The last great game of a generation.
It didn’t take long into my short time with The Last of Us to be completely blown away. Having already seen it demonstrated for me a few times before, I suspected that would be the case. But there’s truly nothing like getting your hands on it yourself.
There’s so much more to the story than Naughty Dog has let on so far. Joel, initially, may not be the protector you thought he was. He and his partner Tess are actually delivering Ellie to another group—another pocket of civilization, as Naughty Dog calls them—elsewhere in the United States. This journey starts out in my hometown of Boston, though only a small segment of it remains part of the heavily-controlled quarantined zone. The rest of Boston has been destroyed by the military’s attempt at keeping the pandemic at bay, which has already decimated the population and forced humanity into hiding.
The art team at Naughty Dog has nailed the scenery down to a "T", as locals may call it. What I’m talking about is seeing signs for actual subway stations along the MBTA Orange Line and seeing crooked signs for the Mass Pike barely holding onto a dilapidated bridge. I drove by this very sign on my way home from the airport after flying out to play The Last of Us. It’s clear that Naughty Dog is pushing realism.
Even the threat—the pandemic and the infected—is based on a very real fungus called Cordyceps. The concept came from watching a segment of a nature documentary demonstrating how the Cordyceps spore takes control of ants, turning them into mindless zombies searching for the best place to fruit and spread the spores, continuing the cycle. Humans fortunately cannot fall to the fate of the Cordyceps fungus in their current state, but imagine what could happen should the fungus mutate. If you can't, don't worry: Naughty Dog brings this horrific possibility to life.
The spores, once inhaled or absorbed by humans, go through three stages of hell, the first of which turns humans into "Runners". Aggressive and eager to harm, these Runners travel in packs. The second stage leaves only little humanity remaining, but just enough to know full well the pain of uncontrollably infecting others, inflicting injury, and brutalizing friends, family, and fellow human. They start losing their sight, until they become full-blown Clickers. Clickers are monster-only, have lost any sense of control, and are ready and primed to spread the infection.
The sound they make is pure evil. And so are their actions. Turn the volume up if you dare, because this clicking noise is undeniably unsettling. The very sight of them makes it very clear why Joel eventually takes on more of a protector role with Ellie, and the relationship builds from there.
No matter how stunning the game looks, how terrifying the infected may be, The Last of Us is about relationships—the characters' relationships between one another and the player's relationship to these characters. Although to proceed in the game you must survive, after getting to know these characters, you become invested in their survival beyond just winning the game.
And survive they must, through whatever means necessary. Sometimes this means holding onto whatever handful of ammo you have left and instead opting for a wooden bat with a pair of scissors bandaged to it. Or maybe it means you throw a bottle to divert the infected’s attention away, skipping on any action, but living another day to face yet another threat. Player choice is important, because supplies are limited.
Just checking what supplies you do have makes you vulnerable to attack as the game doesn’t pause for you to do so. It also doesn’t pause when Joel goes into “listen mode”—a type of detective mode that allows him to briefly see the location of various threats. This sort of addition has become a staple in video games ever since Arkham Asylum, but The Last of Us takes much of the power away by also taking away the visibility once you release the R2 button, adding yet another layer of survival to a game that’s nothing but.
If you do decide to shoot, make it count, as the sound of the gunpowder expelling the bullet may alert nearby Clickers. They’re blind, not deaf. And they’re definitely deadly. Exploration is a must to gather the supplies needed for basic survival. The rest is left up to caution, care, and wit. Sometimes, stealth may be your best bet.
Another good bet: clunking down cash to pre-order The Last of Us. Naughty Dog is onto something special here. It comes just as this generation of consoles comes to a close and could very well end up being the game that defines it. Playing it got my heart-pounding, my eyes teary, and left me counting the days until The Last of Us releases. May cannot come soon enough.