Mainstream Review: The Last of Us

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Gorilla Film Magazine is aware of films, television and games that are actually popular. We don’t put a lot of effort into covering that stuff, but we’re definitely aware of it. So here’s the Mainstream review of the week. 

The Last of Us
Release Date: 14/06/13 

The Last of Us

Trudging through a peaceful wood, as sunlight filters through the trees and birds sing in the distance, it’s kind of hard to stay focused on the task at hand. While a thick skin and a bullheaded determination will get you far in life, it’s generally not a life worth living. Not without a sense of wonder, and not without reflection.

So, lets reflect then. If the lobotomised sludge of modern horror films such as Saw, Hostel, Rob Zombie’s Halloween and the Platinum Dunes remakes have taught us anything, it’s that horror can’t exist within a vacuum. It’s not enough to throw blood and guts in the air to the tune of a heavy metal album. Horror as pure spectacle is about as emotionally effective as pornography, it adheres to our most primitive drives, usually with an over reliance on jump cuts and bodily secretions. True horror requires us to think, and it needs those quieter, human moments as much as shadows need light to cast them.

Picking our way through a serene city road, full of skeletal cars and lush trees that have sprouted from the concrete, Joel and Ellie enjoy a quiet moment. Undoubtedly there is horror to come, but for now Ellie will crack a few jokes, and ask questions about the world, while Joel pretends to be annoyed. This is a beautifully realised world, stunning to look at and full of detail, and it’s rare that a videogame lets you soak it up without throwing a bunch of enemies at you all the time. For now we just walk, and breathe, stopping occasionally to salvage some scraps we can use to make a bandage or a shiv. We often spend as much time as we dare, searching for tools we can use later, because when the enemies do eventually come, it’s not going to be fun. Unlike most games, violence won’t be empowering, or cathartic, it’ll be brutal, clumsy and ugly.

The Last of Us is the latest blockbuster game from Naughty Dog, the game developer behind Crash Banicoot, Jak and Daxter and, of course, the Uncharted franchise. Visually speaking The Last of Us is similar to Uncharted, but this is no action adventure.

The general story is pretty close to what we’ve come to expect from a post-apocalyptic tale; a virus outbreak wipes out most of Earth’s population, and mankind is left to struggle on, either in quarantine zones or the bandit-infested wild, as nature reclaims the cities.

The game’s prologue is a terrifying and haunting tribute to every zombie/virus outbreak opening scene, as you attempt to escape your suburban home, while your neighbors try to eat you. The game begins proper twenty years later, as Joel (now a grumpy old man living in a quarantine zone in Boston) makes a living smuggling cargo with his close “friend” Tess.

Tess and Joel are both hardened survivors and, as Tess points out, they’re kind of shitty people. All is relatively well, until the duo find themselves smuggling a teenage girl called Ellie to a group of rebels known as the Fireflies, who have a camp in the city. So begins an epic journey, full of twists and turns, laugher, tears and the horrifying screams of the mushroom people.

The Last of Us makes frequent nods to the films and games that inspired it, but still manages to hold it’s own as a piece of fiction. This is largely down to the great characters, all brilliantly acted (and not just for a game). Joel and Ellie, the two main protagonists, are genuinely interesting and engaging people, who must learn to get along at the end of the world. Their relationship is central to the games success, and the quality of the writing, in terms of dialogue and narrative, makes the game seem like something close to a HBO television series.

Despite the lush, post-apocalyptic environment, you should resist the urge to run around shooting things while listening to (Nothing But) Flowers by the Talking Heads. Gustavo Santaolalla’s musical score is absolutely spellbinding. It’s unobtrusive, sometimes solemn, often bittersweet, and reminiscent of his own work on Brokeback Mountain, as well as the various soundtracks by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. You’ll also want to be keeping an ear out for nearby enemies, as you’ll probably spend most of the game trying to keep a low profile, hiding behind tables and bits of debris, and throwing bricks and bottles to distract a murderous bandit, or one of the infected.

As strange as it sounds, the combat isn’t fun, and that’s kind of what’s awesome about it. Firing a weapon is deliberately awkward, and best avoided unless really necessary. The melee is brilliant but brutal. Joel is no Nathan Drake; he’s slow and cumbersome, hurling himself at enemies with all the grace of a fucking brick. If your foe is close to a wall, or a table, Joel will slam them into it, he’ll grab their head with one hand while he punches their face to mush with the other, he’ll kick them when they’re down and stomp on their heads. Bottles can be thrown to distract enemies, or you can throw them at their fucking heads, and while they’re picking bits of broken glass out of their face you can leg it or throw yourself at them, pummeling them to the ground. The violence isn’t pretty, and it’s not particularly enjoyable, or glorified in a God of War sort of way. It’s just necessary, you do what you can to survive.

The focus of the game is on survival, and if that can be achieved by sneaking past your enemies unnoticed then all the better. The various enemy types all act differently, with bandits in particular being smart and capable, often falling back to regroup and flank, or cautiously stalking you through the environment. They’re tough cookies, and can easily get the better of you if you’re not careful, so it’s fortunate that Ellie goes against type as a videogame companion and actually helps rather than hinders your progress. Not only will your teenage sidekick tell you if someone is trying to sneak up on you, she’ll even lend a hand in combat. Naughty Dog have stated that neither Joel nor Ellie will be returning for a sequel, which is a shame because it would have been awesome to have a whole game where Ellie was the playable character.

And then there’s the infected. Inspired by a particularly horrifying episode from the David Attenborough narrated Planet Earth documentary series, the “zombies” in the Last of Us are actually infected by a Cordyceps fungus. They are essentially mushroom people, tortured, screaming puppets, that are forced to obey the fungus in their brains. There’s something deeply appealing about the idea of such a simple organism doing what it’s always done, made horrifying only because we are now the victims, instead of ants or moths or spiders. The infected spend most of their time crying, unless they see you, and then they’ll attack in force, easily outnumbering and overpowering you if you don’t act quickly. I have developed a brilliant strategic technique for dealing with these monsters. It’s called “leg it” and essentially involves running away in the opposite direction.

The only problem is you’ll need to scavenge for bits and bobs that are scattered about the large environments, to craft items you can use- ranging from bandages that restore hit points to broken scissors you can duct tape to the end of a baseball bat. The urge to explore, to find potentially life saving salvage, will have you willingly entering abandoned houses and flooded train stations, with only your flickering torch to guide you. The environments are gorgeous and diverse, one minute you’ll be out in the great outdoors, gazing at a beautiful sunset while birds cheep merrily in the background, the next you’ll be in a dark corridor, overgrown with fungus, straining your eyes and ears for the telltale signs of the infected.

Of course the longer one of these things actually remains infected, the more fungus grows on it’s body and the less human it begins to look (although they’re always human enough to remain uncanny). The dreaded ‘Clickers’ are so far gone that they have lost the use of their eyes (due in large part to most of their heads sprouting open, to resemble giant arseholes) and so rely on their acute hearing. Sneaking past them is at best terrifying, especially as they can kill you almost instantly. The variety of infected, the way they act and their terrible strangled screams make these among the most memorable monsters in game history. They have transcended the limits of what a zombie can do and become something that’s actually scary again.

The tense survival horror elements, coupled with the brutal action makes for a potent mix, but it’s the story and the characters that really elevates The Last of Us to something truly special. Some of the best moments in the entire game come from optional dialogues with the characters. Ellie in particular is fascinated by the world, especially the one Joel remembers, because she was born after everything went to shit. There was a particularly memorable moment when she spotted a poster of a supermodel and wondered why, in a time when there was so much available food, anyone would be that thin.

The Last of Us is about as much fun as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, so if you chuckled your way through that novel, you’ll find a lot to laugh about here too. However, for those of you who aren’t sociopaths, The Last of Us is an emotional, grueling experience. The title proves that games have just as much right to tackle heavy themes as any other storytelling medium, and it does a damn better job at scaring you than any recent horror movie you’re likely to see. Most of all, it’s a character driven odyssey that explores the obvious themes one would expect from the genre (survival of the fittest, loyalty, hope etc) while maintaining a well written and engaging relationship that makes you actually care how everything works out. The Last of Us is a game that tells an old story in a new way, that feels fresh and original. It’s scary, it’s funny, it’s tragic and it’s beautiful. Also, those Clickers totally look like giant arseholes.

This was written by David Knight, a real fun-guy.

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