Drained. Tired. Ready for a drink. These were my feelings as the credits rolled on Naughty Dog's latest. The Last of Us is a story about hope in a hopeless world, and the lengths we'll go to for those we love. Who is good? Who is bad? Do such distinctions matter in a world gone crazy? The Last of Us is a bold work, especially for a developer recently known for strapping us into cinematic roller coasters. The Last of Us is not fun, at least not in the traditional sense, and that's exactly why it's so interesting.
The Last of Us is Naughty Dog's take on the zombie apocalypse. Here, the disease is fungal. Breathe in nearby spores, and you'll turn. If you're bitten or scratched by an infected? Same fate. It's not clear where the infection came from, but like The Walking Dead and Metro 2033 before it, The Last of Us isn't concerned with exploring why the apocalypse came to be, but what happens in the days after. Humanity followed a familiar playbook when the crisis broke out. Sections of society have holed themselves up in military cities where citizens deal in ration tickets. The infection is still present, and there's no prospect of change. We're quickly introduced to Joel, who led a stressful but normal life with his daughter and brother before all hell broke loose. Twenty years later, Joel's changed. He's survived, but it's taken a toll on him. Joel's partnered with Tess, a firecracker who'll just as quickly bust your lip as help you across the street. The two have similar values, so they get along. A series of events put them in charge of Ellie, a young girl that needs to be transported to the Fireflies, a militia group trying to establish order.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves remains one of this generation's most celebrated games. Bombastic, sarcastic, over-the-top, fun. It was Naughty Dog's legacy of technological prowess with a character of matched ambition. Uncharted also popularized the term ludonarrative dissonance, wherein the character portrayed in cutscenes doesn't match the one players control. Nathan Drake is an aloof everyman that's easy to relate to, a man one suspects doesn't take killing a man for granted. Yet, over the course of three games, Drake leaves thousands of bodies in his wake, and never bats an eye. We know why this disconnect exists: in service of fun. The gunplay in Uncharted was enjoyable, and fighting off waves of enemies was, besides platforming, the core gameplay. The series was also famous for its setpieces, orchestrations of madness and destruction on an unparalleled scale. You were often in control of these moments, and if you happened to mess up a simple jump, the sequence started over. A crumbling bridge is tense and exciting the first or second time around, not not nearly as much when playing it a tenth time.
The Last of Us rejects all of this. The Last of Us plays like Naughty Dog internalized the biggest design criticisms leveled against its last franchise and set out to make the anti-Uncharted. While The Last of Us retains Naughty Dog's signature ability to push hardware further than anyone else--a PlayStation 3 game has never looked better--it gives the player far more agency during the game's biggest moments, ratchets down the overall body count by a significant degree, and tries to make each kill worth a damn.
The developers achieve this by attaching weight and consequence to your actions. Early on, it's a brutal, difficult game. The more powerful infected have one-hit kills that aren't counterable until later, and a single pistol shot will lop off one-third of your health. Health does not regenerate in The Last of Us, and one must craft or collect new medical packs that are slowly applied in real-time before regaining any vigor. It's possible to clear sections of every threat, but that's a great way to wind up with no ammunition, little health, and not much else to show for it. In many situations, the best option is to run away. (It's possible to simply restart encounters, but I found this to quickly diminish the threat of being caught and having to improvise.) The Last of Us asks players to fight their usual compulsions when it comes to playing a video game focused on enemy confrontation, and make on-the-fly judgement calls that don't have clear risks or rewards when you initially take them. If you worry about checking every room and looking around every corner, have fun dying over and over again. Then again, some of the game's best crafting pieces, ammo, and other collectibles are hidden in those places. Is it worth the risk? Your call.
By holding down L2, Joel crouches to the floor and uses sound to gain a sense of what's around him, highlighted in black-and-white. It's not a supernatural ability, but a visual extension of Joel's 20 years of hardened experience. Joel's perception changes as the enemies move, and if an enemy hasn't yet made a sound, you'll have to place them in sight or prod them. Bricks and bottles are scattered around, and you'll use them often, as the infected and humans react to sound (sometimes to an exaggerated, unbelievable effect). Joel can and must use distractions to make quiet killing easier--players choose between a loud choke-out or shivving--or to sneak along. The same objects are useful on the offensive, as well. In one sequence, a building with six or seven enemies was too much for me to take on without using up most of my available pistol ammunition. One false move during a stealth kill later and everyone was alerted. Noticing the exit to my left, I ran. The exit itself was guarded by a beefy dude with a shotgun, though, and I tossed a brick at his face to stun him. This allowed me to run by, head around the corner, and avoid unnecessary combat with a whole room full of bad guys. Did I miss an opportunity to loot a safe or collect extra materials to upgrade my bat or build a bomb? Probably. But I also came out alive.
Staying alive is a balancing act that requires more than a steady aim and calculated movement. Crafting plays a huge role, one that comes with its own checks and balances. Players have a small amount of craftable items that unlock over the course of the game--molotov cocktails, health kits, smoke bombs, melee upgrades, others--but each requires multiple materials, and making one item will inevitably mean you cannot build another. Are you confident you'll make it through the next section without a scratch? Is it more important to kill the four infected blocking the way with a molotov cocktail? Like healing, crafting takes time, which is precious in The Last of Us. Once the bullets start flying or the infected start chasing, there are rarely moments to sit down, open your backpack, and wait for a bar to fill, signifying the creation of a new item. Crafting speed, healing speed, and other techniques can be upgraded by collecting medicine during the game, but nothing will make you all-powerful. Death is always around the corner.
Ellie is a key component during much of the game, as well. She's not just a character you talk to, but someone who takes part in the action. This would raise red flags in most games. Thankfully, it works fine--she's helpful. In addition to Ellie, there will be other characters following you around, shooting enemies, and hiding behind desks. They won't get in your way, and while it's a little weird when enemies don't notice these characters walking right in front of them, that's preferable to having them constantly messing up your approach. The characters are not in your control, but they're also useful and resourceful.
At times, The Last of Us feels like a classic survival horror game, and it prompted certain personal instincts to kick in. In games like this, I'll hoard everything, use very little, and find myself at the end of the game with a glut of items, weapons, and other stuff that the game never forced me into a position of using, so I never did. If the game isn't going to back me into a wall and force the use of precious cargo, I'm going to be cautious and make sure I'm stocked up. The Last of Us deeply constrains the player in the early hours, but if you're like me, that no longer becomes an issue in the latter half of the game. Joel is capable of holding more than half-a-dozen weapons at once, and while the game does an admirable job of ammo limiting certain weapons for long stretches of the game, I eventually hit a point where I wasn't thinking about the weapon I was wielding. The game's early hours are the most harrowing, and it's why I'd recommend players interested in a rougher experience consider dialing up the difficulty before diving in.
Maybe it's the nature of a lengthy video game, but despite its restraint, the bodies start to stack up in The Last of Us. Eventually, the violence is no longer appalling, the kills no longer shocking. It's partly due to Naughty Dog indulging in Uncharted-like setpieces that transform enemies into shooting galleries. One has dozens of guys swarming a sniper spot, and you're forced to kill them in a clinical and detached fashion at odds with what's come before it. And you have unlimited ammo. It's a moment engineered to feel indulgent, as the player has been slowly sneaking through a town to eliminate a sniper that's been a total jerk, but it doesn't work. When the last enemy had hit the ground, I was rolling my eyes instead of being relieved. But players may react to these moments differently, largely fueled by the agency Naughty Dog gives them in determining the kind of survivalist Joel is.
The emotions are heightened by the believable acting happening in-game and out. The performance capture techniques that made Drake, Sully, and friends come alive in Uncharted are put to terrific use in here, with Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson both fully committing to their roles as Joel and Ellie. Contrary to most games, Joel is not the player surrogate--Ellie is. You empathize with her, and she says what the player is thinking. When she tells Joel to fuck off, you want to give her a high-five. (At one point, you actually can press triangle and give Ellie a high-five!) Ellie can hold her own. Joel's perspective has been warped, and yet this is the guy you play as--the asshole. You don't choose how Joel acts. Naturally, there's much more to Joel that's explored as the story goes along--the man has his reasons for being bitter--and some of the best moments don't even happen in the cut-scenes. Every once and a while, Ellie (or another character) will have an icon appear above their head, suggesting an optional piece of dialogue. Often, these moments occur while Ellie is staring at a painting, poster, or another piece of scenery. Joel lived for years before the world imploded, while Ellie only knows chaos. These moments inform the larger fiction of The Last of Us, and bond Joel, Elile, and the player. If you choose to ignore these moments, Ellie comments on your decision to ignore her. It's a nice touch, and the interactions evolve as the game goes on. Early in the game, Ellie is learning how to whistle. By the end, she's gotten pretty good.
On top of all of this, Naughty Dog has built on the surprising success of Uncharted's multiplayer with factions mode in The Last of Us. You want to know the crazy thing, especially coming from a guy who usually can't give a crap about a game's multiplayer modes? It's great. The methodical, slow-paced gameplay from the single-player translates well to multiplayer. In both game modes, players are split into small teams, and working with one another is not only essential to survival match-to-match, but it plays into the larger metagame. In Factions, you're the leader of a small set of survivors just barely getting by. In order to unlock more perks and customization options, that group needs to get bigger, and as the days and weeks roll on, random incidents will occur to test your group's ability to cope. For players, this means trying to accomplish certain subgoals within matches, such as "x" number of melee kills. As the group gets bigger, it demands more resources. You only find those resources during matches, and you receive more of them if you're doing more than killing--healing others, gifting items, etc. There's even an interesting, non-spammy option for Facebook that names survivors after friends and family. One thing that kept with me, though, was multiplayer's focus on rewarding gruesome execution kills. When a player is almost dead, they go into a hunched state where a teammate can rescue them--or an enemy can end their life in a terrible way. Unlike single-player, there's no terrifying us-versus-them mentality contextualizing these alarming acts. Here, it's more points and a bothersome use of extreme violence.
The Last of Us is not simply Uncharted with zombies, but it couldn't exist without Naughty Dog having made Uncharted first, either. It's a dark adventure, one rarely filled with laughs or joy. There are bitter pills to swallow along the way, and nothing is taken for granted, not even characters. People live, people die. Sometimes it's fair, sometimes it's not. It's still a zombie game, but a sobering one. Take a deep breath.