control of. It's a unique and cinematic horror feel within that dark house. Slowly as you navigate you see on the TV about something chaotic happening. Soon you find yourself on the streets, in control of Joel as he runs while holding his daughter. What is he running from? Infected humans that have gone berserk and are trying to attack people. It's a scary scene, as you watch civilization crumble. There's so much people running and screaming with explosions all over that you have to wonder how amazing it will look when adapted for the big screen. At the end of the intro, Sarah is killed. We fast forward 20 years later...
So 20 years later the government appears to trying to be in control of the situation. There are quarantine zones housing the uninfected. Outside the walls lies the zombies and Fireflies, the latter being a group of anti-government people looking to get a cure. Here is when we're introduced to Joel's partner Tess. The story here is interestingly ambiguous. Are they more than friends? In the end it doesn't really matter, Tess was a great character and a lot of fun to have around. It's a shame she died, but I was expecting it, as I'm sure most were. She wasn't featured in any of the marketing or on the cover, so it's easy for the player to deduce that. But when she was alive, she was great, something of a modern Ripley.
It's hard to pinpoint an 'antagonist,' because there are none. The Infected are the background force. Throughout the story there are a couple of human antagonists. You see, while the Infected are the bad guys, the game doesn't shy away from making humans the main force. It perfectly showcases how savage and evil people can truly be in a world gone to chaos. The first 'antagonist' would be Robert, who is quickly dispatched by Tess. Now the second antagonist would be David, easily more notable. This guy is evil, but at first deceives Ellie and the player. In fact, he would be truly Ellie's enemy since Joel never really met him. The 'boss fight' against David was short but very intense as we saw how violent the 14 year old girl can be.
Then there's Marlene, the 'final boss' so to speak. She is established early on, apparently as a caretaker for Ellie before leaving her in Joel's hands. She's the leaders of the Fireflies, and eventually Joel brings Ellie to her in the final part of the game. She's not evil like David however, she believes what's she's doing is for the betterment of humankind. And she wouldn't technically be wrong. The recordings you find in the hospital shed light on her mindset, it was fantastic that Naughty Dog implemented those to make some players actually agree with her and question Joel's antics.
While all these characters are nicely developed, the game is carried through its two protagonists. Joel is a very interesting character. He's not exactly a Mario-like hero. The early scene where he shoots the guy trapped underneath debris comes to mind. Sure, the player thinks that's alright since the guy will end up just suffering there, and it's a cruel world. But as the game goes on, you see he's merciless. This doesn't make him an unlikable character, but by the end you may be questioning him. (The infamous doctor scene comes to mind.) 14 year old Ellie escapes the 'teenage girl ' tropes plagued in various media. Despite the over abundance use of her cursing, she's cool. She actually gets in on the action, proving to Joel that she's fantastic with a gun and knife. (Also arrows, when she goes all Katniss Everdeen later in the story when Joel is out of commission.)
The bond between the two is strengthened throughout the near 20 hour campaign. Somehow they go from her being cargo to Joel considering her as a second daughter. This brings us to an infamous part or the game, the ending. I personally thought it was very unsatisfying. Once the credits began to roll I was thinking, "That's it?" I won't deny that it's also smart, since Naughty Dog can technically build a series thanks to the non-ending. What I do like is that it makes the player think. Is Joel right in attempting to save Ellie and stop the doctors from extracting a cure for the virus, thus rendering her dead? Or is he being selfish because he only sees her as his second daughter and not thinking about the bigger picture? Is he right since Ellie never voluntarily said she was willing to die since she had been unconscious throughout the climax? This final part of the game is something that won't be forgotten anytime soon.
At every game's core however is how good the gameplay is. The Last of Us doesn't disappoint. It's third person and you get access to various types of weapons as you progress. From assault rifles to hatchets, the game lets the player have it. But, despite all that, you'll find yourself not wanting to rush into battle. This is especially where the gameplay succeeds, opportunity to make strategies. Sometimes it's not necessary to kill everyone to advance to the next stage, it's about just trying to get there quietly. There are numerous ways things could go down, it's all depending on the strategy made by the player. The environments are smartly done in every area that they give you a place to hide and formulate plans or for last second thinking.
Of course, the primary reason why everything's chaotic is because of those Matango-like zombies. They definitely do not disappoint, and are genuinely creepy. The game delivers one of the most annoying enemies of all time: Clickers. These things you can't fight with punches and it usually takes multiple bullets to take one out. And perhaps even more challenging are their final form, Bloaters. These brutes are the heavy hitters and always a challenge to bring down. The Infected differ from human enemies greatly. Sometimes they won't see you if you walk quietly, so it mixes up the strategy-making process between humans and zombies.
One of the best things The Last of Us succeeds in is generating genuine fear. I'll never forget some of those dark levels with the Infected. If you're playing at midnight with no lights on in some of those levels, it's going to be just as terrifying as the scariest movie you've ever seen. So when beautiful visuals such as the giraffes appear, it's a great contrast which the player can't help but watch. Seriously, the giraffe scene was so unexpected and beautiful. I can't wait to see how a film adaption will do it. The soundtrack isn't meant to be a focus, it's just there to deepen the impact of scenes and gameplay. It's definitely used very well.