By ERIC WITTMERSHAUS
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Note: This review of the single-player campaign in “The Last of Us” is the first of a few posts I will be rolling out on the game over the next week or so.
Naughty Dog proved with its popular “Uncharted” trilogy it could make the video game equivalent of an “Indiana Jones” movie. Its latest effort, “The Last of Us,” however, has loftier, artier goals. The zombie-infused road movie packs the dramatic and emotional punch of a violent, art house film, as its two protagonists try to survive in a world seemingly bent on their extermination.
Even as part of a video game landscape rife with post-apocalyptic wastelands, “The Last of Us” is unrelentingly bleak. Set 20 years after a modern-day fungal plague inspired by cordyceps turns the majority of mankind into homicidal, zombielike maniacs, the game starts with Joel, a middle-aged smuggler who is hired to escort a 14-year-old girl named Ellie out of Boston but instead ends up on a nearly yearlong, cross-country trek with the girl.
The pair traverses a United States that’s been made almost unrecognizable. What little government is left has organized citizens into tightly controlled quarantine zones, where food is rationed and residents are routinely scanned for signs of the infection. Outside the zones, those hardy enough to survive can flourish, so long as they can keep swarms of rabid infected, fungal spores, raiders and the military at bay. In other words, nearly everyone who Joel and Ellie meet wants to kill them. Even characters with good intentions are understandably suspect.
Even if the infected in “The Last of Us” can look a little ridiculous, particularly at advanced stages of infection, the game’s message is clear: Shoot your enemies and keep your friends at arm’s length. You’re as likely to have your throat ripped out when a friend betrays you as you are to have your heart ripped out when he’s bitten by an infected and asks you to put him out of his misery.
Whereas the “Uncharted” games were carefully designed and scripted to the point of occasionally feeling like a modern-day “Dragon’s Lair,” “The Last of Us” allows players more freedom. The levels are still largely linear, but they’re opened up considerably. Players will be doing plenty of crouching behind conveniently placed waist-high cover, but the overall gameplay rarely strays far from the game’s core concept – a pair of survivors trying to eke out their way in a hostile world with limited resources. You’ll be carefully setting traps and sneaking around enemy-filled environments looking for stealthy kills more than you’ll be popping out from cover for a head shot.
The game is generally organized into “encounters,” or run-ins with infected, raiders or the military. Sometimes lengthy bits of scavenging, exploration and narrative exposition bridge the gaps, allowing Naughty Dog to show off some of the best-looking graphics this console generation has to offer. At times, the 7-year-old PlayStation 3 shows its age, with foliage popping in off in the distance. That said, “The Last of Us” is visually as close to the pinnacle as we’ve seen from this generation of consoles. The game even streams upcoming content as you play, sparing players any kind of load screens once the game is booted up.
In keeping with its tale of scavengers getting by with what they can find, Joel has the ability to craft health packs, shivs and other disposable items with bits and bobs he finds strewn about the world. Scavenged spare parts allow Joel to upgrade his weapons, while supplements upgrade Joel’s abilities themselves.
Naughty Dog does a great job at making sure gameplay in “The Last of Us” doesn’t interfere much with the story the game is telling. The action is occasionally a bit heavy on shooting, and Joel’s seemingly supernatural ability to “hear” enemies and see their silhouettes when he enters a special “listen” mode is jarring until you decide to just roll with it. That’s also the case with computer-controlled companions’ tendency to run right past enemies without blowing your cover. It’s a necessary concession to resolve a conflict between stealth gameplay and the road-movie story, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t occasionally awkward.
Like Naughty Dog’s “Uncharted” games, “The Last of Us” is heavy on banter between its two leads as they travel cross-country, but instead of “Uncharted’s” corny, Harrison Ford-style come-ons we get to listen in as Joel and Ellie, played perfectly by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, grow to trust, then rely on, then love one another. Ellie’s evolution from burdensome tagalong to pistol-toting wing-girl and, eventually, surrogate family member is captured perfectly throughout the 20-hour-plus run time.
None of it would work if Naughty Dog hadn’t done such a masterful job writing the script and casting the game. Everyone from Baker – who excelled as Booker DeWitt in this year’s other narrative masterpiece, “BioShock Infinite” – on down to supporting players such as Brandon Scott and Merle Dandridge absolutely nails his or her part. “Uncharted” star Nolan North’s turn in a supporting role was so contrary to the actor’s usual work for Naughty Dog that I missed it completely until the credits rolled.
The tense encounters, grim tone and perfectly spun, often heartbreaking tragedy mean “The Last of Us” is best played in one- or two-hour chunks. It should be savored, not rushed through and “beaten” quickly like so many other blockbusters.
The high-stakes encounters and well-written script literally had me tossing and turning a few nights, replaying plot details in my mind and more than once waking up with a jolt because it’s just so damned hard to ever let your guard down and relax in Joel and Ellie’s world.
“The Last of Us,” rated M, is $60 and available for the PlayStation 3. For this review, I played a copy of the game provided by the publisher, Sony.