The Last of Us was considered one of, if not the, best games on the PlayStation 3. Released in 2013 and earning over 200 Game of the Year awards, we look back on Naughty Dog’s masterpiece.
Launching in June 2013 following 4 years in development, The Last of Us sold 1.3 million copies in it’s first week, 8 million in it’s first 14 months, and won over 240 Game of the Year awards. If you boil it down to it’s essence, The Last of Us is simply a survival horror game in a world overrun by Zombies. It’s a well trodden theme that’s been used in numerous franchises before. So what made it so successful?
The Last of Us put it’s own unique spin on the Zombie genre. Rather that the typical virus or supernatural cause, Naughty Dog grounded their Zombies in the science of “real” Zombies. They chose to explore the possibility of Cordyceps fungus evolving to infect humans. If you haven’t heard of it, Cordyceps is a fungus that turns insects into zombies and consumes their bodies to reproduce. Yikes.
This horrific threat, combined with Naughty Dog’s amazing art design creates a world that feels real. What remains of humanity lives in rundown cities controlled by a harsh military. Ruthless bandits control the abandoned cities, and the rest of the world has been reclaimed by nature.
The Last of Us takes the player on a journey from the East Coast across central US over the course of a year. Each area is visually different, and the pacing gives you a real sense of both distance being covered and time passing. You actually feel like you are part this journey.
The Last of Us follows a linear story path. Most of the gameplay centers around navigating areas and combat. There are two main types of enemies the player must face; the infected, and humans. Your selection of weapons gradually expands as the game progresses, and you can upgrade them in multiple ways. Resources are scarce though, so players are forced to choose which upgrades will suit them best.
You also have access to a crafting system, allowing the player to improvise things such molotov cocktails and medkits from supplies found in the wasteland.
Stealth and Combat
Whichever character you are playing at any given point in the game, there’s a palpable sense of vulnerability. Whether it’s hordes of infected or the threat of discovery by bandits, you never feel safe.
Stealth is usually the best approach to tackling the enemy, whether you want to sneak by, choke them out or shiv them from behind. The Last of Us uses a “listening” mechanic, where the player use their sense of hearing to locate nearby enemies. Those in range appear as a visible outline through walls. All it takes though is one slip up and the infected hordes will swarm you in moments. Fail to take down a human quietly and his buddies will work together to flank you and deliver a lead enema.
Your fear can quickly turn to panic when inevitably forced to fight. It’s intentionally difficult to aim once the infected are running at you and the bullets start flying. Miss one or two shots and you’ll be fighting the enemies hand to hand before you can blink. When you have to resort to fists or clubs the camera shakes and shudders with every blow. If you survive an encounter you’ll likely be low on ammo, adding dread to the possibility of your next skirmish.
***If you haven’t yet played The Last of Us continue at your peril as this section contains spoilers***
Where The Last of Us truly shines though is the story. Yes, the graphics are beautiful. Yes the sound is fantastic, and the combat is thrilling and satisfying. But what will stick with you long after the credits roll is the story. You see, despite all of the crafting and exploring, the zombies and adrenaline fueled combat, The Last of Us is really a character piece about Joel and Ellie.
The game start out introducing us to Joel in the year 2013. Through the initial cutscene and first few minutes exploring his house as his daughter, Sarah, it’s established Joel is a single father working all hours to support them both. Of course, the world falls apart in minutes and Joel and his brother are soon fleeing the city with Sara. In what is one of the most emotionally painful openings of any media I’ve experienced, just as they are about to escape Sarah is shot dead by a soldier and dies in Joel’s arms.
The next scene takes us to 20 years in the future. During this time, civilization has collapsed and we rejoin Joel who has been surviving as a smuggler with his partner Tess. After dealing with a rival who has evidently trying to take them out, they meet Marlene who tasks them with smuggling Ellie out of the city. Marlene is the leader of the Fireflies, a rebel organization fighting against the government. It soon turns out the reason for this assignment is Ellie is immune to the Cordyceps infection, and the Fireflies want to use her to find a cure.
All of this serves as an extended epilogue of sorts. It climaxes when they find the Fireflies they were sent to meet massacred by government troops. Tess reveals she has been infected during their last encounter with the infected and sacrifices herself, holding off the government troops and allowing Joel and Ellie to escape. Joel promises to deliver Ellie to the Fireflies at Tess’s insistence, wherever they may be.
As the story progresses, Joel’s resentment to Ellie shows. Not only did Tess die because of her, but she reminds him of his daughter. He carries on only to honor Tess’ dying wish. Their journey takes them across country, meeting old acquaintances and even reuniting with Joel’s brother for a time. Joel tries to offload Ellie on to Tommy, feeling he’s done enough. But, when the time comes he has a change of heart and decides to take Ellie himself.
From that moment a bond grows between the two. When Joel becomes gravely injured Ellie has to save him and the game switches to her point of view. The change follows the games transition from Fall to Winter, and is left so ambiguous I was left wondering for a time whether Joel had perished.
At one point after meeting a stranger when hunting she is captured. Her captor, David, and his crew have been searching for “a crazy man” who massacred one of their scouting parties. David send his men to find and kill Joel, but Joel evades them, then brutally tortures and kills them. By the time Joel finally reaches Ellie he finds her just as she is burying a machete into David’s skull after he tried to kill her.
When they finally meet the Fireflies it turns out Ellie will have to be killed so they can harvest the infected part of her brain to find a cure. Ellie is unaware of this fact and Joel refuses to accept it. Marlene has her troops escort him out, but Joel fights through the Fireflies to save Ellie. Ellie is on the table about to be operated on when Joel finds her. He murders the surgeons and escapes with Ellie, killing Marlene as she tries to reason with him.
The game ends with Joel telling Ellie that the Fireflies had found other immune people and had given up. He lies to her, knowing he selfishly chose keeping her alive over the possibility of a cure. This story pulls no punches.
Past the story
A story expansion was released the following February. Left Behind served as a prequel to the main story detailing how Ellie became infected. Left Behind also had a section running parallel to the main story, filling in some events following Joel’s injury. It also featured a multiplayer mode that is still active, mostly operating as a team deathmatch style game.
The Last of Us Remastered
In July 2014 a Remastered version was released for PS4. This version featured enhanced graphics as well as all previous DLC content bundled in. In September 2017, The Last of Us remastered received an update to take advantage of the PlayStation 4 Pro’s increased processing power. This update added HDR support as well as 4k resolution, increased frame rate and enhanced shadows.
Despite coming up on almost 5 years old, The Last of Us is still one of the best single player experiences available. Thanks to continued support from the developers, the visual and performance updates have helped keep the Remastered editions performance on par with much newer titles. If you haven’t experienced The Last of Us yet, then you owe it to yourself to do so. If you have and you’re lucky enough to own PlayStation 4 Pro, then it’s well worth riding this emotional roller-coaster all over again.