Games journalists don't tend to agree on much, but every so often along comes a game that everyone unreservedly loves. Survival-horror action-adventure The Last of Us is one of those games, and has been praised almost universally for its story, environments and emotional impact.
Although it doesn't bring anything particularly new or innovative to the table (although why should it, who cares as long as it's GOOD?), the Last of Us is indeed worthy of the hype. Set in a post-apocalyptic America where some kind of infection has turned most people into monsters, the remains of humanity live in fear in decaying buildings under the watchful eyes of the military, whose heavy-handed tactics suck out what little fun is left in existing.
Joel and Tess are two survivors who find themselves unwillingly volunteered for the mission of escorting a teen girl called Ellie who was escaped from a military base across an infected zone. The story is revealed gradually and naturally and I won't spoil it here.
After a prologue which explores Joel's background and guides gamers through the control system, we start the game in the quarantine zone and from there explore atmospheric areas such as an abandoned school, an underground subway station and a once-luxurious five-star hotel. The jaw-dropping level of detail makes the Last of Us an incredibly immersive experience – you can see movie posters for films that never existed, protest graffiti, cutlery still on tables as if the owners were coming back any second, books stacked up on leaning shelves and evacuation signs. Urban exploring – where people break in to abandoned buildings to check them out and take photographs – is becoming increasingly popular, but if you don't fancy braving surly security staff, vicious guard dogs, barbed wire and dangerously sagging floors, this is the closest you're going to get to the experience without doing it in real life.
Unfortunately, many of these areas have unfriendly residents – the Infected, the military or even other survivors who don't like tourists – and so you'll need to dispose of them before you can go rummaging through the cupboards for supplies or admire the view.
You start the game armed with a standard 9mm pistol and a limited supply of ammo and along the way you'll pick up new and exciting ways to kill people, including a shotgun, a bow and nail bombs. You're also able to upgrade these in a variety of ways periodically when you find a suitable work bench, and providing you've collected enough parts by rummaging around.
The gameplay modes are well balanced – just as exploring and crafting starts to get dull, another bunch of bad guys show up, and when mindless slaughter is starting to leave you feeling cold, you get some free time to sit back and enjoy poking around. Ammo is scarce, so you'll need to get creative with your killing – perhaps by sneaking up behind people and strangling them quietly, throwing smoke bombs and running away or using your fists to dispose of low level enemies, conserving your ammo for those that are harder to kill.
The characters could have easily been cliched and annoying – I'll admit, at first, I wasn't delighted by the prospect of my in-game partner being a 14-year old girl – but instead they're real. Ellie doesn't act like she needs babysitting, she's streetwise and can handle herself. Likewise, Joel could have been a standard himbo hero, but instead we see that he's just a regular guy, a survivor of an unprecedented disaster just trying to do the best that he can. The interaction between the two is great and frequently laugh out loud funny, lifting the mood a little.
There are four difficulty levels (easy, normal, hard and survivor) as well as a multiplayer (no main story co-op) mode called Factions where you pick a side (Fireflies or Hunters), team up and try to outlast your opponents.
The Last of Us is simply one of the best games you can buy for the PlayStation 3 and may well be its swan song – it offers around 14 hours of gameplay, and if you enjoyed titles such as the BioShock and Uncharted series and Enslaved, you should probably just stop reading and buy it now.