CHARLESTON, W.Va. - There are plenty of words to describe "The Last of Us," the new release from "Uncharted" developer Naughty Dog. Emotional. Intense. Epic.
Fun, however, is not a word I would use to describe this unrelenting tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. Don't get me wrong -- "The Last of Us" is one of the best games I've played in this or any other year -- but at no point during my time with the game did I say to myself, "Wow, this sure is fun."
Of course, it's hard to have fun when every step you take might be your last. There is a palpable feeling of tension that permeates throughout the experience, and even in those brief moments when I felt safe enough exhale I couldn't let my guard down. That's exactly the kind of world "The Last of Us" protagonists Joel and Ellie inhabit and that we, as players, are drawn into.
"The Last of Us" is set in 2033, 20 years after a pandemic crippled civilization as we know it. Small pockets of survivors grind out minimalistic existences inside military-controlled quarantine zones, walled off from the outside world and those infected by the deadly fungal plague. Joel, a middle-aged everyman with no qualms about doing whatever is necessary to survive, has called these zones home for quite some time. He has made a living by smuggling goods within the zone and beyond, and knows first-hand the horrors that lurk outside the wall.
When his latest job -- sneaking a young girl named Ellie out of the quarantine zone and escorting her safely to another location -- goes south, the pair finds themselves in a dangerous trek across the United States.
The relationship between Joel and Ellie is at the heart of "The Last of Us." Ellie, a precocious 14-year-old who's more than capable of taking care of herself, was born after the pandemic and never experienced the normal life that Joel lost. She relishes the opportunity to be outside the quarantine zone for the first time, gazing with wonder at dilapidated skyscrapers and furry woodland creatures.
Joel and Ellie's relationship begins with skepticism, but they slowly bond over the experiences they share together on their journey. Likewise, as I watched Ellie grow and learn about a world she's never known, I couldn't help but become attached to her - even more than I did Elizabeth in 2013's other can't miss game, "BioShock Infinite." Excellent voice acting and facial animations made it easy to get lost in these characters, and I found myself taking extra precaution to ensure their well-being.
And in the savage world of "The Last of Us," there is no shortage of threats to Ellie and Joel's safety.
Multiple variations of infected humans still roam the world outside of the quarantine zones. The most common of these are the quick-moving Runners and the hideously deformed Clickers. It is the Clickers -- blind creatures that are attracted to sound and kill Joel instantly any time they get their hands on him -- that prove to be the biggest threat. But the Infected aren't the only ones Joel and Ellie must be weary of. Groups of humans still survive outside the quarantine zones and some of these are as dangerous as any Infected. Whereas Infected attack with reckless abandon, these Hunters work together and attempt to flank Joel and gain the upper hand by using tactics and firepower.
How you choose to deal with these enemy encounters - whether human or Infected - is up to you. Using stealth and eliminating enemies silently plays a big role in "The Last of Us" - in fact, I can't imagine playing any other way -- but you are free to attempt to blast your way through, provided you can find enough ammo. Joel can use enhanced hearing to locate enemies in his immediate surroundings, allowing him to get the drop on unsuspecting threats. Stealth kills are especially brutal, which serves to further show how far Joel will go to survive in this harsh new world.
Combat scenarios often involve a bit of trial-and-error to discover the most efficient way to eliminate hostiles as Joel isn't capable of taking a great deal of punishment. Again, this added to the tension because I knew I had little chance of surviving an attack from multiple enemies.