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A few days ago I finished up the latest release from Sony-owned developer Naughty Dog, the PlayStation 3 exclusive title The Last of Us. It took me a few days to process what I had just played. The world of The Last of Us is brutal, gruesome, cold, and in many ways hopeless. It has a lot in common with other zombie and post-apocalyptic media from the past five or ten years, and yet it is still a gut-wrenching, amazing experience. It is well-designed and amazingly scripted, and it is one of the best videogames of the current generation, a generation soon to expire with the impending releases of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
The Last of Us is a story about characters, in this case gruff, older Joel, a man in his 50s who lost his daughter at the outset of a global pandemic caused by an outbreak of viral fungus. Joel, along with partner Tess and various other side characters at points throughout the game, must escort young Ellie, a 13 year old who just may be the cure that humanity needs to wipe out the virus, from Boston to Utah in the devastated, dangerous, and violent wasteland that is now the United States. Joel and Ellie must survive horrifying zombie attacks, marauders and scavengers in the wasteland, as well as the cruel environment itself.
This is an incredibly simple story – the whole thing boils down to a road trip – but The Last of Us is filled with outstanding writing, character moments, and intense gameplay that give it a depth few other games have come close to matching this generation. Joel and Ellie have some character stock in them, but they are largely unique creations, and their developing father/daughter relationship over the 15 hours or so of gameplay is something special. The Last of Us is populated with incredibly well developed side characters as well, including the aforementioned Tess along with Joel’s younger brother (who has restored a hydroelectric plant and set up a community in mountains of Wyoming).
Aside from character writing and interactions, The Last of Us is filled with tremendous atmosphere and unique locales and environs. Throughout the game, you will explore abandoned, ruinous cities, terrifying sewer systems, and forests filled with threats both human and non-human. There is a sense of dread with every new environment, but the environments are also flat-out gorgeous, featuring some of the best rendering work of this entire generation of games. There were times I kept going despite the constant dread I felt just to see where The Last of Us would take me next. There are some amazing quiet moments interspersed throughout the game, and I don’t even want to mention them so as not to spoil them for any potential player. It is, simply put, a gorgeous game.
Of course, The Last of Us does crib from recent zombie and/or post-apocalyptic media. Joel and Ellie’s journey is highly reminiscent of the father/son voyage in Cormac McCarthy’s excellent post-apocalyptic novel The Road (a novel which was later adapted into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen). It isn’t like The Last of Us is ripping anything off – it’s really more of an homage to a great book than anything else. There are elements in the game which also popped up in last year’s excellent The Walking Dead adventure game from developer Telltale Games, but these are probably nothing more than coincidence considering The Last of Us has been in development since 2011.
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is one of the best games of its generation, and quite possibly the best first-party title on the PlayStation 3 (high praise indeed for a system that has prided itself on great first-party games). The gameplay is tight (though the combat can get frustrating at times), the locales are amazingly rendered, and the relationship between Joel and Ellie is highly developed. The game is incredibly harsh and depressing at times, but it should be. This is not a nice world that Naughty Dog has created, but it is an incredibly detailed world that is both fun to play and will leave you on the edge of your seat in many places.