The Fungus Among Us
I know, I know. Sometimes, I am hella on time for the game. The Last of Us was a game I had been saving up my duckets for since the live gameplay trailer was previewed over a year ago. Naughty Dog had gone balls out in their next endeavor to give us something that built upon the engine used for the Uncharted franchise, but took things in a new direction. Where the Drake games were rollicking fun and excitement, the apocalyptic setting of The Last of Us has decided to take a note from Cormack McCarthy and give us something more along the lines of a video game adaptation of The Road with a splash of color – a lot of which is arterial red.
The Last of Us paints a grim picture for the earth in the year 2033. In 2013, a new sort of fungus developed that could invade a human host and take control of its brain. While humanity had seen fungi like this before, it only affected insects and some crustaceans. The Cordyceps fungus seemed far off from developing into anything that could overtake a mammal’s body. But, the Cordyceps fungus could, and did so with rapid efficiency. Those affected lost higher brain functions and turned into raging, homicidal maniacs known collectively as the Infected. All it took was transmission of bodily fluids, typically by bite; or inhalation of spores from the Cordyceps fungus itself to transform the human host into a terrifying monster that would kill even its closest friends and family. Most cities tried to erect quarantine zones under military stewardship to hold off the infection. Some made it, but most did not, and the Infected continue to roam the uncontrolled zones, infecting humanity one by one in the lawless wreckage of civilization. There are few human settlements left, but one of the QZs still functioning is in Boston, and that is where the tale of Joel and Ellie begins. Joel agrees to transport Ellie to a group of resistance fighters called the Fireflies as her immune system seems to have curiously managed to stop the spread of infection after being bitten by an Infected. The Fireflies have been fighting the remnants of the Army for years and have also been recruiting doctors to continue studying the infection and Ellie holds the promise of a cure. The trip will take the pair out from Boston and across the country in hopes to find a stay of execution for the long ailing human race.
The game’s interface should look familiar. Much of it has been lifted from Naughty Dog’s previous hits in the Uncharted series, though there’s definitely some more depth to it. The first noticeable change should be the system for advancement. While Nathan Drake really just picks up newer guns along the way, Joel picks up skills via supplements and herbs found in his trip. As you rack up points from these items, you can increase your overall health; gain greater weapon proficiency, durability and aim; and increase Joel’s ability to pinpoint his opponents based on the amount of noise they make. Likewise, Joel also can pick up spare parts that are scavenged throughout the game. Some are generic parts, usable at workbenches found in certain areas. These parts can improve weapon characteristics to let them carry more ammunition or to reload more quickly, but far more useful is the ability to create holsters which allow for rapid weapon switching. Likewise, there’s specific components you use to craft items like nail bombs, Molotov cocktails, smoke grenades, shivs, and most importantly, first aid kits.
Also, combat has taken a dark turn from the developer’s previous titles, and as such is unforgiving and brutal. While Nathan Drake tended to just punch and shoot, Joel will full on strangle, shiv, and even go so far as to take a hostage if he thinks it’s useful. Melee items are also abundant as ammo is short in supply, so lead pipes, baseball bats, and just any old hunk of wood can be employed, and even be modified for one hit kills if you have enough items lying around.
Lastly, the game has taken a page from Bioshock in that overall, you’re not going to have to worry too hard about Ellie as a sidekick. The Last of Us has less of an escort mission feel than you’d expect, and in moments when she is put in peril, it’s to keep you focused on the mission at hand. Higher difficulty modes can change this equation however, so playing on survival mode ought to give you a better feel of having to look after Ellie’s best interests. Better still, Ellie can help out from time to time, distracting or stunning opponents at opportune junctures in the game.
Where to start? There is so much good to account for. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I love the genre of apocalypse fiction. The Last of Us captures it and turns the dial up to eleven. This is not the grim, gray future of The Road or the Fallout franchise. This is the damp slow rot and urban reclamation by nature of Enslaved. But, where Enslaved went with a more cartoonish and simplified apocalypse, The Last of Us finds the photo-realistic ground I’ve been looking for all of my life. The environments are beautifully rendered and well thought out, and the atmospherics they bring in rain, dust, spore-riddled places mixed with the quality of light is nothing short of breathtaking. They carry this over to your foes and opponents too. No one in this game looks like they’ve seen a shower recently, clothes are tattered and stained, and when people get shot up, they react accordingly. The apocalypse has not been this convincing in any other game I’ve ever seen.
Combat is tense and unforgiving, but in a way that enhances the game. I felt no rage quit moments in this title, every death showed me another way not to tackle any given situation and informed me of other, better ways to overcome or sneak past my enemies. And when you die at the hands of the infected… it’s intense. Runners may just bash you to death, but Clickers – the blind but extremely sound sensitive infected whose soft tissues have been replaced with fungal blooms – will straight up rip your throat out with their teeth. Bloaters – infected who’ve been so for so long as to develop armored carapaces – will actually gouge your eyes out while simultaneously ripping out your jaw.
Enemies are largely intelligent as well when it comes to the human predators of the game. While AI will always be AI on the PS3, enemies can tell when you’ve run out of ammo by the click of an empty chamber and change tactic accordingly. Bum rushing enemies who have you at range is also ill advised as they take full advantage of when they have a gun and you do not.
Ultimately, the thing all of this does is that it gives you immersion. You find yourself a part of the game when you play it, and there are moments it’s easy to forget that this is in fact an elaborate fiction. As I play it, I can see that back in the nineties, this is what Konami was going for with the Silent Hill franchise. It succeeds in making an environment tense where earlier technologies and approaches have failed or met with what by comparison seems like lackluster success.
There are a couple things that did stand out as negative, but they are largely minor and deal only with breaking the illusion of things being just a game. The first is that it seems that some enemies just… aren’t programmed to see your companions. While Ellie is the main companion (and sometimes the directly controlled character), you’ll find a few others in your trek across the wilderness. Opponents don’t always seem to see them, even when they’re right in the sights of hunters, soldiers, or monsters. While this works out as a positive in terms of gameplay, it does something to take away from the grim tone they went for.
Likewise, equipping your stuff is sometimes not as smooth as you’d hope for. You can work around it sometimes with a little forethought. But in the heat of battle, it can be difficult to remember where your gear is on the d-pad layout. In that scenario, you’ll find yourself losing equipment rapidly. In a game where scarcity of resources is driving your decisions, that can be a real downer. I lost three nail bombs in a scenario in which I just couldn’t seem to unequip them and it took several hours of gameplay to re-establish my stockpile.
The only other thing I can think of is that I saw shades of some frustrations I had with Hunted in this title. In some places, where it’s common sense you ought be able to backtrack to an area… you just can’t. Miss the items laying around in the Architecture office in Pittsbugh? Nope. Joel can’t go back and root around again because that door is closed. Despite the fact the guy holding the key is an ally. And could totally spare the five minutes to do so. So, be careful which doors you go through sometimes, cause you can lose serious items simply by not being thorough enough before entering what looks like a mundane door.
As a pet peeve, there’s also times characters do mind-bogglingly stupid things – particularly not remembering how to shut a goddamned door. If there’s anything zombie apocalypse movies have taught me, it’s to close the door after yourself even if there’s no zombies around. Open doors are like an invitation to be brutally murdered.
This game is fantastic – but not for the faint of heart. It’s gritty and tense. And you’ll be doing things that you question after you play. “Did I really need to shoot that guy? He was begging for his life. Sure, he was trying to kill me with a length of rebar, but… I’m still standing right? Does it make me any better than him?” Joel makes grueling decisions, as does Ellie, and more often than not, those decisions end up with blood everywhere – and I’ll admit, that ain’t for everyone. However, for those looking for something with a lot of brutal fighting, high-drama, and captivating storytelling, you need this title like you need air. Just make sure the kids and the timid aren’t anywhere near it when you play. You’re in for a great goddamned ride.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: Playstation 3 (Reviewed), Playstation 4