Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Last of Us

There are two classes of paranoid survivalists in the world:  one are right-wing paranoid Second Amendment-loving dudes living in compounds in Montana, and the other are nerds fantasizing how awesome life would be if most of society was filled with mindless rotting corpses.  At least, the crazy Montana dudes are imagining a scenario that might actually come to pass - we're only two more NSA leaks away from accepting we're now living in a police state.  But as for the George A. Romero-style apocalypse?  Not so likely.  There are plenty of things that might reasonable wipe out human civilization:  asteroid impacts, super plagues, Miley Cyrus singles, but zombies are purely the realm of fantasy.  It sure doesn't stop that nerd from planning exactly which mall he's going to fortify, without realizing of course, that he could no more live without a constant Internet connection than plants can live without sunlight, and extremely toned finger muscles but flabby thighs are not exactly the physical form one would need to survive legions of the undead*.

Who is actually going to survive the zombie age?  The paranoid Montana guys.  Because they have the guns, they have the moral certainty come from years of racism and bible-thumping, and they're used to living in hellish post-apocalyptic landscapes such as Montana.  This might explain why in "The Last of Us", you only spend approximately fifty percent of your time actually killing ghouls, and use most of your bullets on heavily-armed bandits.  Now that civilization has fallen, the age of the fucktard Neo-Nazi has come.  They've been seething with rage against every aspect of liberal democracy for generations, so they're well-prepared to take over once us rational humans become green-skinned freaks moaning for "brrraaaaaaaaiiiiins".  "The Last of Us" is that great struggle to survive across a world gone mad.  Not quite because most people are zombies now, but that most surviving humans were dangerous assholes even before Armageddon, and now they have even less to lose.  But don't worry, you also fight some nerds too, only they're a little more zombified.

"The Last of Us" is a truly fantastic game, one of the very best titles to be released on the PlayStation 3.  And you'll need a PS3 if you want to fight nerds or Montana dudes, because its an exclusive title.  Everybody, of course, already knows how great this game is, since along with "BioShock Infinite", its widely considered the best game of last year.  Normally I wouldn't dare attempt a stealth-based Survival Horror game, but the reviews were so glowing I could only resist for six months or so.  And just like I suspected, I survived for exactly four minutes in my first major encounter against zombies, because I am absolutely terrible at this game.  But still, I persevered, littered about a million corpses of myself across the ruins of the fallen United States, and finished the game, allowing me to now talk about one of the most impressive gaming experiences I've ever had.

Okay, first of all, I have to make a very solemn promise:  I must not at any point call the lead characters of this game "Booker" or "Elizabeth" during this review.  Sometimes I get the two characters played by Troy Baker in 2013 shooting bad guys in fantastic SciFi situations while escorting daughter figures through crumbling civilizations mixed-up for some reason.

It is several decades into the future.  Very unfortunately for the world's population of nerds, a new mutant strains of fungal spores has been unleashed onto the planet, boring into your brain and turning you into steadily mutating monster.  So the formally human creatures in this game are not technically zombies in the Romero-sense, and the characters insist on calling them "Infected", but we all know what they really are.  Its kind of a dramatic form of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis**, AKA, "Zombie Ants".  But while that parasite cannot typically wipe out an ant colony in the wild, human civilization turns out to be significantly more fragile and by the time "The Last of Us" begins our country is split up between a few military-controlled city states, roving gangs of Montana dudes, and the dominate power, the United Zombies of America.

The UZA, naturalizing new citizens every day.

To survive against the various breeds of the undead, you have to drive the hero character, Joel, through a combination of stealth and combat.  The above picture is a good example of how not to play "The Last of Us", since that particular game will almost certainly end with Joel's brains being the main course at a zombie feast.  This being a survival horror game, bullets are a precious resource, melee weapons are extremely fragile, and health does not recover automatically.  Early on in the game you will only have a single pistol and a handful of shots, so a banzai charge into a zombie nest will work about as well as banzai charges ever worked in WWII.  You'll need to crouch around, avoid obviously hairy situations, run away if necessary, and slowly wipe out your targets one by one.  Weirdly fighting humans can even be worse than the zombies, because they're smart enough to know about flanking, are not as easily distracted, and use guns.  Their AI isn't genius-level, humans are too timid while zombies are too aggressive, but it makes for plenty of variety and rewarding challenge.

The combat is somewhat stiff and slow, but necessary for a game like this where the point is not to be John Rambo, but a survivor against impossible odds.  Joel is a brute of a man who could murder about six or seven people bare-handed in tight enough quarters, so you're not helpless.  But even when you well-stocked, fire fights are a difficult affair.  Joel is in his fifties, so his hands shake like he has Parkinsons, he can be grabbed from behind and suffer huge health losses, and Empires rise and fall in the time it takes him to reload his guns.  Your backpack is an infinite pocket dimension from which up to about a dozen guns can fit, but Joel cannot carry every gun all the time - you start with two, and with some upgrades you can reach four.  Crafting takes time, reloading takes time, pulling out your other handgun takes time.  Most awkwardly in my case, I sometimes forget this game is in third person, so I think I can pull off another shot from the crosshairs, but really Joel is about to get a nosejob from an amateur surgeon armed with a 2 x 4.  The combat is often rewarding when a strategy comes together, but I basically died constantly in this game.

Another point here is that this game is pretty brutal.  Early on, Joel and his girlfriend Tess were out making a very eloquent point to a group of Boston gangster using their fists and some bottles, and I just so happened to grab a brick.  Joel then smashed some survivor's skull open using the brick, writing a thesis statement out of brains and gore on the concrete.  "Holy fuck", I yelled out loud, "that's so violent!"  When a more evolved form of zombie grabs Joel - which is a one-hit-kill, I'm unfortunate to report - you get a nice little cutscene where they tear his jaw open to make him into a human pee-dispenser.  You do some horrible things to other human beings using windowsills and table corners.  Its not a game where you play as a particularly nice man.

Masonry diplomacy in action.

Now what is all this brutal violence all for?  Its actually the gameplay support to one of the greatest storylines ever told on the PS3.  The game opens with an expertly-paced horror sequence where you play as Joel's unfortunate daughter just at the outbreak of the fungal zombies, and only continues with that quality of storytelling throughout.  Joel winds up escorting a new daughter figure in Ellie, a teenage girl who is somehow immune to zombie infection, and must take her to the only lab left in America that could possibly cure humanity of the disease.  All of this frames some stunningly well-written dialog and storytelling.  "The Last of Us" has a pedigree of writing that matches anything seen on a current TV drama, and this in a medium that more likely than not will star a beefcake mindless superman if made in the West, or a waifish angsty teenager with spikey hair if Japanese.

Here we have real character motivations and underlying psychology.  Joel lost his daughter, and after decades of survival has built a mechanism to keep his sanity by simply ignoring everybody he's lost - things don't go well for Tess (spoilers), and he refuses to even mention her name after that point.  Ellie is sharp-witted and a good foil for the morose and stoic Joel, they make for a very complex relationship.  That Joel would do anything possible to save this daughter figure is easily believable, if not relatable.  That you wind up committed essentially genocide on the state of Montana is also believable, because frankly, they fucking started it.  It all leads up to a very emotional climax where the characters have to make an extremely difficult decision, one which players might personally disagree with, but which is obviously the only choice for these people and everything they've been through.

 The cinematic moments of "The Last of Us" are some of the best
any video game has ever done.

Now admittedly, a storyline of the caliber of stories like "28 Days Later", "Children of Men", or "The Walking Dead" TV series has to require something of a non-interactive element.  The cutscenes are thankfully infrequent, and so well-done that you'll never grow tired of them.  You don't get stories this well-written in theaters most of the time.  Again, I could see a potential gamer getting upset over the climax of the game because they didn't want to make that particular choice, and maybe it should have been more interactive, but I cannot find fault in a story that is essentially perfect, no matter what medium it happens to reside within.

The entire game is a linear track, and the railroading is occasionally pretty obvious, but the world-design is pretty flawless, if downright spectacular at times.  Most of the game takes place in the ruins of American cities and towns, with your path being limited by various barriers and barricades put up by survivors to keep out the Infected, or worse, the Neo-Nazis who have inherited the Earth.  There is plenty of exploration to be done within that path, which is far from merely a tube, allowing you to look around nooks and crannies to find hidden notes written by probably long-dead survivors, gear, ammunition, and very rarely items that boost your various stats and powers.  You can usually spot a combat section coming by how wide and and how much cover there is, but it means you are given a large battlefield within which you can make any sort of strategy and maneuver.  Often enough it means you get pinned in some corner trying to headshot bandits, but sometimes you actually manage to get the jump on your foes and drop a nice little nailbomb on their asses.

What's great as far as I'm concerned is that the entire game is not one eternal combat zone.  The game does a fantastic job of building tension and fear by giving you long sections where there are no zombies, no nerds, and no Montanans.  This allows the relationship between Joel and Ellie to continue to evolve, and interestingly, for you to get a great sense of the world you're in, without having to be killing things just about constantly, unlike "BioShock Infinite".  Better yet, since this is a horror game, you actually need things like pacing and terror, which simply cannot happen if you're just bashing zombies over the head again and again with an improvised weapon made out of a baseball bat and half of a scissor.  The most terrifying moment for me came when in Pittsburgh, Joel fell to the flooded basement of a hotel, and had to swim around in the dark looking for an exit.  And then suddenly, a thousand mice started running at you, away from something howling in the dark.


I have a confession to make, I am absolutely the world's biggest pussy ever when it comes to video games.  When I was a child, I think I started crying when I found Big Boo's Haunt in "Super Mario 64", and seriously, this game fucks with my emotions in a really terrible way.  When I'm getting chased by zombies in a goddamn dark as rotten balls basement, I'd rather play anything else than this.  Yeah, maybe I could have fought those zombies in that hotel basement, but I fucking ran like a sorry bitch the second they came after me, and just talking about it is like discussing a 'Nam flashback.  Please don't make me go down into that basement again, readers.  Please don't.  I'm only half sane as it is.

So to conclude, BH is a giant pussy.  But more importantly, "The Last of Us" is truly a great and inspiring game experience.  Linear cinematic-style games might be a tad obnoxious but when done this well, nobody can be complaining about railroading and non-interactivity.  This is the very best the already out-dated PS3 could bring to us as an entertainment medium.  I loved this game, loved this story, and loved this adventure I had.

I just will never ever play it again.  Ever.  My god... no.

* I know exactly how long I'll last come the Dawn of the Dead:  four minutes.  I would run outside with my katana in hand, and manage to kill exactly three zombies before I realized I very stupidly let myself get surrounded by three hundred more.  And that would be above average for bloggers.

** Its great that these reviews are text-only, because now I don't have to pretend I know how to pronounce that.


  1. Well I would likely die faster then you, so you don't need to feel bad. If I could hypothetically survive I would hold up in the local Middle or High school as they are right across from each other. They are easily defendable and between the two I should have enough resources to defense up for a while . If I am really lucky I would convert the football and soccer fields into makeshift farms.

    Still I would likely be dead with in the first 3 minutes. Its fun to speculate though.
    Sword Of Primus

  2. first i would find an electric keyboard, then i'd get my funk straight down to funky town and show those zombie how to funk to some funky FUNK baby!


  3. excuse me sir, we're trying to do the Funky Town here, so take your 80s grooviness somewhere else!!

  4. Man, that game is awesome.
    If I take a minute to consider my chances of survival, I would say that I at least would survive a week since I would refuse to leave home until most of my food runs out.

  5. If it makes you feel any better, I'm not so good in horror games either. I can only play Amnesia: The Dark Descent for about ten minutes before I see or hear something that makes me decide to stop for a few months.