It’s ok to admit when you are wrong. One of my more controversial gaming opinions that I’ve held for years was that The Last of Us was incredibly overrated and did not deserve the fanfare that it received. When I initially played the game on release, I admittedly was not as tuned into the gaming scene as I am now. I primarily played arcade shooters like Call of Duty, and I was used to fast-paced and highly reactive gameplay. A slower paced game with a focus on storytelling and character growth like The Last of Us did not click with me. After replaying the game recently, my opinion has completely changed.
The premise of The Last of Us will be familiar to anyone who has seen anything with zombies in it. An infectious outbreak has decimated society, and most people are relegated to living in small quarantined zones. People can get infected by getting bit or scratched by an infected individual. The fungal disease quickly spreads to the victim’s brain and turns them into what is effectively a zombie. The main character, Joel, is a pessimistic old smuggler who makes a living by illegally sneaking supplies into the quarantined city. The main objective of the game is to smuggle a young girl, Ellie, across the nation to a research lab as she is immune to the infection.
Truthfully, the overarching story of the game is not incredibly memorable. It’s a fairly generic post-apocalyptic zombie scenario. But what makes The Last of Us special is its characters. Joel is a deeply cynical man, as he witnessed the outbreak in real time and lost all that was close to him. He’s learned to survive in the hostile new world by pushing people away, and as such he is incredibly self-centered and uncaring. Ellie is a rebellious and sarcastic teen, quick to crack jokes and make her opinion known. These two main characters initially clash and frequently butt heads, but as they journey across the country they begin to bond.
The growth of the characters and their developing father-daughter relationship is the highlight of The Last of Us. Their personalities are so consistently written, no bit of dialogue feels out of place. Their conversations and slow-burning friendship are remarkably human, which was pretty unprecedented for most games at the time. Video game writing is known to be cheesy and at times painful to listen to, but the dialogue and characters of The Last of Us feel genuine. People will be able to easily relate to the characters and their struggles. Anybody who plays The Last of Us will get attached to Ellie and Joel, which is something that many other games struggle to achieve.
The gameplay loop of The Last of Us is that of a third-person-shooter with some stealth and survival aspects. The majority of your time will be spent traversing the varied environments of a desolated civilization. Encounters with the infected, as well as opportunistic human scavengers, are frequent. The game was designed so that the player has a limited supply of ammo, tools, and health kits. As such, you will be searching every corner for broken pairs of scissors, scraps of fabric, or bottles of alcohol to craft more supplies. This aspect was particularly well executed, as I was always on the edge of feeling like I was running out of materials. This makes encounters more tense, as your goal is no longer just to survive, but also to retain as much of your arsenal as possible. I found myself trying to come up with creative strategies to make sure I would not waste the few bullets that I had.
When I played the game on release, I was used to the snappy responses and smooth movement of games like Call of Duty. The Last of Us gunplay is undoubtably less reactive than many other shooters, but it doesn’t have to be. It fits the theme and more grounded approach that The Last of Us takes. When getting swarmed, accurately aiming becomes extraordinarily difficult. It makes fights feel far more frantic when you can’t just instantly pop every enemy with a headshot. This opens up the game for some more interesting combat scenarios that aren’t just simple shooting galleries.
What I was most impressed by when replaying The Last of Us was the sheer variety of encounters, and how different they all felt. When sneaking through a building full of infected, there is palpable tension. Some types of infected can instantly kill the player if they grab you, so staying away from them is key. When slowly creeping past them, there is enormous anxiety that you may accidentally alert them and instantly die. If you do alert the infected of your presence, you are relentlessly swarmed by hordes of zombies. These moments are frantic, and there is little time to think about conserving ammo when there are a dozen screaming infected barreling towards you.
When encountering human hunters, combat becomes a more tactical affair. Their AI is actually competent, and will have them searching the environment when you play stealthily. They will even attempt to sneak up on you and flank you. The battles with hunters felt more like a cat-and-mouse chase. I immensely enjoyed sneaking around taking down one enemy at a time, being careful to not use any unnecessary resources. When I was detected, combat still remained more tactical compared to the more blitzkrieg approach of the infected. Instead of frantically fighting for your life, you are moving around between cover, picking up ammo and new weapons as you navigate the battlefield.
My number one complaint with The Last of Us when I initially played it was how much downtime there was. Time spent doing nothing but walking or placing planks and ladders to cross gaps. After playing the game recently, I realize the point of these sections. They are moments to decompress and reflect on your experiences. They serve as calm moments to juxtapose the tension-filled gameplay that defines The Last of Us. The moments of “blank space” also have the characters engage in conversation. Often times the topic is mundane, but that’s what human conversation is actually like. It builds the relationship between the characters as their journey continues.
One thing that I noticed about myself since I began playing more games was that I prefer games to occasionally take a break from the action. When playing games like DOOM I found myself getting overstimulated after an hour of play, which led to me taking frequent breaks. Maybe it’s just me, but games with constant high-octane action mentally exhaust me. Sometimes to the point where it becomes difficult to play them for more than a few minutes at a time. I’ve grown to appreciate the moments that let me take a breather. I want to soak in the environment, think about the adventures that I’ve been on, and enjoy idle chit-chat between the characters. The moments of downtime in The Last of Us have gone from being boring to being an integral part of the experience.
Overall, over the years I’ve grown to appreciate The Last of Us and what makes it so remarkable. It’s one of the first games to truly capture human interactions and make them feel natural. The intensity of the combat with its many facets will always be engaging. The characters feel incredibly genuine and authentic, which is something rarely seen in games. I’m glad that I gave The Last of Us another chance despite my poor first impressions. It truly is one of the best games of its generation.