The real triumph of The Last of Us is that the game never gets in the way of its story
The Last of Us is pretty unusual. It’s not the gameplay, visuals, or the excellent production values that prove to be the differentiators, but something else entirely. On the face of things, there’s nothing terribly original about its post-apocalyptic setting in which a fungal infection has gone on to mutate the populace of a vast majority of the world’s towns and cities — one where the military has created quarantine zones in which survivors live. But look deeper, and there’s something you rarely find in any kind of fiction with a dystopian setting: hope. Not just any kind, and definitely not in the form of, say, Neo, in The Matrix trilogy, or one of the various chosen ones from movies and videogames, but in the shape of people coping, and generally carrying on with their way of life — believable hope. There isn’t one of us who couldn’t potentially be a survivor in The Last of Us; not one of us who couldn’t possibly adapt to the way of life of its people if circumstances put us there. Sure, there are heroes in the form of main protagonist and professional black marketer, Joel (voiced by Bioshock Infinite’s Troy Baker) and others, as well as a fair share of bad guys and infected — but within the context of the game, they remain believable.
This leaves room for Naughty Dog to do what they do best: create a technically flawless product with interesting characters, great writing, leaving the rest to the investment on the part of the player to find a connection with a piece of interactive fiction — in this particular case, with The Last of Us’ Joel, Ellie, Tess, the emotionally taxing moments they share, as well as its entire cast of survivors and scumbags.
In the traditional sense, it would be fair to say that The Last of Us has pacing issues. Once you get through its intense prologue, there’s a feeling that you’re not going anywhere or accomplishing anything of significance, meandering about aimlessly, following your AI partner, hiding and crawling around in closed spaces (often in the darkness). This “grinding” never ends, but at no given moment does it feel tedious. You’ll pause to catch your breath after an excruciatingly slow escape from a squad of armed soldiers, or stop to celebrate a tired sprint to get away from infected Clickers. Spend more time with the game and the reason for its pacing become quite clear to you; it’s all part of Naughty Dog’s plan to exhaust you mentally — not in the sort of way that The Walking Dead did for a large portion of its second season, but in a way that’s infinitely more acceptable.
Everything in The Last of Us feels like it was put there for a reason. There’s a tutorial that doesn’t feel like one, and it’s not just because the gameplay mechanics are generally derivative — hide, keep out of enemies’ line of sight, perform stealth takedowns as much as possible, conserve ammunition for fire fights. You’ll get schooled (over the first hour or so of the story mode) on how some weapons are more effective against certain enemies, get quick tips on the game’s crafting system — but it’s all woven seamlessly into the narrative. The violent and graphic nature of its action (both visually and from a sound design perspective) exists to dissuade you from initiating open engagements. The insane ammo scarcity and hopelessly shaky aiming controls encourage you to take a quieter approach. It’s pretty standard stuff, but you’re constantly looking for closure in Joel and Ellie’s stories while you’re shamelessly performing a brutal this-can-happen-only-in-a-game takedown of a hapless enemy. The real triumph of The Last of Us is that the game never gets in the way of its story.
The game is available only on Playstation 3.