Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil and several other games have cemented zombies into a sub-genre for survival horror gaming just as Romero managed to pull off with cinema. Yet, something always felt like it was missing. Sure, us gamers had our Night of the Living Dead equivalents with games like Valve’s cult classic and hell, we’ve even had our version of campy Return of the Living Dead type of horror with last year’s Resident Evil 6 or House of the Dead: Overkill. But when would we get our character studies, our 28 Days Later that mixed brutality with extensive character development and equally interesting set pieces. Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead delivered the emotional goods but left fans wanting when it came to gameplay, and that’s where Naughty Dog comes in.
The Last of Us, released on June 14, is a game that I believe will be thought of as a turning point for gaming. Oh, and it’s fun.
You play as Joel, a survivor who isn’t uncomfortable with the idea of getting down and dirty to survive. Your task? Deliver 14 year old Ellie from the safety of the Boston quarantine zone to just outside city limits so that she can be picked up by local anti-military militia, the Fireflies. Of course it’s not that easy, and of course things don’t go exactly as planned.
You face two immediate threats. First, the zombies, which are humans infected by a fictionalized strain of the real cordyceps fungus (though the real-life version can only infect ants) and come in multiple different flavors, each more terrifying and threatening than the last. Second, hunters that seek to kill in order to get the supplies that they need, and sometimes for fun.
From a gameplay perspective, the game is fun, brutal and bolstered by smart AI. A scenario that caught me off guard occurred during the game’s first act. After being encouraged to sneak past a gang of three hunters who linger in front of a department store, I decide to take them head on, first with sheer firepower. Two of the hunters wield pistols of their own, the third (unarmed) realizes he’s outmatched and runs behind cover. After his two friends perish in a hail of gunfire, he hears my pistol click empty. He bellows a feral shout, part predatory, part joy and attempts to beat me the ol’fashioned way. Little did he know about the pipe strapped to my back which after a couple of brutal (this point exclaimed by Ellie who shouts “Oh my god Joel!” after the climactic strike) hits destroys the man’s face. After the battle, I decide it’s time to continue on, and the moment I enter the department store I realize my mistake. Another goon begins to choke me out from behind, but Ellie quickly tosses a brick at his head. After I manage to strike him down with the wrath of my pipe, I realize that his six other friends might have something to say about it…
The game’s tight, and sleek controls help the combat system and the crafting system adds to the feel that Joel is a scavenger and the world is a scavenger’s playground at this point.
The sounds of the game cover a range of emotion, from fresh and relaxing, to the intense fervor that accompanies imminent attack. Composer Gustavo Santaolalla showcases the skills that guided him to two Academy Awards. Past the actual soundtrack, the voice-acting by Troy Baker (fresh of a magnificent performance as Booker DeWitt in spring’s Bioshock Infinite) and Ashley Johnson is original and always welcome, with the least amount of recycled lines possible.
The Last of Us also comes with a multiplayer that seemed to be a tacked-on addition, but it adds legs to an already strong game. The two game modes Supply Raid (4 on 4 deathmatch with an emphasis on scavenging and crafting) and Survivor (4 on 4 deathmatch with no respawns) either lead to all-out 10 minute shootouts, sneaking/flanking escapades that leave chilling silent moments as you search for items or a crazy mixture of the two.
Ellie tells me she can’t swim, but the only way across the area in-front of me involves an impromptu lesson in aquatics. I eventually find something she’s able to cross on, and after she gets to the other side, and I climb up onto the ledge beside her, a small triangle hovers over Ellie’s head as she raises her hand up. I hi-five her and she comments on it, and I think that’s one of the things in the game, the small things that shows why Naughty Dog are one of the premier developers heading into the next console generation.
To end off this review, to call The Last of Us the game of the year would be insulting to it, as its quite better than any other game I’ve played this decade. Hell, its plot which is rich with development and emotions and raw intensity is better than quite a few films I’ve seen this decade either. The Last of Us reads more like a promise if anything, or even a manifesto. A promise for changes to come, and a future for gaming that can’t arrive soon enough.