To say that this game gets off to one of the most promising starts in video game history is a bit of an understatement. Partly due to the fact that I'm now more used to playing games on my laptop - a laptop with a decent-sized screen, but a laptop nonetheless - playing my first PS3 game since I bought a whopping huge-screen TV was perhaps always destined to be an awe-inspiring affair. Either way, the opening to this game is as cinematic as it gets, and is one of the best examples I've seen of the video-game-as-interactive-movie phenomenon thus far. The game moves so smoothly in and out of cut scenes, and offers such a degree of interactivity during some of these scripted scenes - e.g. moving around in the backseat of a car to get different views of the action on all sides - that the line between being a movie "viewer" and a game "player" becomes very fine indeed.
Needless to say, this makes the first twenty minutes of The Last of Us one of the hands-down most immersive experiences you will have in ANY medium of entertainment, not just gaming. Then the prologue ends - on quite an unexpectedly tragic note, I might add - and a more "regular" gaming experience begins.
Not that this is a bad thing. While some part of me would still love to see an entire game play out in the style of the game's jaw-dropping prologue, I'm honestly not sure the world of gaming has reached quite that pinnacle yet, so I'm hardly going to complain about a high-quality stealth game with horror undertones; which the game now becomes as we cut to "twenty years later", in a post-apocalyptic world which has long since accustomed itself to the zombie outbreak of two decades prior.
The next couple of hours of gameplay, then, is an exceptionally well-executed and lengthy tutorial in the mechanics of the game proper, and while what we learn is nothing we haven't played before - a mix of third-person stealth gaming and Tomb Raider-esque adventuring, with "normal" humans being the most frequent enemy - it's all of such a consistently high quality of gameplay and storytelling alike that we can forgive the familiarity. The difficulty does perhaps spike a bit too quickly for those unaccustomed to such gameplay - or those, like myself, who've pretty much plum-forgot how to use a PS3 controller to aim and shoot at things - but it all serves to usher the player smoothly into a world where those who aren't yet "infected" can be just as deadly as those who are.
Sound kinda bleak? Yup, it's bleak alright. Post-apocalyptic future visions don't get much more pessimistic or brutal or borderline misanthropic than this one (Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead has clearly been a sizeable influence). And then, just as we're giving up hope that this will be much of a "scary" game, we enter a spooky old half-collapsed skyscraper, and the "horror" part of the game well and truly begins.
One of the most interesting and hopeful trends in horror gaming in recent years has been in the realm of what I personally like to call "stealth-horror": scary games in which one has to survive more by way of avoiding combat than getting in it. The obvious extremes of this (mostly) recent sub-genre are games like Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, in which you'd best start runnin' and hidin' if one of the enemies spots you. Then there's games like Alien: Isolation, which split the difference a bit, and allow you to defend yourself up to a point, but...you'd best not get used to relying on those weapons TOO much, foolish mortal. The Last of Us is one of this latter category of games, falling somewhere between old-school survival horror and this more modern (and frankly welcome) gaming trend.
The other thing which makes this game stand out is the fact that it's all in third-person, as almost all of this recent rash of stealth- and semi-stealth-horror games have been in first. One of the few exceptions I can think of are The Assignment and The Consequence DLCs for The Evil Within (which came AFTER this game); and of course, if one looks back a bit further, you'll find much older horror games like the Clock Tower series leading the pack by almost a couple of decades. Suffice it to say, though, ultra-modern graphics, sound, and mechanics ensure that this breed of game has never been so intense and terrifying.
But wait, there's more! As well as being one of the most bleak, suspenseful, and genuinely horrifying horror games you're liable to play, The Last of Us also boasts an uncommon supply of that rarest of video game traits: humanity. By way of clever storytelling and nice little touches like characters talking to each other on a semi-frequent basis, this game also does a remarkable job of making you care about the characters you're responsible for.
Add to that the old video game standby of "burly, emotionally-closed-off male protagonist escorting a sassy-yet-vulnerable young female" (e.g. Resident Evil 4, Bioshock: Infinite), and lend it additional emotional weight by making that young female a child and thereby something of a defacto daughter for the male protagonist (e.g. Bioshock 2, Resident Evil: Revelations 2), and you have a tale sure to tug at even the most stubborn of heartstrings. This game definitely features some of the best characterisation you will ever encounter in a video game, of ANY genre.
This said, the single most irksome thing about the game, for your humble reviewer at least, was in fact the sheer frequency of the attacks by humans in the mid-to-late section of the game, and how clumsy these encounters can occasionally be. The mechanics of the game work fantastically when they remain staunchly stealthy, or whenever the assailants are lumbering, not-quite-human monsters. Scenes with too many gun-bearing humans running about just get messy and awkward, and make both the game and the player look stoopid.
Many a survival horror game has tried these dynamics before - Silent Hill: Homecoming and Dead Space 3, please stand up and take a bow - and rarely do they come off without flaws. If you're going to have survival horror mechanics, make sure your game never becomes too full-blown in the action, lest the player should temporarily forget that they're playing a great horror game, and instead believe they're playing a somewhat sub-standard action game. The partner A.I. can sometimes be a bit wonky also, but hey - show me a game with perfect partner A.I., and I'll show you a sow which can fly.
The vast majority of the game, however, emerges as nothing less than an instant masterpiece of both the horror and stealth genres, making such complaints fleeting at best; and there are, thankfully, many other features which easily make up for such shortcomings. The Last of Us has a very satisfying "crafting" system, for example, in which the player collects gun parts to upgrade guns at workbenches, uses bottles and rags to make molotovs and first aid kits, and so forth. The game also gives the player "hints" if it seems like they're aimlessly loitering about an area too long, a touch which is perfectly welcome given that it isn't meant to be a brain-taxing "puzzle" game by any stretch of the imagination.
If games like this are the future of horror gaming, then that future is looking very bright indeed. (Certainly a lot brighter than the future depicted in the game itself!) Apparently there's a sequel on the way, so that's at least one thing for us all to look forward to in the slightly more near-ish future (though I'd also love to see a Steam release for both games, as I really do detest trying to aim a gun with a fucking PS controller, and remember all too well why I switched over to PC in the first place)...