When civilization goes down for the count, when morals appear meaningless and when simply closing your eyes at night with your skin intact becomes the day's main goal, then you've gotta have something of value to hold on to. Something to fight for, right?
But what if you don't?
Those are the questions Naughty Dog's new zombie survival game, The Last of Us, attempts to explore … in between zombie mashings and head-loppings, that is.
Dead Man Walking
The Last of Us is yet another game populated by the walking undead. As such, it starts out with the same premise as pretty much every other zombie video game or movie out there.
This time around, a single dad named Joel and his young daughter are at home when a nasty pandemic erupts. Suddenly it's time to run, bike, drive or crawl out of town to evade a horrific fungal infection that's transforming humans into shambling, screeching terrors who chomp their neighbors and belch blood in the streets.
Joel tries valiantly to get himself and his daughter to safety. But while he survives, she does not.
Lurch ahead 20 years, and Joel has morphed into a weather-beaten, ruthless survivor. He knows how to hack through the post-apocalyptic wasteland. A bare semblance of martial authority—soldiers with the rare operating vehicle who rule by the point of a gun barrel—lurks here and there. But Joel is equally adept at circumventing those men as he runs drugs, sells weapons and kills anyone or anything in his way.
Joel's kill-so-he's-not-killed routine, however, gets nudged out of its well-worn rut when he reluctantly takes on the task of delivering a 14-year-old girl named Ellie to an outpost of anarchists who want to use her for anti-zombie vaccine experiments. It turns out she was bitten by one of the mutated creatures, but never became one herself.
Truth be told, though, Joel doesn't initially care what they'll do with Ellie. Still, he's serious about protecting her. And so the unlikely pair begins what turns out to be an epic—and epically bloody—cross-country journey, one that gets harder at every zombie-infested checkpoint.
It's a gripping story. As Joel and Ellie's journey unfolds, however, the story becomes less about simply keeping a girl alive and more about bringing a deadened man's heart back to life.
A Compelling Cinematic Story …
If that sounds more like a movie review than a video game plot summary, well, that's by design. The Last of Us sports an compelling cinematic feel, an approach to gaming that Naughty Dog studios became associated with in its bestselling Uncharted series. Result: This title's well-voiced, visually engaging and emotionally moving narrative is already generating heaps of critical praise as well as early Game of the Year buzz.
That doesn't, however, mean that everything here earns a thumbs-up, as you'll see.
The first segment of this survival quest consists of stealthily exploring everything from crumbling high-rise buildings to overgrown small-town ruins. Gamers scavenge whatever they can find and use these unearthed treasures to upgrade various guns or to craft other improvised weapons, such as shivs, nail bombs and Molotov cocktails. After that equipping phase is (more or less) complete, the lion's share of the game's action requires putting all that deadly stuff to grisly work as Joel and Ellie's perilous trek begins in earnest.
… and a Brutally Bloody One
This game's world is a brutal one. Bloated, misshapen zombie mutants swarm and spew fungal spores. And then there are the human enemies, bandits and killers who can be even more savage in their butchery and soulless ways. Along the way, unfortunate victims get tricked, captured and tortured. Bodies are cut up for food supplies and hung up on meat hooks to cure.
And when it comes to killing, Joel's a similarly savage adversary. His melee attacks involve powerful blows that bloody and pummel opponents. They often culminate in him grabbing a foe and slamming his/its head into a wall or desktop—smashing bone and rending flesh. He repeatedly sneaks up on an enemy, grabs for a throat, then slowly crushes the windpipe as the victim gurgles and thrashes. Baseball bats and hardened heel-stomps crush skulls. Many a bone is shattered and many a machete blow deal grotesque wounds.
All in all, it makes for an ugly, gritty, always-tense and always-threatening world, one that's rendered with a stylized high-def realism that you can almost feel oozing off your face and hands at certain points. If that wasn't enough, the language of young and old in this zombified place is equally raw, unleashing torrents of f- and s-words in addition to conversations that focus on everything from mercy killings to cannibalism to gay porn.
By game's end, The Last of Us has delivered some dramatic, emotional moments that gamers will find difficult to leave behind. But how I wish those were the only "souvenirs" from this zombie-infested saga. Graphic and gruesome M-rated moments lurch about even more frequently, and their death grip isn't easily loosened.