It was near the end of 2011 when I first heard about The Last of Us, the latest creation from developer Naughty Dog, the team behind the PlayStation 3's acclaimed Uncharted series.
At first glance, it seemed that Naughty Dog had simply layered a zombie game on top of Uncharted. But after playing through The Last of Us, I can definitively say that this studio has not only crafted an experience that eclipses all of the Uncharted games, but also reinvigorates a genre that's been on life support for far too long.
The game follows Joel and Ellie, an unlikely pair of survivors who've avoided infection from a fungal plague that has already taken over most of the world and killed millions. There's something special about 14-year old Ellie, and it's Joel's job to transport her safely.
In the months leading up to the game's release I learned about its inception through talks with members of the Naughty Dog team. The fungus virus is inspired by the "Planet Earth" documentary series, specifically a segment that depicts an ant with a bizarre fungal infection. Spores had attacked the ant's brain and forced it to act in a completely different and zombie-esque manner.
In the world of The Last of Us, a similar infection has jumped species to human beings, causing a horrid decomposition of their brains as well and mutating them into fungi-deformed shells of ordinary people.
Sure, some of the rules are similar to the world in "The Walking Dead" -- one bite and you're infected -- but survivors must also avoid the infectious spores that populate the dark locales where the virus can perpetuate.
If you're looking for more accurate cinematic similarity, I found myself constantly thinking about "Children of Men" during the entire campaign. In The Last of Us, human civilization has seriously devolved and an increasingly aggressive authoritative presence has all but destroyed any possible restoration of normal everyday life. The feeling is that everyone's time is running out.
The Last of Us works on so many levels because it's an extraordinarily human game. The characters are vulnerable, both emotionally and physically. They're portrayed wonderfully through compelling cut scenes that are further supported through tastefully curated dialogue that is peppered throughout gameplay. I found it surprisingly easily to become familiar with their behaviors and start to care for them as if they were real people. That's a pretty powerful achievement that you won't see in too many other games.
While the survival horror genre seemed to be running on fumes, The Last of Us gives new hope to a style of play that was being deconstructed by regenerative health and ammunition surpluses. The Last of Us forces you to rethink your every move, conserve your supplies, and plan a few steps ahead. Each bullet you fire matters, so make them count. It's this impressive combination of responsibilities that created fantastic moments of panic and tension that kept me on edge. There's essentially no pausing in the game. To craft vital items or heal yourself, you'll first need to find an area where you can lay low for a short time.
Those familiar with the Uncharted series will likely take to the controls fast enough, as there are a number of similarities. But where Uncharted paved its way as a stop-and-pop action-shooter, The Last of Us wears many more hats. You can approach each encounter differently -- be it stealthily or aggressively. But one thing's for sure: you will die. A lot.
Having survived for years after the first breakout, Joel has developed the ability to enter a listening mode in which he can pinpoint enemies located nearby. Using this, he can better protect his young companion and plan a strategy in a given area. Ellie will shadow you most of the time and won't be discovered unless you are, even though she'll occasionally appear to pass through an enemy's line of sight.
The game encourages exploration thanks to its seamless crafting and upgrade system that is painlessly inserted into the campaign. It's not overly complicated and does a commendable job of respecting the flow of the game. Rarely is anything handed over, so it's up to you to scour the environment and turn over every stone.
The Last of Us is a triumph in interactive entertainment that should be played by everyone, not just those with a PlayStation 3. If you don't have one, borrow a friend's. It's a game that you'll have a hard time putting down, mostly for its elite production value, accessible storyline, brilliantly acted cast, and marvelous balance and variety of gameplay.
CNET verdict: A must-have for PS3 ownersThe Last of Us is a brutally realistic and often shocking depiction of a world in crisis, but is undeniably fun to play. It perfectly captures a civilization on the brink through its believable and hellish atmosphere.
It represents one of the strongest console exclusives in a long time and is absolutely a must-have experience for mature PlayStation 3 gamers.
There's also a significant multiplayer mode packed inside The Last of Us. For more on that feature of the game, be sure to check out GameSpot's coverage.