The third-person aiming and shooting works as well as it does in Uncharted, but with a more realistic approach to targeting, fire-rates and reloading. In Uncharted you can spray machine-gun fire around with near-impunity. In The Last of Us, you wince when a headshot fails to hit home. And while Infected enemies play fairly dumb, becoming most dangerous when you panic or they emerge in numbers, human enemies are a little bit smarter. We’ve had moments of farce chasing government troops around the furniture, but also moments where we’ve been outflanked, outsmarted and outgunned.
All of this is great but not necessarily the makings of a classic. What makes The Last of Us more than just a good game is its storytelling and atmosphere. It helps that there’s a real depth to the characters, and it’s the kind of depth that comes from the performance and the dialogue, not some trail of background info that’s supposed to make you understand them.
“Show, don’t tell” is the old Hollywood maxim, and The Last of Us follows it most of the way, with Joel’s world weary attitude evident in every word and animation, and his teenage charge Ellie’s youthful spirit just the same. The game then throws them into situations that don’t just test your skills as a player, but reveal new aspects of their characters. In the end you care not because you’re constantly being told you have to care, but because you’ve got to know and like these people.
Tess, Ellie and the other CPU-controlled characters also play a vital part. On one level they provide effective and sometimes unpredictable support, throwing you ammo or coming to the rescue when you’re swamped, but they also fill the game’s deliberately sparse soundtrack with life, with natural-sounding dialogue that takes you further into the story while the action is still progressing. There are cut-scenes, but where possible the game works hard not to stall its flow.
The graphics, meanwhile, are consistently fantastic, with some of the most detailed characters, monsters and environments we’ve seen on PS3, and stunning lighting that’s employed with a real eye for the fine art of cinematography. Outside of the city it’s a lush and verdant kind of apocalypse, with nature running rampant in the midst of urban decay, and some of the vistas are plain beautiful. Familiar settings – office blocks, apartments, backyards, high-street stores, a suburban school – are twisted into locations for frantic fights to survive against Infected and the most feral human foes. The juxtaposition of the normal and abnormal is just as effective here as in The Road or The Walking Dead.
Most of all, The Last of Us thrives on its atmosphere. It’s hard to call it scary in the sense of a Resident Evil or Dead Space 1 and 2, but it’s horrifically tense, knotting your guts as Joel senses Infected around the corner or you’re trapped with homicidal survivors all around. You soon learn the different types of Infected, and come to fear the blind but unstoppable Clickers and the hideous, over-powered Bloaters, and some of the human opposition aren’t any more lovable. The violence when it comes is fast, brutal and surprisingly graphic, but rarely cheap. It’s the kind of violence that makes you want to turn your head away, though as much is suggested as actually shown.
As always, it’s the soundtrack that does much of the heavy lifting. The score, deliberately stripped-back and heavy on washes of synth and finger-plucked acoustic guitar, is by turns dark and unnerving, then oddly warm. The use of effects is equally focused, meaning events have real impact when they need to.
It’s easy to deconstruct The Last of Us, look at all the individual elements and say that it’s not doing anything that new or that special. You can moan that it’s linear, that it denies players real choice and that some of the means used to prevent you leaving the current bubble are clearly artificial. Yet when you’re playing it, none of this matters. What matters is Joel and Ellie, getting them to their destination, and taking this rich story to its end. The Last of Us might not be the most stunningly original or mind-blowing game you’ll play this year, but it’s an intelligent, polished and grimly satisfying work of gaming art.
Read more: Best games of 2013