The Last of Us portrays a harrowing vision of the future that's frighteningly believable. Californian developer Naughty Dog has gone out of its way to breathe personality into every derelict room, corridor, and courtyard, eschewing the copy and paste formula of its counterparts, and delivering an experience that feels distressingly real. You may only ever encounter a pocketful of likeminded survivors during your excursion across the United States, but there are ghosts in every environment that you scavenge for supplies. Family homes are decorated with symbols of civilisation, with friendly photographs and fancy furnishings obscured by the dust of desertion. Meanwhile, college dormitories and student dwellings wear the marks of happier times, as portraits of summer blockbusters and pouting boy bands dangle crookedly from crumbling bedroom walls. Such obsessive attention to detail is what makes the PlayStation 3 exclusive such an impressive achievement – and its tale two survivors all the more traumatic.

The title takes place some twenty years after the mutation of a deadly disease. The planet has been ravaged by a fatal fungal infection – an adaptation of the very authentic cordyceps virus which controls its host by manipulating the messages sent to its brain. Those that have managed to flee the illness have set up homes in quarantine zones; military protected refugee camps governed by questionable politics. Despite offering relative sanctuary from the dangers that lurk outside, these uninhabitable settlements evidence the outbreak’s impact on societal collapse, as starving survivors plead for food and shady regulators revel in controlling each stronghold’s occupants with dubious rules and guidelines.

Amidst this dark depiction of the end of days, you’ll play as Joel, a weary remnant of the old world, and the centre of a heartbreaking plot depicting the unbreakable bond between father and daughter. Unwillingly coerced into a suicidal smuggling expedition, the protagonist develops a strong attachment to the endeavour in question’s cargo – a teenage girl named Ellie, whose only appreciation of life is the decrepit form that it currently represents. The contrast between the two characters’ unique perspectives leads to some truly touching encounters, as the duo bond over the deserted relics that litter city streets, such as ice cream trucks and movie posters. As you’d expect from the studio responsible for the Uncharted trilogy, the writing behind these exchanges is tender throughout.

And so too are the performances. Employing the same innovative motion capture techniques as the aforementioned adventurous series, Troy Baker puts in a stellar turn as the aging lead character. Fatigued from the unexpected events that preface the plot, the protagonist spends the majority of the campaign utterly dejected. But it’s Ashley Johnson’s poignant portrayal of the heroine that helps the fatherly figure to reclaim his lust for life, the childlike purity that shines through her darker side reminding him of the existence that he has lost. It’s this platonic love story that forms the beating heart beneath the otherwise grisly adventure.

That the developer has managed to craft such a compelling and believable bond in an industry typically dominated by schlocky storylines is telling, and it represents the culmination of an entire generation’s effort from the studio. There are some minor flaws in the story – the final few chapters feel a little too hurried, for example – but it’s still an impressive achievement. It proves that there can be more to the medium than merely pointing crosshairs at the heads of balding bad guys, and that bodes well for the future of gaming as a whole.

But contrary to some experimental endeavours, the cinematic presentation is supported here by some stellar gameplay mechanics. Mimicking the decay of society, you’ll spend a great deal of your time with the title’s campaign merely combing deserted environments for required materials. Resources are incredibly scarce throughout the adventure, and you’ll struggle to survive if you don’t make the most of all of the assets that you uncover. Items include sugar, blades, and explosives, and these can be combined to create powerful tools such as nail bombs and smoke grenades. The real beauty of the system, however, is that there are inherent risks associated with every product that you construct. Alcohol and textiles can be joined to concoct deadly Molotov cocktails, for example, but the same sought after items can also be used to fashion medical kits. While additional crafting options would have been appreciated, the contrasting benefits really force you to consider how you’re going to approach every combat encounter.

And you’ll certainly need to plan ahead, because these nail biting scenarios adopt the guise of miniature sandboxes. While you’ll rarely be overwhelmed, the artificial intelligence is astonishingly adept, and will force you to make split-second decisions in order to progress. Antagonists adopt the form of both unhinged humans and the infected, but it’s the former – known as hunters – that are the most fun to fight against. These factions will work in groups in order to coax you out of hiding, pushing you around the dense dilapidated environments in the hope that you make a mistake. Fortunately, you’ll have plenty of options to fight back. For example, you can throw bottles and bricks in order to direct the attention of your adversaries and force them to investigate, all the while using a combination of stealth and improvised shivs to diminish their numbers one by one. Alternatively, you can face the foes head-on, using callous gunplay to pick your pursuers off.

The latter requires a steady aim, as ammunition is in severely short supply. While you’ll have garnered a reasonable arsenal of attack options by the end of the campaign, you’ll rarely have a full stock of bullets to unload. This means that you’ll need to be sly in order to get the drop on your opponents, while also outwitting your pursuers with makeshift traps. Unfortunately, the same sense of creative play doesn’t extend to the undead, though slipping past the stage two infected – who have lost the use their eyesight – is still a nail biting endeavour. It’s just a shame that all of the enemies – reanimated or not – suffer from the same bullet sponge syndrome as the Uncharted games, particularly the lazily labelled ‘Bloaters’ – the final form of the diseased – who seem able to absorb virtually everything in your arsenal without breaking a sweat. The inherent strength of these foes does appropriately convey a sense of dread when you eventually encounter them, but their heavily armoured exterior seems a little out of place in a world that’s otherwise feels so real.

Combat is just one small portion of the experience, though, and the game is expertly paced in a manner that means that you’ll never get tired of it. For long portions of the journey, you’ll find yourself simply traipsing through diverse environments, gathering wood planks to create crude crossings, powering generators to open locked shutters, and diving underwater to collect rafts that will allow you to guide Ellie – who can’t swim – across long stretches of deep water. While the game uses a strict set of systems, the creative level design means that it never feels like you’re repeating the same sequences. The title always finds a way to keep things varied, and presents some pretty compelling puzzles as a result. You’ll never really get stumped, but you’ll be forced to think logically in order to progress, and it’s satisfying when you happen upon a natural solution using the limited resources at your disposal.

Throughout the course of the adventure, you’ll travel to a number of unique environments, ranging from a colourful autumnal college to a rainy highway and an overgrown suburban town. The visuals throughout are sublime, with each scene clad with interesting assets. Abandoned buildings are littered with the types of items that you’d anticipate, from personal belongings to household objects, each carefully dressing cupboards, cabinets, and crooked shelves. The texture work is staggering, allowing you to read the individual details on books and posters – the majority of which are purpose built for the particular building or outdoor location that you’re rummaging through. Such attention to detail means that you’ll spend a great deal of your time with the campaign simply soaking up the scenery.

But it’s the lighting that really brings everything to life. This is one of the most realistically illuminated titles that we’ve ever witnessed, delivering a borderline next generation appearance in places. Sunrays shoot through tree leaves, casting dancing shadows on the ground as gentle breezes animate the branches above. There’s a real beauty to the manner in which nature has reclaimed the planet in the absence of humanity, with foliage and plant life wrapping itself around door frames and windows. Despite the release’s dark themes, this is a brightly coloured game, and it’s refreshing to explore an apocalyptic world that’s not obsessed with grey and brown.

In the few areas where you are plunged into darkness, though, the beam of your trusty flashlight will prove your sanctuary. This is an outstanding technical achievement in itself, as it lags behind your movements to create an impressive sense of inertia. Unlike many games, the torch is completely dynamic, casting believable shadows across the ground and walls. The iris at the centre of the light source even shrinks in size as you get closer to objects, with the ray illuminating the dust particles floating in front of you. The outrageous visual fidelity really helps to add to the game’s edgy atmosphere.

And the sound design plays a huge part in that, too. The subtle use of reverb effects to adapt the tone of different sized environments enhances the sense of immersion, while the actual audio samples employed are equally remarkable. Puddles splash beneath your feet, while fresh grass shimmers, and fallen leaves crackle. Large mechanical doors rattle as you snap them shut, while firearms practically erupt in your hands. The only disappointment is that the ‘Clickers’ – infected who rely on their awareness of sound – appear to be programmed to ignore some natural noises, which breaks the illusion somewhat when the clunky footsteps of your companions fail to catch their attention. Still, it’s an incredibly minor nitpick in an experience that practically excels in every area of its presentation.

And that’s without even mentioning Gustavo Santaolalla’s sparse score. The macabre musical arrangement is just as noteworthy as the visual presentation, using haunting drones and plucked guitar riffs to build tension and underline poignant plot beats. The audio fits the tone of the adventure extremely well, but it’s not overused, augmenting an added sense of elation or trepidation to the moments that it serves best.

With such incredible attention to detail throughout, Naughty Dog could perhaps be forgiven for delivering a relatively concise campaign – but this is a long game. It took us just under 15 hours to finish our first journey on the standard difficulty, and in that time we still somehow missed almost a third of the hidden collectibles. Throughout the game you’ll be gathering artifacts that tell the tales of other survivors, as well as comic books and dog tags. There are also survival manuals that enhance some of your abilities, as well as tool boxes and cogs. The latter can be exchanged at workbenches in return for weapon upgrades, while you’ll also happen upon medication which can be spent on improving Joel’s abilities. It’s unlikely that you’ll max out the protagonist’s attributes during your first playthrough, but fortunately there’s a New Game Plus option that allows you to expand the experience with all of your gear intact. Finally, you can purchase new costume skins, graphical filters, and concept art as you complete certain in-game tasks.

All of the above would be more than enough to round out the package, but this is a developer that refuses to do things by half. As such, the game also includes a competitive multiplayer mode that boasts some interesting ideas of its own. Rather than opt for a traditional Call of Duty-esque XP progression system, the component sees you building a clan over a period of twelve weeks. Each battle that you participate in will represent an in-game day, with your faction requiring a quota of supplies to survive in that time.

You’ll earn provisions by eliminating foes and scavenging the items from their fallen corpses. Successful actions such as crafting and kill assists will also reward you with a mechanical currency known as parts, which can be spent in a MOBA-like fashion on weapon upgrades, armour, and ammo. Any of the faux currency that you accumulate during battle will be converted into supplies at the end of a round, encouraging you to perform proficiently in order to maximise the resources that you bring back to your crew. Fail to supply your faction with enough equipment and they’ll gradually get sick and die out, forcing you to start your twelve week expedition from the beginning.

It’s certainly a fitting meta game, but it amounts to very little other than statistics on the screen. More interesting is the manner in which the title transposes the survival aspects from the single player, reducing ammo to an absolute minimum, and subsequently forcing you to be considerate with your shots. You can purchase bullets at any time, but you’ll need to have already accrued parts in order to afford the expensive replenishments. As such, this is not a release that rewards you for using your artillery in a reckless manner. To add to the survival aspect, the crafting system from the main campaign also makes a return, repurposing the moral quandaries from the solo experience, as you debate over whether to produce defensive or offensive items.

There are a couple of modes on offer: Supply Raid and Survivors. Both support up to eight players, and see you divided into two teams. The former option allows you to respawn up to twenty times as a group, while the latter conveys a greater sense of mortality, dividing matches into a series of rounds and restricting you to a single life in each. The consequences of death mean that sneaking through the scenery and getting the angle on your adversaries is an exhilarating feeling, and the game succeeds at making you question every movement that you make. This is the absolute opposite of run and gun, as you need to be precise with your tactics and attacks if you intend to succeed.

Still, all of the mainstays from the most popular multiplayer games are present. You can customise your loadout, taking up to two firearms into battle. Survivor Skills represent perks, which allow you to craft quicker, sprint further, and unlock other similar efficiency enhancements. There are multiple levels to these elements, but each comes attached with a larger equip weight, meaning that you won’t simply be able to jump into battle with all of the best gear attached. As such, you’ll have to pick and choose from your favourites, and subsequently tailor your protagonist to your particular playstyle.

You can also equip one-time consumables, which are unlocked by building your faction and completing challenges that appear as you progress. These give you a single match advantage, but are exhausted upon use. You may choose to save these for important battles, but we suspect that their inclusion may carry some more cynical connotations. We wouldn’t be surprised if Naughty Dog decided to monetise these items with microtransactions at some point in the future, for example, but there’s no indication of that in the current build.

The maps, meanwhile, are largely based upon environments from the single player. You’ll be fighting through snowy settlements, school libraries, and deserted city streets. While the visuals naturally take a hit in the competitive environment – with pop-in being much more prominent here – the arenas still look fantastic, and the ability to customise your character with unlockable accessories allows you to really personalise your online personality.

That said, it’s clearly not the primary appeal of the package, and it’s unclear whether the multiplayer mode will represent anything more than a novelty for those that purchase the title for the single player campaign. The unique progression system adds an interesting twist to the component, but it’s unlikely to draw people away from established online stomping grounds such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. At the very least, though, Naughty Dog deserves credit for transferring the tone of the solo adventure into a competitive environment, making this feel like an appropriate – if somewhat unnecessary – addition.

Conclusion

An assured, touching, and engrossing adventure, The Last of Us represents a watershed moment for the medium. The unlikely bond that blossoms between the title’s two lead characters is both heartrending and poignantly paced – but the release delivers much more than captivating cinematics. This is a meaty slice of survival action that masterfully depicts the horrors of life in a post-pandemic setting. The conclusion may feel a little hurried, and the multiplayer somewhat surplus to requirements, but this is still an essential tale of survival that will consume you quicker than a cloud of contaminated spores.