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Review: The Last of Us: American Dreams

In just a few days we're getting new downloadable content for The Last of Us, which was easily the best game of 2013. The expansion, Left Behind, is set to follow Ellie in the time before she began her journey across the country with Joel and features her young friend Riley as a main character as well.

In order to prepare for revisiting the hellish, zombie-infested world of the game, Naughty Dog was kind enough to send me the trade paperback of the tie-in comic American Dreams. Written by the game's director, Neil Druckmann, with art by Faith Erin Hicks, the book is a must-read if you plan to explore Ellie's early life in the brutal military quarantine zone where The Last of Us initially begins the main game.

There were a lot of great things about the title, but what made it stand out most from an artistic perspective is how the gameplay explored not only the behavior of the fungal zombies, but the way that war against them can turn humans into living instead of undead monsters. It's the same thing that makes Night of the Living Dead the masterpiece that it is.

American Dreams delivers the human side of that in huge gulps. In fact, aside from a few passing remarks for the majority of the book, you could have no idea that there was even a zombie outbreak at all. The zone looks like any other military dystopia from any other setting, and to Ellie, who was born after its establishment, it's the only world she knows.

That's a curious notion that I've never seen explored before. Beyond the walls are monsters of the conventional kind, but if the horrors that you see day in and day out are vicious cops, murderous smugglers and a grim terrorist network, then how exactly can you feel much fear for the undead?

In essence, that take on the storytelling turns American Dreams into the zombie version of a Green Day album. Ellie and Riley have had to fight for every bit of their existence, and all around them everyone from food thieves to graffiti artists meets swift ends with bullets to the head in the streets.

For a teenage girl, exceptional action game hero that she is or not, the result is an angsty desire to rage against the machine. That's what we see her do as she seeks out the Fireflies group with Riley and tries to become a part of the only thing she's standing in the way of the "protectors" who have become despots as well as guard. It's a typical youthful move for control, but played out under extraordinary circumstances.

As such, when the infected finally do make an appearance, it seems almost out of place. The runners and clickers are Joel's story, really. They represent the disaster that took his daughter away. For Ellie the main enemies have always been mankind itself, a mankind that tried to use her to almost the very end of her life.

Though the battle against the infected is a huge part of The Last of Us, hopefully American Dreams is a good indicator of the human war that Ellie will have to fight in Left Behind. Nothing wrong with blowing away the undead with a nail bomb, but for real scares, man always wins.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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