The downfall of civilization redefines moral boundaries. No longer do labels like thief and murderer mark you as a criminal; everyone must steal, must kill, must do whatever it takes to survive. Humans roam in packs like feral dogs, claiming their territory and killing anyone who encroaches on their turf. Paper-thin alliances link individuals together for mere flashes, their connections severed once their mutual needs are met. Life is bleak, brutal, and exhausting. Tomorrow doesn't exist when the stench of death lingers like a fog and hope was extinguished years ago. There is only today; there is only right now. Morals? Morals won't put food in your mouth or a roof over your head. Morals are for the weak. And you're not weak.
One night the heart of society beat loud and strong; the next it was silent. The outbreak happened so quickly that there was no quarantine plan in effect. Infected monsters crashed through their neighbors' windows, smashed the doors to splinters. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, dead before they could react, or worse. Maybe they became one of the infected. The virus spread through major cities and suburbs, and the military, with all of its training and weapons, was powerless to stop the epidemic. Joel is just one man amid a sea of people whose lives have been destroyed by the infection, but who still cling to life. Though he never asked for such power, he now holds the key to saving the world.
Joel is introduced the night society falls. He stays out late and works questionable jobs, all while his daughter waits patiently for his return home. He's distant, physically and emotionally, which makes it difficult to empathize with him. His actions are often repulsive, as inhuman as the zombies he must fight. The door to his heart is sealed shut. The Last of Us shines a light on the nastiness that only surfaces in humans who have nothing to lose. Rather than overcoming these limitations, Joel is crushed by them. He's unlikeable to his very core, a man who spits out angry words and appears to harbor even more sinister thoughts that remain unsaid. He kills because everyone must kill. But he kills with such fury that it disgusts even those who are used to this violence.
Joel, already accustomed to a life of brutality and focusing on his own needs, has partnered with a woman of a similar disposition. Tess is a badger let loose from a cage. To cross her path is to sign your own death warrant. She, like so many of the characters in The Last of Us, has a one-note personality that allows little room for a more nuanced interpretation. Her independence and ruthlessness are thrust to the forefront; empathy and humanity are nowhere to be found. Such flimsy characterizations erect an emotional barrier for the first few hours of this adventure. The postapocalyptic world is not interesting enough on its own to draw you in. Without any sympathetic characters to latch on to, you are left with little attachment to this pack of selfish animals.
That changes once Ellie joins your party. Unlike Tess and Joel, Ellie is easy to relate to. In this world of constant danger, she is scared. Scared to be ambushed by a zombie without a guide to protect her. Scared to meet a person who would rather kill her than talk to her. And her fear is not just for her own life. All of her loved ones have died or departed, so she's scared of losing someone else. Yet unlike so many others in this world, Ellie is not ruled by her fear. She talks like a girl in search of normalcy, whistling or humming during quiet moments, fantasizing about swimming lessons, and laughing about the problems that used to haunt girls before the outbreak. Boys? School? Problems that seem pitiful when your stomach has been growling for days and you have watched a zombie kill your best friend, yet Ellie remembers them. In her remembrance of the past, she exhibits a strength of will that most adults have lost. Ellie is both strong and vulnerable, smart and naive, and her humanity provides the impetus to push you through to the bitter end.
Ellie's maturity and resiliency make her an invaluable companion, but her worth lies much deeper than her endearing personality. She could be the savior humanity has been waiting for, and Joel has the privilege of escorting her away from the hostile city she now resides in to a faraway settlement desperate for her arrival. You travel through infested forests, dilapidated houses, and unnerving sewers, with Joel providing the brawn and Ellie the heart to brave the many dangers that stand before them. Confrontation is a last resort. Infected swarm with terrifying ferocity, clawing and snarling as they seek their next meal. The uninfected are just as deadly. With diplomacy not an option, they pursue and flank, firing high-powered rifles or swinging deadly axes, undeterred that they are trying to slaughter a middle-aged man and a young girl. Death is fast and bloody, so you slink through the shadows, staying out of sight to live another day.
However, combat in such a violent land is inevitable. The Last of Us turns the crumbling ruins of a formerly healthy world into the landmarks of unceasing war. Filter the world through the lens of dystopia, and ordinary objects take on a new meaning. Overturned tables and file cabinets provide a modicum of cover; broken windows allow for a quick escape. The zombies' movements are a confluence of contrasting images. Their staggered gait lulls you into believing they are slow, weak. But once they smell fresh meat, their movement is blindingly fast and exact. Their heads snap to attention with unsettling, insectile speed, and the unholy guttural noises that issue from their throats sound like the song of humanity's death.
So you kill them, bashing them with a two-by-four with all your strength and pummeling them into a lifeless mess on the ground. When grabbed from behind, you shove a shiv into your attacker's neck, the force of your blow causing the makeshift weapon to snap in half. A close-range shotgun blast tears zombies to shreds, but there's no time for celebration. They keep coming, eager to quell the threat that stupidly revealed itself. Such confrontations are nerve-rattling, and yet there's a hollowness to these encounters. No one wants to die--even a virtual death is unwelcome--but The Last of Us refuses to punish failure in a manner befitting the harshness of its world. Become overwhelmed and you quickly perish, but with checkpoints only a few seconds apart, the danger of expiring never dissuades you from recklessness.
The biggest problem with combat in The Last of Us, however, is how often it breaks its own rules. Mutated zombies called clickers have finely tuned ears that hear your quietest movements. And yet, your companions speak all too loudly near enemies or stand blithely in the open, all while the grotesque monsters obtusely ignore them. In certain sections, locked doors cannot be interacted with until the threat has been eliminated, forcing you to act violently even though an evasive approach seems possible. In other places, a gang of savage monsters waits patiently for you to open a door to freedom, and watches ambivalently as you close it securely behind you. The Last of Us sets rules and then ignores them, removing you from the experience as you question the underlying systems.
Healthy individuals are a bigger threat than the prowling infected. Military units and paranoid gangs hinder your escape to freedom, and are willing to gun down unknown strangers without so much as a word to figure out your motivations. Humans are more predictable than zombies, so you don't have to be scared that they're going to unexpectedly change direction. However, with guns at the ready, they can kill you just as quickly, and from a long distance away if you're not careful. Problems do exist that lessen the thrill of the fight. Your enemies are not the sharpest people around. Hide behind a corner and snap some poor sap's neck, leaving his lifeless body on the ground. When the next guard walks up, you might expect him to sound the alarm upon seeing his friend. But he often doesn't care, and so you kill again. Other times, you may be dramatically strangling a man only a few meters away from a living guard, and yet you remain unseen.
Despite the many small problems in combat, there's an undeniable tension. Vanquishing a horde of attackers is challenging, so you must fight intelligently. Combat flexibility lets you decide how each fight goes down: loudly or quietly, barbarically or cowardly, or maybe you avoid confrontation entirely. Environments are large, sprawling battlefields that allow you to move how you see fit. Hunker down behind an overturned desk and toss Molotov cocktails into the undead herd until the stench of burned corpses fills the air. Or throw a bottle at the back of a hostile foe, momentarily stunning it until you rush in with murder on your mind. Take a guns blazing approach to fill your unceasing enemies with bullets until their lives fade away.
If you take a bullet or two, your life trickles down, and you need a medical pack to regain your strength. To stay alive, you need to make use of the enticing crafting system. Scrounge materials such as scissors and alcohol, and then craft medical packs and shivs, or reinforce your melee weapon. You can only carry three of each item at a time, so you won't be able to load up on Molotovs and health packs. There are enough goods lying around to keep you well stocked throughout the game, so you never feel as if you're in over your head in a given fight. This system encourages you to search every crevice in the environment, forging a powerful connection between you and this broken world.
Aside from combat and surveying, there are puzzles to solve. These offer a quiet moment to analyze the environment, and are a welcome respite from the heart-pounding chaos of fighting. Unfortunately, you don't have to think too hard to be on your way. When deep water impedes your path, search for a wooden raft so Ellie can make it safely to shore. A ladder is needed to reach higher ground, and a plank can be used to cross a gap. The puzzles follow the linearity present throughout the adventure. There is only one solution, so you scan the environment for the button prompt that will whisk you to the next locale, never able to flex your creative muscle to find alternate routes through the wreckage.
The Last of Us offers a mundane visual representation of a postapocalyptic world. The overgrown foliage and run-down structures elicit deja vu more often than genuine awe. We've seen these images before, relayed in countless portrayals of society's end. There are a few instances of graphical brilliance, such as when Ellie and Joel are framed by a picturesque sunset, but the aesthetics are predominately ho-hum. However, the music and sound design are exceptional. Fear comes from hearing, but not seeing, your threats. Their creepy groans tell you everything you need to know about the virus that has consumed them. And though the music stays clearly in the background, it complements the emotional reactions perfectly: the hopeful serenade when Ellie gazes at escaped zoo animals, or the throbbing pulse when you're being pursued by a madman. It's a splendid soundtrack throughout.
With two teams gunning down each other, multiplayer appears to be a paint-by-numbers shootfest on the surface, but there's a refreshing feel to the face-offs. People in The Last of Us are not gifted with superheroic athleticism or regenerating health. They just want to survive. And that feeling is well translated here. Make too much noise, and you appear on the minimap, so you slowly crouch-walk through levels, trying to kill without being seen. It's tense in all the right ways, rewarding patience and thoughtfulness over raw speed. Your life is not disposable. The dread of having to craft and then apply a medical pack when a stalking enemy is in sight is tangible, and when you surprise your hunter with a shot from the bushes, you feel empowered. This feeling of desperation combines with a smart unlock system and strategy-altering goals (focus on executions or healing teammates, for instance) makes The Last of Us a unique and satisfying competitive experience.
Thrust in a lawless world, you feel the ache of a society gone to seed. The Last of Us stretches on for hours, forcing you to endure the suffocating atmosphere and unrelenting despair that citizens of this world have become accustomed to. And that time spent navigating the desolate wasteland draws you deeper inside. You read letters from people who have long since disappeared, meet groups who have created a rickety social structure to help them survive life's many threats. Most important of all, you watch Ellie grow. From feisty warmth to beleaguered exhaustion, her many moods are always twinged with a grounded levity. Her uplifting nature stands in sharp contrast to the people and events surrounding her, compelling you to protect her, shepherd her, and cherish her. The Last of Us is a singular adventure that looks the downfall of humanity in the eyes and doesn't blink.