By CHRIS CAMPBELL — "The Last of Us"
Platform: PlayStation 3
ESRB Rating: M, for Mature
Grade: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
The most striking moments in "The Last of Us" come when the music is low, the room is dark and you once again crawl along the floor avoiding detection from a hideously mutated person and then -- BAM! -- another one surprises you and takes a chunk out of your jugular.
Few games provide the eerie atmosphere and believable realism of a post-apocalyptic society like "The Last of Us." The opening visuals present a city, country and world thrown into chaos when a biological event sends humans into two basic camps: survivors (we are few) and infected (they are many).
Decisions by individuals, groups and governments all make sense on the surface, but how those actions affect those closest to you gets presented in stark terms and leaves the main character forever changed.
That person is Joel, and in 2033 he's doing what he can to just get by each day in a world ruled by anarchy and martial law. Not long after we catch up with Joel, he must safeguard a teen named Ellie, and she instantly becomes the heartbeat of the game. This isn't a Hollywood version of the apocalypse where everyone has the best intentions and characters are defined in black and white. A companion early on executes an unarmed man, and instead of walking away and forgetting about it, the game wisely has characters and situations call back upon how survival involves difficult decisions and not every questionable action is without meaning.
While you control Joel, Ellie is the star and the reason to push on. It won't take long before you really immerse yourself in the story of these two trying to make do in a place that just wants to dissolve into nothingness. In this world, resources are few and vital. The game doles out the ability to craft new items at a smart pace and never makes you feel overly powerful, which makes the fear of death and the need to be cautious ever-present.
Not everything in "The Last of Us" works as it should, though. For a game so heavily reliant on stealth and strategic maneuvering through various spaces, the artificial intelligence governing Ellie and some enemies breaks down in dumb ways. Ellie will amble right past soldiers without them noticing, or she'll knock over a set of bottles that should otherwise alert the infected, who attack when they hear noise. You can sneak up and eliminate enemies quietly, but their comrades will step right over that dead body, seemingly unconcerned. These break the otherwise deeply immersive experience and remind you that this, well, is a game.
After finishing the story mode, make sure you spend time in the excellent online multiplayer. The small teams and continued focus on survival rather than traditional running and gunning equates to fantastic teamwork and satisfying gaming. In both multiplayer and story modes the visuals remain top-notch and the soundtrack knows when to kick into high gear or keep things mellow and allow the desolate towns and buildings to provide the audio, with chirping birds or creaky floors.
The game's hiccups can snap you out of your absorption into Joel and Ellie's adventures, but those moments are only occasional. I can think of few other games in the last couple of years in which you can lose yourself and feel emotionally attached to the outcome. "The Last of Us" earns a prominent place in any PS3 gamer's library.
(Follow Chris Campbell @campbler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)