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'The Last of Us' Avoids Pitfalls of Previous TV Adaptations of Video Games, According to Critics

HBO's 'The Last of Us' is the highest-rated TV adaptation of a video game in Metacritic's history.

Peter A. Berry
bella-ramsey-pedro-pascal

Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal in 'The Last of Us'

WarnerMedia

If you're in tune with the history of video game-to-anything else adaptations, HBO'sThe Last of Us might not have been on your priority viewing list. In the wake of middling video game reimaginings from Resident Evil to Halo, it can be hard to be optimistic. But, according to critics, it's different this time around, due in large part to the presence of The Last of Us game writer Neil Druckmann, who ensures the TV series retains the soul of its inspiration.

Combining powerful lead performances with immersive worldbuilding that captures the heart, kinetic action, and desperate isolation of the original games, The Last of Us quickly eviscerated any notions of mediocrity, earning a Metascore of 84 based on 36 reviews, which makes it the highest-rated video game-to-TV adaptation in Metacritic history. It's a number that easily eclipses those of Resident Evil (53 Metascore) and Halo (61 Metascore), making it the rare adaptation that gets the same type of universal acclaim as the game it's based on. 

Upon its release for PlayStation a decade ago, The Last of Us had critics raving about its dynamic gameplay and engrossing storyline, earning it a Metascore of 95 based on 98 reviews. The game follows the exploits of world weary Joel Miller (voiced by Troy Baker) and orphaned teen Ellie (voiced by Ashley Johnson), two humans tasked with trying to save the world after the spread of a virus that turns living creatures into rabid zombies. The TV series follows this plot precisely, with Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey playing the roles of Joel and Ellie, respectively. 

Whereas such video game adaptations as Resident Evil were lambasted for forcing YA-esque content and draining the game's elemental horror, The Last of Us has gotten props for honoring and staying true to the OG Naughty Dog creation.

"Whether exactingly reproducing incidents or fashioning novel ones, Druckmann and [Craig] Mazin aesthetically and narratively channel their predecessor's spirit through encounters, skirmishes, and obstacles that echo the hit's fundamental gameplay," The Daily Beast's Nick Schager wrote, going on to call The Last of Us is the greatest video game adaptation ever created. 

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times' Lorraine Ali gave The Last of Us credit for its set designs, direction, storyline and Pascal's affecting performance: "There's tenderness in this hellscape, and the meaningful relationships between characters make us care about them from the first few moments of the show," she wrote. 

Indeed, critics see The Last of Us as an example of game to television storytelling gone very right. That wasn't the case for Resident Evil or Halo, released on Netflix and Paramount+, respectively. While neither earned terrible scores, they failed to garner the types of responses that justify their self-sustained existence. 

When it came to Resident Evil, a story that also focuses on a world afflicted by zombies, The A.V. Club's Tom Philip noted that while the first episode was solid, the series too often skittered into generic action-adventure tropes, sapping the scarier elements that helped make the games so engaging. "The complete absence of 'horror' here is an egregious sin. We're introduced to monsters in the dark and gory lab experiments gone wrong, but never once do they land as frightening. Rather, they come off like superficial obligations to the genre," he explained.

And while Halo's score has a sizable edge on Resident Evil, few critics deemed it spectacular, or even significantly above average. CNN's Brian Lowry applauded its action, but he critiqued the show for being indistinct from other sci-fi offerings: "[Halo] actually feels like bits and pieces of everything you've ever seen, just wrapped up in shiny new armor."

In a positive review, The Decider's Kayla Cobb noted Halo's inclusion of fun easter eggs and flashy effects. But she also couldn't help but point out the series' deviation from the video game's established continuum, writing that besides some of the same characters, the show isn't all that similar to the series it's based on — which is an interesting choice considering Halo's incredible financial success

When looking across the spectrum of reviews for all three of these shows, it becomes clear that critics like The Last of Us so much more than Resident Evil and Halo because of its continuity, from its themes to its quality. Druckmann was with The Last of Us from Day No. 1, and his role as a scribe for the TV series reflects the simplest, synergistic logic: he made the video game, so now he gets to make the show. Halo and Resident Evil didn't enjoy the same benefit. 

Before working on its Netflix adaptation, showrunner Andrew Dabb hadn't been commissioned to work on any Resident Evil properties, so it wasn't all too surprising when his Resident Evil diverged from the usual rubric. Meanwhile, the showrunners for Halo hadn't previously worked on any of the video games either. These two adaptations went in different directions from the games fans were so devoted to and connected with, while The Last of Us stuck to what it knew.

The idea of reinvention can be a fun one, but there is big value in sticking to your roots.