A First-Rate Game
Who woulda thought that a game that’s basically one long escort mission would be one of the best games I’ve played all year, not to mention winning countless GOTY awards and just top honors across the board from pretty much everybody?
Historically, I’m not the biggest fan of stealth games. I’ve played a Splinter Cell game or two, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution was decent fun. But some titles kind of defy the genre; Metal Gear Solid is a stealth game through and through, but its convoluted (yet interesting) story and memorable characters eclipse any boredom from sneaking around slowly and painstakingly observing the environment and enemies’ routes prior to taking action. Meanwhile, Alien: Isolation takes stealth to a whole new dimension, where being detected pretty much means a one-hit kill (not to mention being incredibly terrifying).
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is kind of like those games: Its compelling narrative of a man finding redemption in a post-apocalyptic landscape made me entirely forget that, all along, I was playing a single, drawn-out escort mission, and the level of immersion it offers into its fictional world is so superb that it really raised the stakes and made both success and failure that much more personal. Job well done, Naughty Dog!
For those that have lived under a rock for the past year-and-a-half (or who have actively been avoiding this gem of a game altogether), let me sum it up for you. Truth be told, the set-up isn’t really anything incredibly special or unique: The zombie apocalypse has pretty much wiped out civilization as we know it, and all that’s left are little pockets of survivors dotting the landscape here and there. Well, mostly groups of violent marauders who’d as soon rape your decaying corpse as lift a finger to help you – you know, your typical end-of-the-world, man’s-inhumanity-toward-man scenario. As the outbreak scours the globe, martial law is enacted. Barbed-wire fences surround neighborhoods that have been turned into refugee camps, tanks patrol streets, survivors are put on strict rationing and scrounge for every parcel of food, and anybody who is in the least suspected of being infected or who steps out of line in the slightest is immediately and indiscriminately executed by armed and armored extermination squads of soldiers. And that’s if you’re fortunate enough to be with the good guys! Those choosing to live a lawless existence outside of the safe zones (or who weren’t lucky enough to be accepted in before they closed their gates to newcomers), lead an anarchist existence, abiding by the oldest law in the book: survival of the fittest…and most willing to do deranged, inhumane things to others.
Now, twenty years after the outbreak, when the game actually takes place (minus the opening chapter which lets you experience the chaos of the outbreak itself), a splinter group called the Fireflies have openly challenged the operating regime and fight for some semblance of freedom for the survivors of the apocalypse. Joel and Tess, forty-to-fifty-somethings who make their way by smuggling contraband goods into the safe zone of Boston, get roped into helping the leader of the local Firefly chapter – a lady named Marlene – by safely delivering an important package to some resistance fighters waiting outside the quarantine zone perimeter. The package in question? A spunky teenager by the name of Ellie. Obviously, things don’t go as planned, and Joel ends up becoming Ellie’s guardian on a trek across the United States, hoping to deliver her safely to the people who can harness her unique resistance to the virus to save humanity. Apart from it being the “right thing to do”, it’s clear that Joel sees in Ellie part of his own daughter Sarah, who was gunned down by a frightened and trigger-happy soldier during the chaos on the eve of the outbreak.
Certainly nothing we’ve not seen before elsewhere. So where’s the appeal?
Let’s put aside any talk of gorgeous graphics and tense atmosphere for a moment. The real stars of this show are the characters themselves. Joel and Ellie, on the road for a year or so, having only themselves to keep each other company, are provided with lots of opportunities for their characters to be fleshed out, bond, and grow by game’s end. And we, as viewers (and active participants), get to be party to Joel gradually beginning to deal with the demons that have been chasing him for twenty-five years, as the two of them go through some truly harrowing tight escapes and near misses. Like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, The Last of Us really lets players experience that protective parental instinct that Joel begins to feel towards Ellie. That’s not to say that she’s a helpless lamb; quite the contrary – as the game unfolds, she’ll prove herself invaluable time and time again, pulling Joel’s bacon out of the fire several times, all building up to a chapter near game’s end where we actually get to control Ellie as she deals with a town of villains with cannibalistic intentions, while Joel is incapacitated elsewhere.
The real triumph (to me, at least), and what makes these two characters feel so real, are the vocal performances by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, respectively. Not only do they have authentic chemistry, but the game’s dialog is by turns poignant, humorous, heartfelt, honest, and chillingly real. Whether Ellie is reading jokes from a book she filched, Joel is commenting on the scenery, or a maniac is offering a perfectly calm and reasonable explanation for how he’ll eviscerate and consume them both, there’s not a moment that feels staged or “gamey”. Then there’s the little things that really make it shine. All characters will continually vocalize while running, sneaking, jumping, or fleeing from their lives. Sometimes their grunting when pulling up onto the roof of a vehicle or panting after a quick sprint, other times it may be Joel muttering some comment to himself under his breath based on what you’re doing or where you’re at. Verbal cues for exertion, fighting, and so on have been becoming more commonplace; the Tomb Raider reboot was one of the first games that made it blatantly obvious to me. It seems odd, but I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a game have characters who whisper to each other in moments of terror, mutter to themselves, be out of breath, and all the other little nuances Naughty Dog has thought to include to make The Last of Us sound as true-to-life as possible. As it stands, it’s nigh indistinguishable from actual reality, and sounds more like somebody took a mic onto the street to record the events happening in-game, not mixed together in a studio somewhere.
I’m not going to take more time to go into the myriad other reasons there are to play this game – incredible graphics, gripping story, incredible tension, genuine Wow! moments, etc. While they’re all great (even on a last-gen system), it’s really the characters and the talents that make them come to life that “make” the game for me. So I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say that if you haven’t played The Last of Us yet, you need to – right now.