Pop culture has shown us so many apocalypses that we all know what the real problem is going to be. It's not the feral animals, the nuclear mutants, or the lumbering zombies that will kill us. It's the most dangerous predator of all (all together now): man.
So forgive me if I approached The Last of Us (Sony, for the PlayStation 3, $59.99) with a sense of "Oh, this again." Sure, the monsters — "infected" humans in a post-pandemic America — will chew your face off. But at least they aren't armed, like the militias, gangs, and hair-triggered loners fighting to hold onto their stake in a desolate country.
What's different about The Last of Us is that it gives us a few people to care about. The protagonist is Joel, a bitter, cynical smuggler who just seems exhausted after decades in this wasteland. His assignment is to deliver Ellie, a spunky 14-year-old girl, to a faction somewhere in the West. The two gradually warm up to each other, naturally, and Ellie isn't as defenseless as she first appears.
We've seen similar pairings over the last 12 months — Lee and Clementine in Telltale's The Walking Dead, Booker and Elizabeth in Irrational's BioShock Infinite — but Joel and Ellie feel the most like real people. They get on each other's nerves. They make each other laugh. And, somewhat endearingly, Ellie has every bit as foul a mouth as you'd expect from an American teenager.
The Last of Us takes place 20 years after the pandemic, so Ellie doesn't know what life was like beforehand. A comic book or a vinyl record might as well be an ancient Greek artifact, for all she knows. Meanwhile, we see things through Joel's eyes, so every broken highway or abandoned storefront is a reminder of what was lost.
Sony's Naughty Dog studio presents all this devastation vividly. As Joel and Ellie travel from Boston to Pittsburgh and beyond, the attention to detail is astonishing. Weeds burst through cracked sidewalks. The interior of an abandoned van is covered with moss. Suburban homes are filled with heartbreaking family photos.
As a player, you need to pay attention to all those details. Supplies are scarce in The Last of Us, so you'll need to search diligently for bandages, duct tape, and whatever objects you can find, like a pipe or scissors, that you can turn into a weapon. This isn't one of those games where there's a box of ammunition around every corner, so when you do find a spare bullet, it's a treasure.
The scarcity of ammo makes the enemy encounters all the more nerve-wracking. Storming into a room full of better-armed militiamen is a good way to get killed quickly; instead, you need to sneak up on each enemy, then figure out a way to take him out quietly. The level of strategy involved — can I creep up on that guard without attracting the attention of an eagle-eyed sniper? — makes The Last of Us more demanding and rewarding than your typical zombie bloodbath.
Still, there are a few moments when the developers hurl a few dozen of the infected at you at once and the only way out is with gunfire. I found those scenarios more tiresome than horrifying, and they took me out of the story's carefully established mood. Some will welcome the change of pace, but I found them as incongruous as the hectic firefights in Naughty Dog's Uncharted series.
It's the subtler touches throughout The Last of Us that linger: One man's warning to his young brother against looting. Another survivor's reticent despair over the death of his partner. Ellie's attempts to teach herself how to whistle. All reminders that, even after the apocalypse, humans can still be human.