Once, twice, maybe even three times in a console generation a game comes along that is a true a leap forward in how we view our games. This generation saw Call of Duty 4 define what the first person shooter would be for years to come. The Mass Effect series brought a gamer’s choices into the spotlight. Then there is The Last of Us, a game that blurred the line between the real world and the virtual one. Naughty Dog didn’t accomplish this through game mechanics or graphical fidelity though. They did it by crafting the most naturalistic character driven story we’ve seen to date.
If you listen to the Pixel Apocalypse Podcast, you already know that I have issues with the way The Last of Us handles combat. I found it rather lacking, and a bit unresponsive. Similarly the AI was not quite up to snuff. I found more often than not that Ellie’s constant running out in front of an enemy AI, without being spotted, broke the immersion of the game a bit. I do not want to focus on that in this review though. It’s suffice to say that The Last of Us is not a perfect interactive experience by any stretch.
The story itself is pretty much every worn out and overdone zombie apocalypse story you have ever read or watched on television. People are thrown together on a cross country quest to save the world from the scourge of the zombie apocalypse. Along the way they encounter cannibals, sexual predators, bandits, etc. Once again the audience is hit over the head with the ‘zombies are not the most dangerous thing you need to worry about in a zombie apocalypse’ hammer. Allies are in short supply, and resources that we take for granted in our every day lives are scarce. We’ve all been there, and done that.
Yes, I know the monsters in The Last of Us are not technically zombies, but switching the risen dead into fungi infected zombie-esque creatures does not mean you have created something wholly original. That being said, please forgive me if I continue to refer to the setting in The Last of Us as a zombie apocalypse.
The what, why, and how are not what makes The Last of Us special though, it’s certainly not why every gamer (of an appropriate age of course) should experience it.
Where The Last of Us truly shines, and subsequently allows players to look past the games other flaws, is in the character development and relationship between Joel and Ellie. I can’t think of a single game with the veracity of Joel and Ellie’s relationship. Nothing about how these two characters act towards each other, or the world for that matter, feels contrived or fallacious in any way. All credit goes to Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson for bringing life to Joel and Ellie in a way which makes the player form an almost instantaneous connection with the duo. Ellie’s innocence, charm, and foul mouthed charisma are a perfect match for Joel’s brooding all business surliness.
Of course these two amazing performances would not have been complete without the breathtaking motion capture work Naughty Dog did on this title. Subtle emotions and nuances are all able to be picked out and understood in a way that surpasses every other developers attempts to display true human emotion in a virtual environment.
Naughty Dog is the master, and everyone else is the knock kneed apprentice learning at their feet.
Remember a few paragraphs ago when I was talking about the story of The Last of Us, and how it doesn’t deviate to far from your standard zombie apocalypse story. Well that only holds true until the end. In a master stroke of storytelling, Naughty Dog does not end the game with “You beat the final boss, here’s your achievement and thanks for playing!” The game ends in such a way that the player may walk away wondering if they are ‘ok’ with how it ended. Not with victory over the bad guys, but with betrayal of the most personal kind. It sticks with the player long after the credits have played, and the title screen has returned.
Hell, I’ve had a few weeks to distance myself from the game and that ending still pops into my head from time to time. It’s truly one hell of a ride…
This is the true greatness behind The Last of Us, and what makes it not only one of the best games of this generation, but of all time as well.