I'm going to try and describe something that may be indescribable, but I'll do my best. Naughty Dog did not meet or exceed my expectations with their latest game, The Last Of Us. They did not even, as some are wont to say, shatter them. Nay, they looked down and sayeth unto me, "Dude, you're doing this expectations thing all wrong." Then they proceeded to completely strip them away and replace them with something completely different.

I remember the precise moment I realized what was happening. My protagonist, Joel, was in something of a pickle. Without getting into spoiler territory, he needed to do something that had an inevitable outcome, and my trained, conditioned video game sensibilities planned out my reactions to the events I knew were coming. What followed was a series of trips back to a loading checkpoint accompanied by a dreadful suspicion that I didn't have the equipment needed to make it out of this situation.

And that's when I had an epiphany. Instead of thinking like Tim, the middle-aged gamer with 35 years of experience under his byte belt, I instead said to myself, "Self...what would Joel do?" And just like that, the answer became painfully obvious. I couldn't play this game like a gamer and expect to breeze through it. I had to play it the way Naughty Dog intended, as the puppeteer of a character who is trying desperately to survive in a world that is very different from the one I live in. One checkpoint load later, armed with a fresh perspective and tactics that were totally counter-intuitive to my standard gaming methodologies, I was on to the next scene.

In other words, The Last Of Us made me completely redefine how I play video games.

I can't remember the last time that's happened, if in fact it's ever happened at all. New innovations come over the years, like when Guitar Hero changed the face of music games forever. But those innovations have always been about simply adding something new to my arsenal. By contrast, The Last Of Us doesn't add anything new at all. In fact, there is nothing in this game that hasn't been done before. No fancy new stealth mechanics like the Metal Gear series. No revolutionary combat in the vein of Batman: Arkham Asylum. No innovative progression or inventory system Dead Space style. Just a coming together of tried and true mechanics created by master craftsmen at the very top of their game.

If the game innovates in any way, it is in its ability to defy and transcend genres. The game is generally considered to be survival horror, but I would really put it in a new class called simply "survival". There are no missions, no quests, and no puzzles. There is only the story and the exact same objective for every scenario, which is to make it through alive. Everything in the game is designed to teach you this fundamental intent, right down to the progression system. There are no points for stealth kills, headshots, or the achievement of any objectives. The game rewards you for doing only one thing, and that is embracing the role of a person who is doing everything they can to see another day in their bleak but fully realized world.

Once you realize that, you're faced with some interesting decisions. Do I try to stealthily eliminate this band of hunters (groups of humans who prey off others for their supplies), or do I want to avoid them entirely? Methodically taking them all down gains you nothing. In fact, it usually drains your constantly strained resources to do so. However, clearing the area could allow you to reach rooms and storage areas with even more precious equipment. You could conceivably play the majority of the game avoiding open combat, eliminating the need for lengthy scavenging. But sometimes, no matter how sneaky you aspire to be, you will get spotted. And once it all breaks down, you're gonna want to make sure you have enough bullets to deal with the situation.

There are two kinds of "currency" in the game, both of which can only be found by scrounging through your environment. The first is in the form of supplements, kinda like vitamins, that Joel can use to enhance his physical attributes, such as increased maximum health or less weapon sway when aiming. The other is spare parts which Joel can add to weapons at scattered workbenches to improve their specifications. In both cases, exploration is the key to Joel's success. Enemies do not regularly drop resources, so if you're planning to blast your way through a bunch of guys and use their leavings to prepare you for the next encounter, get ready for a rough ride.

Speaking of enemies, the human AI is impressive. Your adversaries, will act in a very dynamic manner based on how a situation unfolds. Break your cover too soon and a large group might coordinate their efforts, with one or two guys keeping you pinned down while others try to flank you. Whittle a group down to a sole survivor, and he will be calling for backup that isn't there. Some will try to rush you, and others may try to hide and wait for an opportunity. The end result is encounters that felt much more organic to me than the usual predictive NPC behavior.

But as tense and dramatic as encounters with human enemies can be, they are nothing compared to the game's other inhabitants. Being in a room full of infected is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I've ever had in a video game. Runners are the recently infected, humans whose heads haven't been radically altered by the cordyceps virus yet. They can still see, and some even seem to have human emotion. They will either walk aimlessly around an area or stand and sob in a way that will almost make you feel sorry for them. That is, until one of them spots you. Then it's all hands on deck in an attempt to make you the guest of honor at their deranged, maniacal feast.

Those people who have been infected for much longer, known as Clickers, have lost any semblance of humanity, a fact that is driven home by the fungus that is growing where their faces used to be. Having lost their eyes, they rely instead on a series of clicks and chirps as a form of sonar to keep them from bumping into walls. You can stand a few feet away from them and be completely ignored should you feel so inclined. But make enough noise and it's all over. Both of these enemy types have one tactic, to bull-rush en masse and overwhelm you with sheer numbers and ferocity. Stealth is crucial in any situation involving the infected.

On a side note, the sound the clickers make is fairly terrifying.

But all of this is just the icing on a very fluffy and moist cake. The story of The Last Of Us is emotional, powerful, and compelling from beginning to end. A large part of that is due to the strength of its characters and the actors who voiced them. The voice acting in The Last Of Us is the best I've ever heard, from the main actors all the way down to "Additional Hunter Voices". These characters are believable and identifiable. Helping to draw you into the experience are various collectibles scattered around the environments that help flesh out the world, even providing some context about how normal people can eventually turn into hardened killers in a world gone mad. Again, you get nothing for finding these items. They are their own reward instead, filling in gaps in the world's history or providing something for Joel and Ellie to talk about.

And you will want them to converse, believe me. The developing relationship between the two main characters is the foundation on which the story of The Last Of Us is built, and it works on every level. Never have I cared about video game characters as much as I did for these two, and it makes the unfolding events that much more powerful because of it. They feel like real people who are in real danger, and they never make a decision that you feel is not absolutely what that character would do throughout the course of the game.

I already did a review for the game (which can be found here), but I really wanted to talk through my feelings on it and not just discuss game mechanics and technical achievements. There's a lot more I could say, but I'll end with this. The Last Of Us is, without question, one of the best video games I have ever played. If you allow yourself to get invested in the story, and if you're willing to partake of the journey Naughty Dog has planned out, I think you will find one of the most engaging and emotionally powerful experiences available on the market today. Personally, I cannot imagine a better way to cap off the end of a console generation.

ShadowDragyn out.

hoping we haven't seen the last of The Last Of Us