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Video Game Review: The Last of Us is first among equals

Post-apocalyptic tale isn't a Choose Your Own Adventure narrative

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Drawing inspiration from works like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men and Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, The Last of Us is a harrowing tale of survival in the rubble of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The year is 2033. For nearly two decades, a Cordyceps-like fungal infection has ravaged the planet, transforming humans into rabid, grotesque killers. Much of civilization has been destroyed by the infection, with pockets of survivors living in militarized quarantine zones or frontier settlements.

Joel (Troy Baker) lives in a quarantine zone in Boston, where he makes a living as a smuggler and gunrunner, bartering with survivors beyond the city walls. Before the plague, he lived in Central Texas with his daughter Sarah (Hana Hayes) and worked in construction with his brother Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce), but that was another life.

Joel is hired by the Fireflies, insurgents rebelling against the quarantine zone's military forces, to smuggle a 14-year-old girl out of the city. That girl is Ellie (Ashley Johnson), a rash, impulsive and temperamental teenager whose immunity to the fungal infection holds the key to ending the plague.

Ellie has little knowledge of the world prior to the infection. Raised in an environment where civil order and moral boundaries no longer exist, Ellie is a survivor, using violence as a means to an end when necessary. While hardened by the harsh realities of the world around her, she's still a kid — a perceptibly clever and sarcastic one at that — whose innocence and hope for the future serves as a juxtaposition to Joel's cynical, morose views on post-apocalyptic life.

Joel and Ellie fight their way to the drop-off point, only to find the Fireflies they were to meet have been gunned down by the military. The two must trek across the country, through abandoned cities and settlements teeming with bandits, cannibals and the infected, in search of the Fireflies' headquarters, where a cure for the plague can be synthesized.

Games like Mass Effect, Fallout and Dishonored are all about player choice. In most games, choice is represented as either doing something good (nice) or bad (mean), but The Last of Us isn't a Choose Your Own Adventure narrative. It's not your choices that matter so much in this carefully scripted story, but how emotionally involved you become with the characters and their struggles.

The Last of Us does, however, allow for choice in combat scenarios. A new gameplay mechanic called "dynamic stealth" gives the player a variety of strategies and techniques to accomplish objectives and navigate areas populated by enemies.

There's also a "crafting" mechanic that allows the player to gather various items in the world and combine them to make weapons or various gadgets. For example, gathering alcohol and rags allows you to create a first-aid kit or a Molotov cocktail. Find some tape and a piece of sharp metal and make a shiv to silently kill enemies. You have to craft items quickly and at a carefully chosen time, because the game doesn't pause while crafting takes place, and enemies can take advantage of Joel being preoccupied.

There's a frantic desperation to the combat as you never feel fully prepared for a skirmish. You'll run out of ammo, or first-aid kits, or shivs, and you'll have to take cover and try to craft something — anything — to survive the fight. Out of desperation, you'll pick up a 2x4 or a brick and smash an enemy's skull with it.

You don't want to kill these people, but as Joel explains, "You either hang on to your morals and die, or do whatever it takes to survive." There's nothing fun about The Last of Us — this isn't Call of Duty or BioShock, where engaging the enemy can be both entertaining and satisfying. Here, every encounter is a brutal, horrific ordeal that leaves you scarred.

Unlike most video game protagonists, Joel isn't a hero — he isn't a nice guy. His actions are often as sickening and inhuman as the nightmarish creatures he must fight. This is important, because as a player, you have no control over Joel's decisions. You can't make him a good guy by going around and doing nice things for people. You're forced to think about Joel's questionable actions and how those decisions go against your own beliefs and values.

Developed by Naughty Dog, the makers of Jak and Daxter and the Uncharted series, The Last of Us is simply the most riveting, emotionally resonant epic of the current console generation, offering up more suspense and sincerity in just its prologue than most big-budget films can muster in two hours.

The game's astonishing conclusion raises the bar for gaming narratives and interactive storytelling for the next generation. With games like Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us, the "Are Video Games Art?" debate is no longer a debate. PlayStation 3's swan song is a compelling and sophisticated work of fiction — a masterpiece that effectively closes out this generation of gaming on a high, albeit somber, note.

The Last of Us is rated M (Mature) for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes and Strong Language. It is available only on PlayStation 3.

(Console Me, Creative Loafing's electronic gaming column, consists of previews, reviews and commentary penned by Charlotte writer Adam Frazier, a regular contributor to CL and the websites Geeks of Doom and Hollywood News.)

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