The near-silence is deafening as we slowly make our way down the ruined highway, squeezing between abandoned vehicles and leaping over gaping crevices in the asphalt. As we're trying to save the battery charge, a pale moon is all that illuminates the buckled and treacherous overpass ahead.
We’re playing Joel, a grizzled black market smuggler who, along with his sickly wife Tess, is escorting 14-year-old Ellie out of one of the United States’ last quarantine zones in Boston to a militia group known as the Fireflies.
Thanks to heavy bombings by the military, we’re walking into what feels like the aftermath of a massive, deadly earthquake. Debris and craters are everywhere, and what was only recently a bustling commercial district sits motionless and mute. The twisted steel and stone husk of the city echoes our footsteps and whispers, and it almost feels as if we're the only living things left.
Soon the highway comes to an abrupt end, and hangs in mid-air like a cresting wave. The only way forward is through an office building slumped against the concrete slab of the road, and so we tentatively ease our way in and flick on a torch. Its beam illuminates small sections of each disordered room at a time, and takes a fraction of a second to follow our gaze as we take in the devastation. The top levels of the office prove an excellent source of supplies, and soon we've collected the component parts of a Molotov cocktail and a shiv, some first aid supplies, and a .38 snub-nosed pistol with two bullets. A simple crafting system allows the construction of spiked bats and other improvised weapons too, so we take our time scouring every corner for additional items.
Soon these weapons will be put to good use. With Ellie and Tess waiting a floor above, Joel drops down through a gaping hole in the ceiling into a hive of infected. Here, they come in two mutations: the weak but fast Runners whose grunts and bloodshot eyes still contain a shred of humanity, and the slightly slower but far stronger Clickers, infected whose whole heads are completely covered in a kind of fungal growth. Blind but with a keen sense of hearing, the creepiness of the latter’s echolocation snaps and clacks are only trumped by its gurgles and screeches when it zeroes in on Joel, and its grasp brings instant death.
Outnumbered and with any significant sound bringing all infected sprinting to investigate, Joel’s only hope is a stealth approach. Fortunately, holding R2 allows him to pause and listen, which shows the outline of nearby enemies through walls and thus allows for plans to be laid. Straying Runners are best dispatched first with a choke, a brick or a bat to the back of the head, or – worst case scenario – incapacitated with a long and noisy series of bareknuckle strikes. Firearms instantly betray Joel’s position and thus are an absolute last resort.
Considered against the earlier ponderous traversal of Boston's ruins, the violence here is jarring and desperate. Joel employs whatever means necessary to keep from raising the alarm, and this sees him slamming heads into walls and desks, leaving dark stains and twitching bodies. But an action hero he is not: there are no dive rolls or jumps, no chance of outrunning foes, and every encounter is fraught with tension. Worse, Clickers are immune to most melee attacks, and thus must be shot multiple times or killed with a perfectly executed stealth takedown.
They will rush to investigate the noise of a bottle or brick hitting the floor, but won’t linger for longer than a second so distract-and-kill manoeuvres must be executed flawlessly. Runners too are a formidable foe, particularly in groups of two or more. Even a shotgun located beyond the hive brings little joy (although more than a little gore), but rather, the sense that our imminent demise has only been momentarily delayed rather than completely halted.
Needless to say, The Last of Us appears to be a challenging game that requires patience, planning, and improvisation to conquer. Its taut atmosphere and hushed tone aren’t ruined by an intrusive score, and as Ellie and Tess investigate the environment, they communicate only sparingly and in a very natural way. Apocalypse scenarios are common, but few games have the restraint and writing to convey their sense of loss and hopelessness effectively. With Cormac McCarthy's bleak The Road an obvious touchstone, The Last of Us may achieve just that, and has now moved to the top of this writer's most-anticipated list.