The Last of Us
Video games mine post-apocalyptic themes so often that it's easy to numb to the sight of ruined cities. Often, the end of humanity is just a striking backdrop for yet another first-person shooting gallery. As a result, these epic onscreen calamities often feel rote. In The Last of Us, Naughty Dog brings the impact of the end of civilization home by narrowing its scope; it doesn't focus on the fate of the planet, but on a pair of survivors who band together to navigate the dangerous and emotional aftermath of a disease that has decimated mankind.
The Last of Us tells the story of Joel, a taciturn smuggler, and Ellie, a brash young girl. They are brought together by chance in the months following a global epidemic that has killed millions and left thousands of others wandering the country as sightless, feral "infected."
This duo's journey starts with a simple transaction. In exchange for a cache of weapons, Joel and his partner Tess are tasked with delivering Ellie to a group of revolutionary survivalists who believe she holds the key to a possible cure for the disease. It ends with one of the most complex conclusions I've ever seen in a game. In between, you experience a survival adventure that features both quiet beauty and brutal violence in abundance.
The concept of survival serves as the core of The Last of Us. Ammunition and supplies are scarce, and must be scrounged in deserted buildings or created from cast off materials through a crafting system. You constantly live in fear of both the horrifying infected - the vicious "runners" and twisted "clickers" - and the ragtag human sects that still roam the barren cityscape.
While most games sell the fantasy of superhuman powers, The Last of Us constantly reminds you of your vulnerability. Stealth is the key to your survival, as overwhelming odds often encourage you to remain in the shadows before leaping out to perform graceless executions with blunt instruments like shivs. If events escalate into melee or gunplay, you are forced into tense, harried battles that leave you breathless. While the game never lets you feel at ease during combat, the play mechanics - from stealth to the weapons - are solid. I noticed occasional AI lapses and some of the "trial and error" frustration that creeps into any game that relies heavily on stealth, but overall it's an impressive action game that distills the strengths of the survival horror genre into something that's both deeper and more accessible.
The combat is versatile enough to support a surprisingly competent multiplayer mode, which pits you in four-on-four variations on team deathmatch that emphasize deliberate guile over twitch shooting. It's an enjoyable experience, with a robust progression system, though it feels at odds with the sparse, emotional feel of the single-player game.
As strongly executed as The Last of Us is, it isn't for everyone. It's extremely violent; at points when I wondered if the on-screen carnage was overwhelming the fragile humanity of the storytelling.
Though Joel and Ellie's journey is grim, it remains rooted in one of the most poignant, well-drawn relationships I've seen in video games. The light, campy quality of the Uncharted series causes some to overlook Naughty Dog's brilliance at creating realistic, believable dialogue. Using its skill in service of The Last of Us's somber tale, the studio created another high mark for interactive storytelling. As Joel and Ellie's relationship grows, we come to know them as friends, giving each fight to save their lives real weight.
What's left unsaid in this game is just as important as the lines that are spoken. Naughty Dog frequently lets its haunting vision of a deserted countryside speak for itself, effectively and gorgeously conveying the loneliness that comes with living on after the end of the world.
The Last of Us is a deeply felt, shockingly violent game that questions what we're willing to sacrifice and, more disturbingly, what we're willing to do to save the ones we love. The conclusion offers no easy answers. You won't forget it.
Naughty Dog turns from Uncharted's breezy adventure to a brutal, harrowing tale of friendship amid the ruins of civilization.