Poorly directed character interactions and convoluted storylines can plague even the most highly produced, intricately detailed video games. "The Last of Us" rises above these challenges to deliver an action-packed story that ties gameplay and character arcs together through well-scripted drama rather than outlandish plot twists.
Developed by Naughty Dog, the studio behind the much-acclaimed Uncharted series, "The Last of Us" is a PlayStation 3 game set 20 years into a post-apocalyptic future when an outbreak has decimated the population of the United States and left cities mostly abandoned. Tonally, the plot and pacing of "The Last of Us" is in line with TV shows and movies like "Children of Men," "The Walking Dead," "I Am Legend" and "28 Days Later." You play as Joel, a Texan who journeys between survivor groups in a collapsed society where streets are flooded and vegetation is overgrown.
At every turn, "The Last of Us" strives to deliver a level of realism rarely seen in games. Ammunition and supplies are limited (don't expect to come across many machine guns), sneaking around is often more successful than combating enemies, and the game does a great job of not elbowing in an encounter with monsters at every turn. The battles players will face in "The Last of Us" are much more organic to the plot than your average game; for instance, there's no villain dogging you from beginning to end.
The action and set pieces are generally less high-octane than Naughty Dog's Uncharted series and the pacing is much slower. Stages are sometimes quiet and eventless, but always beautiful. After an eerie calm, the tension slowly but effectively builds up, leading to encounters with the game's monsters, those infected inhabitants of the country who are part fungus, part human. Don't laugh, the BBC has documented killer zombie-fungus in insects, and it is terrifying.
Enemies are hard to take down and even harder to evade. Once they've locked onto you, they will find you, wherever you are hiding, giving you very little time to heal, collect ammo or get a sense of your surroundings. This means you are going to die, and often, but the experience is never frustrating as long as it is heart-pounding.
The animation and voice direction are astounding in "The Last of Us," delivering character drama more real than most games of this generation. The game has a simple but emotionally charged storyline, edited tightly and filled with nuance. Some characters truly despise the people they interact with, others are quirky and lighten the mood. The mix of personalities keeps dialogue exchanges realistic, and the time Naughty Dog spent perfecting design and script really shines.
If you want to experience a game that features story-telling on par with a season of HBO or AMC quality television, "The Last of Us" will satisfy. The game breaks conventions, features unpredictable character choices and will surprise you with its many human moments, making for an extremely compelling experience.
"The Last of Us" is available now for the PlayStation 3.