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The Last Of Us (2013)

Video Game Review by Nic Brown

 

The apocalypse makes for some good gaming. Alien invasion, zombie outbreaks, what have you - they create the perfect environment for a lone protagonist, or band of protagonists in some cases, struggling to cross a ruined landscape to reach some goal to survive, and maybe even defeating the menace that destroyed the land. Naughty Dog Games, in conjunction with Sony, have taken that genre one step further with their recently released “The Last of Us”. The game, like many before, is a 3rd person perspective shooter game where you play as the grizzled survivor of a spore-borne fungal infection that either kills outright or transforms the host into a crazed lunatic and then into one of a number of wholly inhuman monsters. Frankly, the concept is neat, but it’s nothing really new compared to zombie plagues, alien parasites and the like. What makes “The Last of Us” work as a game is that as you play it, you are involved in a story. Not a slapped together, hole-filled plot device to justify the action, but a real honest-to-God story.

 

The game opens with an intro where we meet Joel, a hard-working single father who loves his daughter Sarah, a likable character in her early teens. The story unfolds with her awakening during the night as strange events begin occurring. You start out the game actually playing as Sarah and you have to make your way through the house looking for your father. As you do, you uncover clues as to what is happening in the world outside: people are dying from a strange infection and some who don’t die are going insane and attacking the others. When you finally find your father, he’s fighting for his life against one of your neighbors who’s been infected. This leads to a hectic escape with Joel and his brother Tim. While Joel eventually escapes, things do not end well for Sarah.

 

Flash forward. Now it is 20 years later. Joel is a bitter, somewhat burned out survivor. A piece of his soul is gone, torn away by the death of his daughter. He and his girlfriend Tess are smugglers, always on the hustle in Boston, one of the few surviving quarantine zone cities in the U.S. The pair starts out to collect some weapons owed to them by a small time hood. The hood gave the weapons to the Fireflies, a band of rebels fighting the martial-law loving government of the Quarantine Zone. So Joel and Tess must track down an old acquaintance named Marlene who is with the Fireflies and try to get the guns back.

 

When they catch up to Marlene, she has a 14 year old girl named Ellie with her. Marlene tells Joel and Tess that if they will smuggle Ellie to a Firefly contact outside the Quarantine Zone, then she’ll give them the guns. Joel doesn’t like it but he and Tess agree. It’s only later that they discover why Ellie needs to reach the Fireflies. She was bitten by one of the infected. Normally a bite is a death sentence with the victim turning into a monster within a few days. Ellie’s bite is months old and she’s fine. In fact she’s more than fine; she’s immune to the fungal spores and the bites. She’s the key to an antidote, a cure that could help ensure the survival of mankind, if the government, the infected or hostile renegade survivors don’t kill her first.

 

“The Last of Us” is an action packed game. Most of the gameplay is as Joel and he’s the character that the player is able to develop. As a survivor in this dark world, Joel has some skills with crafting explosives, Molotov cocktails, blade weapons and the like. Those skills can be augmented by finding ‘pills’ along the way. Things like hearing, used to pinpoint enemies, health, and weapon crafting can be increased this way. Joel’s weapons can also be upgraded to hold more bullets, shoot faster, and so on. This is done by finding tools and machine parts along the journey.

 

These skill and ability upgrades are not necessarily vital to completing the adventure as they would be in some games, but they help, and for the most part they are logical and well laid out. It’s worth noting that the first time I played the game through, despite being somewhat meticulous about finding upgrades and such, I only maxed out a couple of abilities and weapons, yet I was still able to complete the campaign.

 

That brings us to another key aspect: fight or stealth. The game is set up so that there are times when you cannot avoid combat. However, many situations give you the option to use stealth instead of brute force. In fact, if you don’t use stealth to take out enemies quietly, you may not be able to complete the adventure. The non-player characters are also well done. The enemies are smart and sometimes unpredictable, but perhaps the best npc is Ellie. She interacts with Joel both with prompted dialogue supplements and in her movement and temperament. There are several sections of the game where players will have the chance to play as Ellie and see the world through her eyes - another nice touch. Overall the game play is straight forward and the controls are fairly easy to master.

 

What makes “The Last of Us” stand out is the story. The game’s objective is getting Ellie to a Firefly medical center, but that’s not why you play “The Last of Us”. You play this game to watch the relationship between Ellie and Joel develop. Joel is not a nice man and I won’t say that he’s any nicer by the end of the game necessarily, but as he and Ellie journey, a bond grows between them. There are times when Joel has to make some very hard choices, choices about loyalty, love and what’s best for not just him and Ellie, but ultimately everyone who might be affected by a cure.

 

The story is compelling. It is incredibly well written, and the game designers used the PS3’s graphics capabilities to their fullest in designing the characters and the post-apocalyptic environment. Game play moves fast enough to entertain, but not so fast that one loses the story and ultimately that is the driving force behind the game. Check out “The Last of Us”, definitely my pick for 2013 game of the year.  




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