Naughty Dog's reinterpretation of the zombie apocalypse dazzles, even more so that it takes conventional beats and still leaves you heart in mouth (a place it'll stay for most of the game). It's amazing as a piece of character work and sets a confident mission statement for what's to come.
If the game stumbles in the immediate aftermath, it's because it seemingly slips back into gaming convention all too easily, handing us a gun to get us quickly acquainted with the kill or be killed nature of this new world.
While you'd want the game to continue in the vein it started in, that's the nature of The Last of Us; delivering stark, charged moments that hit with the power and speed of a baseball bat. Quick cut-aways work more smartly than the glorification of sickening imagery. The studio deftly turn their hand to the modern survival horror genre, one so swollen over the past few years, yet manage to carve their own vision. The game's a trek across infected America, but that's not the focus of the story.
For the next few hours The Last of Us introduces the rules (death is but a couple of bullets or neck-chomp away) and the threats (smart human scavengers with great aim, swarms of inhuman mutations with swinging fists and snapping teeth; all in great number). Your ammo's low and supplies for crafting weapons scarce.
The key word: vulnerability. Things feel bleakly real.
The studio use the gameplay setup to pick away at our traditional confidence as well as to frame, and explain, the change in Joel - soon enough our protagonist's new coldness is understood. Kill or be killed mentality explained by gameplay rather than scene-chewing monologues.
It's true of the game in its entirety; gameplay at the fore, exposition a brief few lines of dialogue, reading body language. Cutscenes are short, only bookending transitions from one area to the next. It paints the new world's brutality more effectively than lengthy exposition and anyone worrying Naughty Dog went the way of cinematic QTE can rest easy.
In a way, The Last of Us is closest to this year's Tomb Raider in feel, if inversely proportional with its gameplay. It's a fairly linear, but lengthy adventure with little side exploration, yet it repeatedly introduces you to large, sometimes multi-floored areas, where level design and larger enemy numbers sharpen your stealth abilities as tension keeps spiking.
Stealth is key. A mechanic that focuses on Joel's hearing turns the world a dull grey, nearby enemies outlined in white. You're free to ignore it, but it's a satisfying alternative to a mini-map, and instead of being blasé about the environment, you engage with it more, studying layouts, possible routes. Joel will lean into walls when pressed against them, and a quick tap will let you vault over nimbly, whether from a crouch or run. Yet even if you can ghost round patrols with confidence, it's that vulnerability which keeps you on edge as soon as you plunge into the middle of enemy groups.
With health so low, your ammo count so scarce, and your aim so shaky a half-clip of bullets become last resort instead of opening statement. The game strips you of ammo-filled safety blankets as easily as it does your sense of being superhuman. Upgrades can be bought to steady your hand, but with upgrade currency in such short supply, you need to decide whether that's really a priority over extra health or furthering your listening distance.
As such, a tossed brick to turn an enemy's head just long enough is as essential as a full ammo clip. And while the game loads you with the usual weapon suspects, you'll find yourself favouring the bow most, and thanking your preferred deity when you come across any, and every, discarded arrow or scavenged items enough to forge a shiv - both offering silent kills.
Because any noise - even knocking over leftover bottles or furniture - will attract attention. As you get further into the story, Naughty Dog consciously litter the ground with breakable items just where you'd need to crawl through to avoid being spotted. And every enemy you encounter has great hearing.
Being of superior number and well-armed, scavengers are tougher to tackle than the infected. They're as quick to flank you as infected are to swarm you. While a clear head can see you escape easily, the game so pummels you with screams, gunshots (audio is phenomenal here) and nerve-jangling panic, having a clear head first play through will be a rarity.
Close-range combat, when it does come, is brutal. There's none of the easy fluidity the third-person adventure's adopted since Batman: Arkham Asylum. But it's equally satisfying, even if you'll grimace while performing every action. Punches land with meaty heft, strangling is unpleasant, violent finishers horrifying. Death is never glorified, and you'll wince with every bruise and break. (There's even a scene late on that we can't help but think is an in-joke to Lara Croft's regenerative capabilities).
The need to find items, ingredients for the likes of molotov cocktails, health kits (both nicely using the same ingredients) and shivs, trains you to sniff around every area before proceeding. But as a result you'll occasionally miss exposition between other characters that join you at times on your trek. It's one of the game's few niggling annoyances.
As stated, exposition is short and to the point, yet fleshes out both characters and the situation with a realism that's captivating. Your main companion is Ellie, who starts off an unwelcome package you've got to deliver to the other side of the city, but slowly, naturally, grows into something much more. Her and Joel's relationship is key to the game's narrative.
There's argument that, given the well-worn nature of the central plot, that the story isn't quite as affecting as it would have been had the game released before, say, Telltale's The Walking Dead. But Naughty Dog don't build the story with expectation to deliver a final cutscene coda. The developer never forgets this is a game, not a movie.
As such it instead sprinkles heavier moments as part of the gameplay, and over the entire length of the title's eighteen hour play time. Anyone looking for some epic cutscene ending come the conclusion will be disappointed. But it's easy to see how Naughty Dog could return to this world if they wanted to in the future.
While it's an escort story, it's not an escort game. Like Bioshock's Elizabeth, Ellie's (mostly) immune from harm and will chip in to help. But while Naughty Dog do their best to keep her out of the way during stealth sections, it's apparent at times that she, or any character that's with you, can clearly be seen by enemies but are being ignored. It cracks the illusion, but thankfully doesn't shatter it.
We can already see the number of articles that'll spring up around comparisons between Elizabeth and Ellie as companions as well as characters. Ellie works just as well, and given the slower pace of the game, she's consistently dogging your heels, unlike the invisible teleporting ability of Elizabeth.
She's a hardened soul; mouthy, funny. Rather than wanting to protect her, you want to earn her respect. Naughty Dog treat her vulnerability and naivety with subtle touch; while environmental interactions are expected, some later on will still manage to catch you off-guard. Ellie and Joel go through two different arcs in the game, both equally compelling.
Visually the game maintains the same Naughty Dog standard we've been used to this generation, but while the Uncharted series made time to show off its hard-crafted wares with the delight of a high adventure, The Last of Us treats fantastic landscapes with a resigned sigh: treating the destroyed vistas as visual pornography was never Naughty Dog's aim here. They, Joel - you - see nothing but city-sized deathtraps that have to be survived. The design is fantastic, every apartment, sewer, high-rise building feeling likes they've been built from real-life blueprints, rather than tailored to size for a game layout.
The single player story's not the only thing on the disc. Along with an assortment of unlocks, such as different costumes and visual filters (we've got to point out the excellent B&W mode that adds to the atmosphere), there's a multiplayer game mode: Factions.
This is something that both developer and publisher have been curiously hesitant in discussing in any detail leading up to the game's release. It'd be easy to suggest this is because it's a vacuous add-on, bolted on as part of the modern tick box of expectation. Yet, from the brief time we've spent on it (just a few hours so far) it's decent fare, keying into the protracted stealth moments of SP, as well as enforcing team-work and the need to scrounge for supplies.
This part of the game tosses you into one of two groups (to tie loosely into the story and give you some context), gives you a handful of default load-outs and perks, then drops you into 4v4 matches across a series of maps. The setup isn't new, but the approach is.
You've as little ammo as SP, forcing you to sneak through maps (that always feel just the right size between expansive and intimate) and work together pinpointing and downing foes. While randomised item boxes will let you build bombs and such, supplies also collected can buy you weapon and armour perks. There's only two modes on offer currently: Supply Raid, with groups pooling from a twenty-life limit, and Survivors, one life each, best of seven rounds.
Less embellished, but interesting in itself, is how Naughty Dog tie the matches together via a menu-driven meta-game.
Post-match, anything scrounged from the map is handed over to feed your growing 'clan', survivors who look to you for protection and food, with their number and health visualised through a stats section on the main MP menu.
As the clan grows you're expected to pull in more supplies. Fail and survivors start getting hungry, some infected. With every match lasting a day of in-game time, the goal is to have your clan survive as long as possible. As days turn into weeks, special gameplay conditions are introduced with story-driven reasons, forcing you to play multiplayer matches differently (such as killing only with your revolver or fists).
It's an interesting diversion, and while failure with your clan simply resets the clock to day one, we admittedly became hooked on Survivors. We'd be lying if we said multiplayer wasn't something we're looking forward to dipping back into once the game hits retail.
But that's a nice additional side to an eighteen-hour single player campaign. While the gameplay mightn't be new or completely original, Naughty Dog has brought together these different elements and made them their own to create a masterclass in survival horror. They've worked hard to make a world that looks blandly real and as a result you feel completely grounded in it, and crafted a story that'll happily kick you in the heart multiple times. And you'll thank it for the experience. This is a masterpiece: play it as soon as possible.