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Video Game Review: “The Last of Us”

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Unfortunately, I haven’t convinced everyone around here that playing… er … reviewing video games is an essential part of my job, which is why it took me some time to finally get through LAST OF US. Hopefully after reading this they’ll see that gaming is going to be a big part of FM, moving forward.

Let’s face it, gaming has come a long way since a few dots represented everything from race cars and tanks to E.T. and Pac Man. Video games are the future of storytelling. With budgets and cast lists to rival Hollywood movies, plus the luxury of not having to adhere to weather patterns, Teamsters, the laws of physics—or even reality itself, for that matter—video games are routinely more entertaining and engaging than cinema’s biggest blockbusters.

It’s not uncommon for Hollywood’s biggest talent to be enlisted for video game duty. Keifer Sutherland will voice Solid Snake in the upcoming METAL GEAR V: THE PHANTOM PAIN (a role previously held by X-MEN screenwriter David Hayter). The new CALL OF DUTY: GHOSTS sports a script by Stephen Gaghan, Academy Award winning writer of 2001’s TRAFFIC. FIREFLY composer Greg Edmonson has provided the absolutely outstanding score for all three of the games in the UNCHARTED series. The bottom line is that if you haven’t gotten on the gaming bandwagon yet, you’re missing out on some of the most original and enjoyable entertainment experiences to be had—which brings us to the topic at hand: THE LAST OF US

THE LAST OF US comes to us courtesy of Naughty Dog, a studio known for its high standards of excellence with its JAK & DAXTER and UNCHARTED series. Naughty Dog has never been a studio that created games that pioneered genres—like DOOM did for First Person Shooters or GRAND THEFT AUTO 3 did for open world gameplay—but instead has always perfected genres while pushing the hardware to its absolute limits. The UNCHARTED games are masterpieces of environment and mood, creating characters that absolutely burst with personality and that move and react to their environments in incredibly realistic ways. ND has taken the third-person action/adventure genre and made it their own. Their games have a fun, light-hearted feeling with a wry sense of wit, all while pushing the action to its absolute limits. But with LAST OF US, ND looks to show the world just how strong their storytelling chops are.

I imagine that when TLoU was pitched it sounded something like this: “Picture a world that looks and feels like Cormac MacCarthy’s THE ROAD or THE WALKING DEAD, is filled with the infected from 28 DAYS LATER, and has a story that’s similar to CHILDREN OF MEN—and you’re trying to survive it.” That’s a pretty strong pitch. The only question is, can the game actually live up to it? No need to read ahead, the answer is a resounding yes. TLoU is one of the most immersive, moving, and rewarding gaming experiences. Ever. It’s a game that will be talked about in the hallowed halls of gaming history with such legends as SUPER MARIO BROS., THE LEGEND OF ZELDA, PAC MAN, and METAL GEAR. While TLoU does much right, it’s biggest strength is that it shows the absolute power of video games as a means of storytelling.

Unlike UNCHARTED, TLoU is a heavy game with a heavy heart. It doesn’t veer into melodrama, but it will let you feel the bleakness of the situation. The game’s prologue opens in the near future in Texas with Joel (voiced by the brilliant Troy Barker of BIOSHOCK: INFINITE fame), a single dad to twelve-year old Sarah. Joel is a working class man who seems to be doing his best to provide his daughter with a good life. As Sarah wakes one night she finds her father gone, but the TV in his room has a newscast detailing strange and violent events beginning to unfold. Sarah searches the house for her father who eventually shows up, concerned and rushing to get Sarah out of their house. The pair meet up with Joel’s brother Tommy and attempt to flee the panic of the city. Soldiers and police battle with citizens who seem to have gone insane and are preying on other humans. Just as the three are on the verge of escape—tragedy strikes. . .

Fast forward 20 years.

The world is a very different place. We quickly learn that a fungus called Cordyceps has ravaged the human race, turning normal individuals into cannibalistic monsters. Joel is tasked with escorting a young girl named Ellie (Ashley Johnson, whom you saw as a waitress in AVENGERS for three seconds and who was the young daughter on the latter seasons of GROWING PAINS) to a resistance group known as The Fireflies. The relationship that develops between the two is so natural it is never in question, never forced. The actors never overplay their lines or try to milk drama from a situation. The world is dangerous. The dread in the air is palpable, like a Lovecraft story. Their mere existence in this world is drama enough.

The “infected” come in a variety of forms. “Runners” are newly infected. They still largely retain their human forms and senses, but have an uncontrollable—almost painful—need to consume other humans. They are fast, but also highly vulnerable to simple attacks. “Clickers” are a whole different set of awful. They are infected who have aged a bit more, they have lost their ability to see and use echolocation, or clicking (think SONAR), to locate their prey. You can stand right in front of them, still as can be, and they’ll likely miss you (as long as they don’t change direction—which they often do—and bump into you). But move just a hair too fast and they’re on you in an instant, alerting any other infected in the area. And clickers don’t go down easy, they require weapons—which aren’t exactly being handed out like candy in the post apocalyptic world (more on this later). And if you’re really unlucky, you’ll run into one of the big guys whose fungus is so thick it works like armored plates, making the ole blood pressure tick up a few notches.

As terrifying as the infected can be, ND has really put an emphasis on creating a living, breathing, unpredictable world by focusing on the human element. Humans pose a far greater threat to Joel and Ellie than any of the monsters lurking in the dark. At least with the infected, their intentions are clear. With the humans it is far less so. Is that person you see really in need of help, or are they running point for an ambush? These are questions you are forced to ask in this game, and situations you will have to play out. Knowing who to trust, and even how much you can trust them, is a central element that will ultimately define your experience.

And while all roads will ultimately lead to the same end, there are different ways to get there. Often times the player will find themselves in a large area crawling with humans or infected. It is up to the player to determine how to best deal with the situations. There are many paths through areas, some involve fighting, some involve stealth, some are a mixture of both. Sometimes you just say, “Screw it!” and take off running (which is an always terrifying experience as you hear the army of footsteps growing behind you with no time to take a quick peek over the shoulder). Many times it is a trial and error, which reminds me—you’re going to die. A lot. A whole lot. Brutally. Quickly. Without warning. Get used to it. Think of it like GROUNDHOG DAY—but without Bill Murray to lighten the mood. Despite the sometimes frequent dying, the experimentation and sense of accomplishment far outweigh any sense of frustration. It really is a treat working one’s way through these mazes of living flesh and fungus.

But the locations in the game don’t just serve as mere backdrops for confrontations. More than a few times in the game I realized I was walking through a massive environment, beautifully detailed and designed, while simply having a conversation with Ellie or going abandoned house to abandoned house (which can produce some terrifying surprises) in search of supplies. It’s part of the fantastic pacing and thought-out design that ND excel at. Many designers might feel it a waste to use such complex and intricately designed levels for a little bit of exposition or character development. But part of what makes TLoU brilliant is its pacing. Since the game carries such an emotionally heavy weight and the confrontations can be very intense, having these moments that allow the characters a bit of breathing room and time to chat creates a sense of balance and depth in the gameplay. There are even optional moments during exploration where Joel can approach Ellie and engage in a conversation if the player so chooses. If not, it’s onward and upward to the next horrible and awful event.

The locales also vary to such a large degree that there’s no sense of environment recycling, an expedient and egregious sin often used in game design today. From the opening stages in Boston and the surrounding rural areas to the small cities, rivers, plains, and mountains of the American West, each place has its own distinctive feel and aesthetic. Joel and Ellie will rely on scavenging to survive. The game is intuitive in its placement of supplies. Food can be found by raiding kitchens or cafeterias. Weapons and tools are likely found by exploring factories or garages. Items can be combined to create small explosives or more powerful melee weapons, such as a baseball bat with spikes—great for taking down a small group of enraged clickers. Exploration is rewarded with extra goodies as items and weapons are in short supply. Every shot has to count as ammo will be at an absolute premium. Often times your tactics will be determined by what little you have at your disposal. Resource management is an absolute must. And unlike other games that allow you to have a seemingly limitless inventory, TLoU limits how much of any one item you can carry at any one time. To be fair, while I did have to be mindful of what I used, I never found myself completely out of everything with no hope of advancing. The game doesn’t look to pin you in. But it does reward the player for being smart since running and gunning through the entire game is very much not an option.

The game does have its occasional glitch. Sometimes the AI for the human enemies acts a little goofy in how they respond to having spotted you. If you’re able to get out of their line of site for a few seconds they’ll seemingly forget about you. And there are times when Ellie, in an effort to hide, will run around like a crazy person or get in your way. Fortunately, the AI works so that even if she runs by someone or something she doesn’t alert them. While it can pull you out of the moment a bit, it’s preferable to the alternative of your NPC (non-player character) constantly getting you caught through no fault of your own. I did have the game lock up on me a few times, but the save points are fairly generous and restarting the level only lost me no more than a few minutes worth of work. But none of these take away from the gaming experience as a whole.

It is still one of the most brilliantly realized games that gets the broad strokes and the details correct. The story is moving and engaging. The musical score by Gustavo Sataolalla (Oscar winner for BABEL and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) is subtle yet powerful. The voice performances are brilliantly executed. The world, the people, the social structure (or lack thereof) have all been wonderfully explored and given life. The game handles well and doesn’t suffer from any major technical glitches or lazy design elements. This game was made with a great deal of care and skill, and it shines through.

Any gamers out there who are fans of the horror or post-apocalyptic genres owe it to themselves to play this. Even the non-gamers who are fans of the movies referenced in the opening would do themselves a favor by playing this game as its appeal far exceeds that of just gamers. I’ve heard stories of non-gamers who were so riveted by the story and characters that they sat through the entire 14 hours watching someone else play the game. It’s that good.


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