'The Last of Us' is the first next-generation game to hit store shelves, despite releasing on the very current-generation PlayStation 3 five months before the next generation is scheduled to arrive.
While the graphics are truly an achievement, among the best looking games on a console ever, that isn't what makes the game feel so ahead of its time. It's the way that developer Naughty Dog used those incredible graphics as a story-telling tool, leveraging the realism of the world and the characters to add weight to the circumstances (as well as the vicious attacks by both the player characters and AI enemies).
In many ways, the game plays like a typical zombie game, even though the enemies are technically not zombies, but humans infected with a brain parasite. When first playing the game, the infected are truly terrifying, as players don't have access to the stronger arsenal of weapons they'll acquire later in the game, and they won't have character upgrades to better help them deal with the threat.
Without giving too much about the story away, one of the best parts about the game was the way it empowers the player. By the end of the game, the infected are hardly an issue at all, more akin to dealing with animals than monsters. It becomes the human opponents who are far more intimidating, as they are unpredictable, smarter and far more prepared to take out the player.
However, it isn't the gameplay itself which sets 'The Last of Us' apart from every other game. It's the way it tells a story that feels very real, even despite the unrealistic setting of an infected apocalypse. The key aspect of the story that it absolutely nails is the characters. From the very start, Joel and Ellie feel like real people, and the way they interact with each other and the world around them is extremely lifelike. Even when they act foolishly, it is entirely within character, considering Joel is a gruff, distant man and Ellie is a teenage girl who doesn't always think her actions through.
Avoiding spoilers, the story is very much about the unlikely pair and their relationship that grows naturally during their journey across a devastated United States. The acting performances by virtually the entire cast is unparalleled in any current game. Each performance is nuanced and believable, making it very easy for the player to become attached to the respective characters.
To put it in perspective, when referring to an in game character's actions, many times the player will say "I collected all the stars," when they actually mean Super Mario collected all the stars. In 'The Last of Us,' this reviewer caught himself saying, "Joel killed all the infected," simply because the characters felt so real it was as if they were acting of their own accord.
Rarely does a game come along that really affects a player emotionally, but that's exactly what has happened in 'The Last of Us.' Long after it ends, it will leave gamers thinking back to the time they spent with Joel and Ellie on their epic journey.