Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Last of Us Review

The Last of Us is one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had whilst gaming.  And that’s why I’m going to treat this magnificent game as a film and review it as such.  It is without a doubt one of, it not THE most cinematic game I’ve ever played – even more so than my beloved Bioshock franchise.  For those of you who haven’t experienced it yet, I suggest you just stick to the first part of my review, for there are many things you won’t want to know going in…

Developer Naughty Dog has shown its increasingly-fantastic pedigree this console generation with the fantastic Uncharted series.  They’re essentially big-budget, summer action tent-pole films, in the vein of Indiana Jones, in video-game form.  To continue the analogy, The Last of Us is the somber, brooding, awards-bait drama that comes out in November in limited release…and wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.  This game is dark.  I mean, dark.  The world that Naughty Dog has built oozes grime and grit.  And is utterly depressing.

It’s this unflinchingly uncompromising world that makes The Last of Us something special.  In 2013, a fungal pandemic sweeps the globe.  The fungus, cordyceps, exists in our actual world and acts as a parasite to insects and other fungi.  It can take over motor functions completely, rendering the host without the ability to control its movements.  In the game, the fungus evolves to infect humans, who go through several stages of mutation.  An infected human goes from a fast zombie-type to a “clicker,” who uses echo-location to find its prey.  “Bloaters” are the last stage of the infection; their entire bodies are covered in armored fungal plates and are incredibly hard to take down.  The infected aren’t the only dangers in this world; pockets of hunters and bandits permeate the countryside, having carved out sections of the ruins of America as their own turf.

The game is set in 2033, twenty years after the fall of civilization.  Our protagonist is Joel, a survivor who lived through the apocalypse and is living in one of the last quarantine zones in the country, Boston, Massachusetts.  The remains of the U.S. Government, FEDRA, attempt to hold these zones with and by total military control.  Joel and co-conspirator Tess smuggle goods and make black-market deals to earn ration cards to survive.  A gun deal goes south and the two are tasked with smuggling a unique package across the country for a rebel faction known as the Fireflies.  This package is a fourteen-year-old girl named Ellie.

The crux of both the gameplay and the narrative is the relationship between Joel and Ellie.  It’s always interesting to watch two opposite people have to team up for a greater task; Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell in The Other Guys, Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges in True Grit, or more aptly, Booker and Elizabeth from this year’s outstanding Bioshock Infinite (fun fact: Troy Baker voiced the lead characters for both Infinite and The Last of Us).  Joel is a grizzled and jaded man who has seen and done despicable things and knew what the world once was.  Ellie was born after the fall of civilization and has a gritty naiveté about her; she’s tough and can fight in this harsh world, but will stop to wonder at movie posters or toys in a store.  As is expected, Joel isn’t all too happy to have this girl by his side while traveling through the harsh world that exists outside the quarantine zone; it’s enough to just stay alive let alone have to look out for someone else.  He and Tess are partners, but from the beginning you know that Tess isn’t a liability – she can more than handle herself in a fight.

The pairing of Joel and Ellie begins within well-worn territory; Joel is the reluctant anti-hero and Ellie is the plucky, mouthy side-kick who doesn’t really wanna be there either.  We’re with this pair for a significant amount of time, through the good and bad.  But mostly it’s bad.  Their relationship develops naturally and feels incredibly real and grounded, especially for this cruel world they’re surviving in.  The guarded nature that both begin the journey with spills over into the greater narrative; any survivor the duo meet are met with hesitance and paranoia.  It truly is survival of the fittest and no one can be trusted.  Late in the game Ellie meets two men in the woods and she and I shared a mutual paranoia about these two; are they really there to help or to do cruel and deplorable things to this teenage girl?

The narrative is structured into clear chapters, defined by the four seasons.  We begin in Summer and end in Spring.  Every season ends on a dramatic climax, and left my jaw on the floor each time.  If this were a TV show I would’ve lost my mind having to wait to find out what happened next.  How the narrative picks up each sequential season is handled masterfully; if we don’t know if someone lived or died we’re left hanging, with tidbits of information given to us rather than just outright showing us.  If this all seems a bit vague and abstract it’s because it is – to give any details outside of the initial set-up would be a disservice to anyone who wants to experience this game as it’s meant to be.

I don’t have much more to say that won’t spoil key events that transpire in this masterwork of gaming.  If you own a PlayStation 3 you have absolutely no excuse to not pick this gem up and experience one of the best-told stories I’ve ever seen.  If you can’t afford the $60 price tag then do your best to rent it or borrow it from a friend.  The Last of Us is without a doubt a must-play game, hands-down.

************Spoilers for The Last of Us**********

From the beginning of the game to its quiet ending moments, Joel is the ultimate anti-hero.  He doesn’t want to smuggle Ellie and it shows.  He kills and does despicable things to survive in this world.  As the seasons change and Ellie begins to grow on him, Joel begins to change subtlely.  By Spring, when our duo reaches Salt Lake City, Utah, Joel is now the one trying to cheer up Ellie and joke around  a bit.  The relationship that developed between the two, with each having saved each other’s lives several times, plays heavily into the final moments of the game and the humanity-condemning decision Joel ultimately makes.

Ellie is immune to cordyceps; before the game even begins she is bitten and infected…but doesn’t turn.  She is seen as the cure, which is an acknowledged trope found in other post-apocalyptic fare like Children of Men, and is the driving force for the entire game.  Upon finding refuge with the Fireflies in Salt Lake City, Joel learns that in order for them to develop a potential cure Ellie must essentially be lobotomized.  The parts of her brain that resisted the fungus must be removed and her life sacrificed for the greater good.  Just as Spock said in The Wrath of Khan, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  Or the one.” 

Joel can’t process this information, especially after all they’ve been through.  He almost gave his life several times to get her to their destination that he just cannot accept her sacrifice.  The final set-piece involves Joel sneaking by or murdering dozens of Firefly soldiers on the way to the operating room where Ellie is being prepped for surgery.  Joel breaks in and flees with Ellie and is stopped by the leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, who pleads with Joel to stop.   In the last great reveal of the game, we see Joel in a truck driving away from the city and we, the viewers, have no idea what he decided to do.  The camera slowly pans to the back seat where we see Ellie asleep; we flash back to Marlene and see Joel shoot her in the stomach.  With her last breaths she begs Joel to let her live.  He puts a bullet in her brain.

Ellie awakens in the back of the truck and asks Joel what happened.  He explains that there were other people who were immune and that she wasn’t needed.  We cut to the duo as they’re approaching the Colorado settlement where Joel’s brother, Tommy, is living with his new wife.  Ellie stops Joel and tells the gut-wrenching story of how she became infected.  At the end, she asks Joel if everything he told her about the Firefly incident is true.  This is his one chance to come clean and be wholly honest with her.  And he replies, “yes.”  Cut to black.  Game over.  What a gut-punch of an ending.

We’ve spent 15+ hours with these characters, watching them grow and change and evolve.  The duo have been together for a year by the end.  You want them to achieve their goal and they do.  They make it to the Fireflies but the result isn’t what you expect.  You don’t want Ellie to die but her life is being given for the greater good.  For the whole of humanity!!  I probably would’ve made the same choice that Joel did; I would’ve at the least asked her to be awoken and given a choice.  There’s no mention made about what she wants in this case.  Going into it, all the pair expected to happen was to have some blood drawn, not Ellie being lobotomized. 

We are rooting for Joel to save her, but at the same time he’s potentially condemning humanity to extinction in the process.  Add on the two HUGE lies he tells Ellie at the game’s closing moments and Joel becomes a despicable person……..but he was one all along.  The gut-punch isn’t just how the game ends, but that ultimately that the person you’ve been playing as this entire game never was the hero you wanted him to be or even thought he was.  Joel is just a man trying to survive in the apocalypse after having his own daughter die in his arms in the opening moments of the game (and the outbreak).  As I said before, I probably would’ve made the same decision to save Ellie if I was in his shoes, but the lies are almost worse than the condemnation of humanity.

The Last of Us is just simply one of the best-told stories I’ve ever experienced in any medium.  Naughty Dog is firing on all cylinders for this one; the voice-acting is top-notch, character animations are strikingly life-like at times, the score is incredibly strong and evocative, the visuals are breathtaking (the idea of “destroyed beauty” introduced by 2007’s Gears of War is taken and ran with by the art team), and the narrative is simply sublime in its masterful execution.  I have literally no complaints about this game whatsoever.  It’s PlayStation 3’s best exclusive title and one of the best games of this generation.  Hands down.

The Last of Us transcends its medium to become something so much more.

The Bearded Bullet.

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