Well, our weird cultural obsession with zombies shows no sign of letting up. Last week, Brad Pitt's long-awaited zombie extravaganza “World War Z” hit theaters. (Don't believe the haters, it's a terrific summer popcorn movie.) This month also marks the debut of one of the year's most hugely hyped video game titles, which posits a different sort of zombie apocalypse.
“The Last of Us” (PS3, $59.95; rated M) is already making Top Ten lists for 2013, and with good reason. It's the kind of accomplished big-budget console title that hits on all cylinders – story, game play, atmosphere, character, visuals and sound.
From the makers of the hugely popular “Uncharted” series, “The Last of Us” is a third-person action adventure title that folds in elements of the survival horror and cover-shooter genres. The technical specs are all top-notch. This game looks and sounds amazing. But it's clear that a good deal of time and effort was put into the characters and the story, and this makes all the difference.
The year is 2033, and the player assumes the role of Joel, one of the few remaining survivors of the zombie apocalypse that devastated the Earth 20 years previously. (Do the math and you'll see why we should be worried.)
The zombies in question aren't undead, per se. They're infected with a fungal organism that causes them to gradually mutate into half-man, half-mushroom creatures with alarming disfigurements and psychotic tendencies. But hey, a zombie is a zombie, am I right?
As with the baddies in “World War Z,” these zombies are fast. Those in the early stages of infection, called Runners, like to attack in swarms. In later stages of infection, the zombies turn into Clickers – blind manics who track by echolocation – and Bloaters, slower-moving behemoths protected by a thick fungal shell.
The result is a pleasantly varied combat system that encourages tactical thinking. When facing Runners, you want to isolate enemies and take them out quietly, lest their pals start sprinting in from all directions. Clickers and Bloaters require different approaches, and various encounters might mix and match the enemies, plus throw in environmental obstacles. A derelict subway station clouded with poisonous spores, say. Oh, you also have to watch out for homicidal fellow survivors and the brutal soldiers of America's new fascist regime.
Borrowing from the survival horror genre, “The Last of Us” ups the ante by providing limited resources. Weapons and ammo are rare and valuable – this is no arcade shoot-'em-up. In many instances, your best strategy is to run away screaming.
The combat system will be familiar to fans of the “Uncharted” franchise, and it includes options like auto-lock aiming so you can adjust difficulty on the fly. The limited skills and crafting system let you upgrade Joel's abilities and equipment as the fights get tougher.
So, yes, all the game play elements are solid, and they provide the foundation for the game's sophisticated storytelling. Early in the game, Joel teams up with 14-year-old fellow survivor Ellie, who doesn't look just a little like actress Ellen Page. She looks exactly like Ellen Page.
I don't want to disclose too much of the plot, but the story essentially involves the growing bond between these two as the broken, amoral Joel – he lost a daughter in the initial outbreak – comes to care for his spitfire ward. As they flee across the devastated ruins of America, secrets are revealed and the stakes are raised.
There really is nothing new under the sun in the post-apocalypse genre – everything's been done before, in some variation. But I'm impressed at how “The Last of Us” involves the player emotionally, and shuffles familiar elements into new story hooks. The fungus-based pandemic is nice, and provides for some truly scary visuals. I also liked how the designers imagine a world being slowly reclaimed by nature.
In the end, though, it's the story of Joel and Ellie that you really come to care about. This is a famously hard trick to pull off in video games. As much as proponents like to trumpet the unique narrative potential of video games – and I'm one of them – the truth is that film and TV are still several light-years ahead in regard to stories with rich character development.
Games like “The Last of Us” are fast closing the distance, though, and I suspect future game historians will flag this one as a landmark moment in video game storytelling.
New This Week: The popular Marvel comics character gets his own game title with Activision's “Deadpool” (PC, PS3, X360). The ultra-crossover title “Project X Zone” (3DS) features more than 200 characters from 27 different Japanese RPG games. And the hardcore actioner “Ride to Hell: Retribution” (PC, PS3, X360) explores sex, drugs and rock n' roll in 1960s biker gang culture.