The Last of Us is one of the finest game experiences of this generation. Starting a review off with such hyperbole is usually, and deservedly, prime fodder for an instant backlash, but to describe Naughty Dog's latest as anything else would be doing it a disservice. Leaving a lasting impression long after it's finished, it takes risks other games wouldn't even think about it, challenging many preconceptions the industry has just decided to take as a given. In the same way Half-Life, Halo and Grand Theft Auto continue to be remembered as important titles gone by, it would be no surprise if The Last of Us was referred to in such high regard long after we've moved onto technological pastures new.
The real success story, and where Naughty Dog has hit brand new heights, is with its narrative. While many games seek to tell a story that has genuine meaning and intrigue - and numerous have - The Last of Us' plot is simply enthralling, made even better thanks to its two lead characters: Joel and Ellie. Much has been said and conveyed about the two and the relationship they share, but nothing will prepare you for the lengths the Uncharted developer has gone to build something that feels so tangibly real.
A large part of this is down to the acting, each role played supremely well by Troy Baker (also Booker Dewitt from BioShock Infinite) and Ashley Johnson. Not a single line sounds out of place or constrained and the friendship that blossoms between them never strays into the realm of clichés. Above this, however, it's the moments you don't see coming or wouldn't expect that will shock the most. To delve too far into that here would be unfair to both those yet to play it and the studio themselves, but Naughty Dog, for almost the game's entirety, never plays it safe. Dealing with themes that, for the most part, the industry shies away from, this is a very real account of what may happen should the world succumb to a fate it can't control.
Even with the overarching plot being of such a high standard it's the smaller inclusions which will draw you in. A lot of these stem from Ellie, a girl who somehow, and without ever being pretentious, manages to find that balance between someone still in their formative years and someone who has had to try and survive every day of her life. At one point after a successful piece of teamwork she'll ask you for a high-five. You have the choice to ignore this, but I'd question anyone who actually managed to do that. It would make you more stone than human. Aside from the bond you feel towards her by this stage, it's almost impossible not to warm to these sort of situations. They're that well done.
Naughty Dog deserves particular credit for the world and atmosphere it's created too. From the very start to the very end (and The Last of Us is a contender for having both the best beginning and finishing sequence of any game in history) every element seems like it's been incredibly well thought out. Given that you're placed in an environment that's spent 20 years fighting a disease threatening mankind, it's fascinating to explore. And good grief does it let you do just that.
Too many games, terrified of not constantly giving the player something to shoot at, restrict the option to discover what's actually around you but Naughty Dog takes the opposite approach. Superbly well-paced, The Last of Us never falls into the horrible pattern of just throwing countless infected at you; on many occasions you're just asked to examine your surroundings.
That may result in nothing more than finding your way past a debris-filled quarantine checkpoint or climbing through a building that's blocking your path, but it's a mechanic that not only lets the relationship between Joel and Ellie evolve in a significant way, but lets you appreciate the world you find yourself in. A continuing attack of zombie-esque enemies would've ruined the ambience that's both introduced and maintained for The Last of Us' unexpected running time of around 15-18 hours.
Because of this, when the infected are introduced there's always a sense of panic and fear. Naughty Dog has ensured its enemy-type are a serious threat, the clickers sitting atop of this food-chain with the ability to kill with a single strike. Mistakes will see any gameplan you may have forged be instantly thrown out the window, and learning how to act on the fly becomes essential. It results in most of these encounters being horrific, edge of your seat, tense affairs as your entire body ceases up in terror.
One area in particular that involves a keycard is so well constructed that when I realised I'd fulfilled everything it had asked of me, I hit the sprint button and ran towards the exit. The thought of having to fight my way out of there was too much.
Sheer apprehension - both of the competency of your own combat abilities, as well as your foes' - is the main driving point for these flight-or-fight moments of decision making, but other elements have been introduced in order to increase tensions further. Tools are scattered around The Last of Us, all of which can used to upgrade weapons and craft specific items. While the former only comes into play at work benches placed around the land, the latter can be accessed at your command.
Given that this consists of forming health packs, molotovs, nail bombs and the like - inventory essentials if you're to successfully progress - and that it's in real-time means you're never given a chance to relax. Throw in that relying on guns is risky - due to lack of ammo - and you can never hope to stick to a single approach.
This isn't to say The Last of Us is flawless, though. In terms of its core gameplay mechanics, there are occasions where it's almost a mystery as to why Naughty Dog chose to include certain aspects it has. Despite being so confident and original in other areas, it's almost as if the studio has felt obliged to tick certain boxes that, to be frank, never needed to be ticked.
An early boss fight comes to mind, as do a few difficulty spikes which do come out of nowhere. On the whole this is a hard game - as it should be given the threat you're faced with - but nothing grates more than sections which, for no real reason, become a giant hurdle to try and overcome.
The same can be said for the stealth. Naughty Dog has learned a lot from the Uncharted series, which often struggled when it came to sneaking around in the shadows - when The Last of Us gets it right it's thrilling, forcing you to take a break and regroup. This isn't always the case, unfortunately, and oddities such as guards spotting you for no reason or unfair trigger points do occasionally crop up.
To be blunt, however, once the end credits roll these things simply don't matter. Plenty of games have managed to find their way into the sacred higher grounds with excellent gameplay while suffering in other areas. The Last of Us simply, in some sense, switches that around. Even then it's not as if what's here is poor. When it's on-form, it's magnificent, never over-relying on a single thread and often changing up what you imagine is coming next. Naughty Dog has thrown the concept of fixed genre out the window - it has no issues with moving into and through action, adventure, survival horror or shooter territory - ensuring there's more than a few twists at every turn.
Ultimately, I defy anyone not to be moved when it comes to its conclusion and the huge questions it asks of both the player and the characters themselves - any game that achieves such a goal deserves high-praise. The Last of Us succeeds in the same way as the best movies do, challenging you more than you'll ever expect, demanding that you think and discuss it weeks after it resolves. The fact I had the urge to pick it up again almost instantly is just added acclaim it has more than earned.
Its true genius lies within how it plays out too, hence why many of the VideoGamer.com audience may be reading this wondering how I could come to such conclusions after saying this. The fact of the matter is the demo is not representative of the finished product, and while within context I stand by my reservations, outside of them I'm happy to say I was very, very wrong.
The Last of Us isn't just the PlayStation 3's swan song; it's the best exclusive on the console full stop.
Campaign finished in 15 hours.