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The Last of Us review: Humans, conditioned

Richard Mitchell
Richard Mitchell|@TheRichardM|June 5, 2013 2:15 PM
There was a moment in The Last of Us that was so serene I could have watched it forever. Protagonists Joel and Ellie were finally afforded a breath – a stitch of peace – and I hesitated to nudge them forward. The moment was so starkly different from all the violence that preceded it, so beautiful that it was painful. I could have let them stand there until the disc drive in my PS3 broke down, until the power went out or the world came to an end. The pair had been through so much, it seemed cruel to make them move on.

The Last of Us has a curious inertia though – the stumbling, inevitable momentum of a man off balance – and I couldn't deny it. Whatever laid ahead, I knew that their slow, torturous tumble was far from over.%Gallery-188659%The Last of Us takes place 20 years after a fungal infection destroys much of the world's population, turning the infected into feral monsters. Joel makes his living in the Boston quarantine zone – one of the last vestiges of the American government – smuggling anything that will fetch a price. His life is defined by loss, manifesting in emotional detachment that benefits his line of work.

One day, at the tail end of a deal gone bad, he finds himself smuggling an unusual commodity, a fourteen year old girl named Ellie. She's wanted by a resistance movement called the Fireflies, and Joel is ultimately tasked with taking her west in exchange for a load of guns. The world outside of the QZ is bitter, reclaimed by nature and filled with lawless bandits and the infected. Survival is all that matters, and anyone will do anything to ensure their own.

The relationship that grows between Ellie and Joel as they fight to protect one another is the most genuine I've ever seen, brought to life by superb writing and excellent performances. It's more than a father-daughter archetype, more than an easy ploy to tug at the heartstrings. A deep love blooms between the two of them, tinged with a sadness that sometimes makes it difficult to bear.

The love is there though, and it provides the necessary motivation for the extreme acts of violence that serve as the foundation of the gameplay. The Last of Us doesn't paint a pleasant picture of humanity, and there is no end of people out for Joel and Ellie's blood. The violence of survival is a central theme, and it keeps the combat from feeling out of place. Joel is preternaturally talented at killing, so much so that his friends remark on it. It's part of his character, and it's designed to be uncomfortable.

Firefights are intense thanks to a general dearth of ammunition, forcing Joel to make every shot count. A wide selection of home-made weapons – smoke bombs, shivs, mines – further his tactical options. These weapons are easy to craft from scavenged supplies, even in the middle of a fight, and they can turn the tide of a hairy conflict. If you find yourself fumbling to reload a single shot rifle as an enemy charges, for example, you can quickly even the odds with a Molotov cocktail. Failing that, you could just lob a garden variety brick at him, stunning him long enough to sink a shiv into his throat.

Stealth leaves no room for compassion either, foregoing silly knockout punches or sleeping darts for strangulation and punctured arteries. Joel is able to "listen" intently, allowing him to track enemy movements through walls and behind cover. This makes it possible to avoid some encounters altogether, or to whittle down enemy forces one by one.

Human enemies are smart enough to hunt Joel down, to surround him if he stays in one place. The infected offer a different challenge, often converging on Joel and Ellie in large numbers if alerted to their presence. The most terrifying of these are the Clickers, blind infected that track their prey with sound.

Apart from fulfilling a basic gameplay need, the combat serves a larger purpose. It piles death upon death on Joel's hands – each one doled out by the blade of an axe plunged into a clavicle, a boot stomping on a skull, a bullet ripping through flesh. These acts aren't stylish or flashy. They're messy, clumsy. Humanity is savage in The Last of Us, and Joel is the most savage of all. Ellie, meanwhile, becomes his pupil. Introduced to this world, she changes – and how could she not? Even their need for one another, what little happiness they can muster, becomes distorted, desperate.

Make no mistake, this is not the feel-good kind of adventure that Naughty Dog is known for. The few lighthearted moments only counterpoint those that become progressively grimmer as the story goes on. The ups and downs are exhausting, and by the end I felt more that I had survived the game than completed it.

Which brings me back to that beautiful moment of serenity I will always remember. For all the darkness and death, the revelation that the good guy isn't necessarily a good guy, I loved both Joel and Ellie. I wanted to fight for them, to see it through no matter what.

The Last of Us is not a cheerful story, but it's a damned good one.

This review is based on review code of The Last of Us, provided by Sony.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.
The Last of Us review: Humans, conditioned