The Last of Us takes the done-to-death post apocalyptic setting and mixes it masterfully with a character-driven story that makes you care more about the people than the fact that you’ve played a half dozen games with the same premise. While the story is enough to keep your attention, the levels are crafted with similar finesse, transporting you to a world slowly being reclaimed by nature, with crumbling buildings overgrown with plant life, and a devastating fungal infection that turns its victims into nature’s warriors.

But that’s not really what The Last of Us is about. It’s not about the apocalypse, or zombies, or nature fighting back. What The Last of Us is really about is people. It’s about what drives one man to perform heroic acts, to take on responsibilities that aren’t his, and dedicate his entire being to seeing his commitment through to the end. The Last of Us is about what makes others band together in villainy, killing and looting with utter disdain for the lives they end. It’s about what happens when you put a reluctant hero in a dire situation, surrounded by enemies, with only a memory to keep him fighting.

The Last of Us actually starts at the beginning, with the outbreak of a lethal fungal infection that turns its victims into zombies. You’ll play as Joel who, with a flash forward to twenty years after the outbreak, distances himself from the world and the people around him and focuses on just surviving at all costs. Joel reluctantly accepts a mission to escort Ellie across the country, which has become filled with bandits, the infected Runners and Clickers, and even a rare friendly face along the way. The story in The Last of Us is rather minimalist, even clichéd, but the characters are so well executed that they become the focus of the story, much more so than the plot. You’ll be so taken with the characters and interactions that you won’t even notice that you’re on an uninspired quest.

As you trek across the country, much of your time will be spent in adventuring segments, where you’re looking for a way to move forward through desolate cities ravaged by time. Typically, this just means finding a ladder, a plank, or a dumpster, which you can use to access the next area, as well as hunting for crafting materials, which you can use to create items, upgrade your weapons, or power yourself up. These sections are certainly nothing novel, but they’re a great way to take in the world and appreciate nature’s reclamation of civilization. As you pillage abandoned offices for supplies, it is really striking how well nature’s creeping influences are done. Throughout your adventures, you’ll run into various enemies, be they infected, bandits, or the often better equipped military forces. These encounters can be approached with subtlety or ferocity, but a blend of the two is your best bet. You’ll find some situations where stealth is not an option at all, and others where you can avoid combat entirely, but after a handful of each, you’ll really come to appreciate the balanced approach.

The Last of Us does an impressive job of making each encounter feel unique. Even when you’re coming upon your tenth batch of infected, the distinctive environments make each battle seem like a new experience. Combat isn’t just a run-and-gun affair, however, as in most circumstances you’ll be sorely outclassed and outnumbered, so you’ll need to use stealth to silently dispatch as many of the opponents as possible before engaging in a gunfight. The scenarios are so well planned and designed that you’ll find yourself holding your breath for what seems forever, listening to bandits conversing or zombies feeding, and waiting for just the right moment to strike. The stealth and combat are both immensely satisfying, even as you’re replaying a difficult section several times in a row, and there is a distinct sense of accomplishment for getting a segment right on the first try. In some areas, however, the enemies seem to come in endless waves, which can get tiresome despite the thrill of combat. These areas can feel a little too high intensity for what is otherwise an at-your-own-pace experience.

Crafting in The Last of Us doesn’t do anything to further the story or the characters, but it doesn’t seem out of place either. Since you’re crafting fairly rudimentary items like a shiv or a med kit, it never feels like you’re an out of place crazed engineer assembling his latest invention. Instead you just feel like a guy in need of a shiv for a particular situation, like that pesky locked door that needs to be jimmied open, which invariably rewards you for expending the energy and resources to do so. On top of lucratively opening doors, the crafted shiv also allows you to execute Clickers, and even fend them off when they grab you, which is otherwise an immediate checkpoint load. The nail bomb, Molotov cocktail, and other advanced crafting feats leave a bit to be desired as compared to the more utilitarian items, but they at least offer a little more flexibility in how you approach your next combat situation.

The characters in The Last of Us are relatable without being entirely stereotypical, the story is driven by the characters, rather than the reverse, and the adventure sections, while nothing new mechanically, offer a great way to really delve into the world. Given the lack of truly innovative mechanics, and the reliance on well-known types of gameplay, like the all-too-typical “find a ladder to climb to the next section” adventuring bits, The Last of Us isn’t perfect, but it’s awfully close.

Bottom Line: The Last of Us breathes new life into a vastly overused genre, setting the bar for post-apocalyptic stories to come. It doesn’t do anything new mechanically, but you’ll be entirely too invested in the progress of the remarkably down-to-earth characters to care.

Recommendation: If you own a PS3 and like to get emotionally invested in the characters you play, go buy The Last of Us. If you fall into the latter category and don’t own a PS3, it might be time to reconsider your decision.

[rating=4.5]

Multiplayer was not available at the time of this review.

Game: The Last of Us
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform(s): PS3
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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