- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2013

A pandemic of frightening proportions ravages earth and delivers an infectious case of drama for PlayStation 3 owners in the masterpiece The Last of Us (Sony Computer Entertainment and Naughty Dog, Rated M for mature and very macabre, $59.99).

This third-person adventure makes another compelling argument that video games finally equal and transcend the emotional impact of many movies today, certainly eclipsing the horror genre, through a sobering narrative, rich character development and life-like game mechanics that requires a player make survival decisions he will not soon forget.

In control of an adult, ruthless scavenger named Joel, a player quickly learns of a tragedy that turned him into hardened shell of his former self

Two decades later, he is reluctantly in a position to deliver a teenager named Ellie, a girl who could potentially save the world, to a fringe group as he travels across a hostile and decimated United States.

That leads to an intense journey mixing stealth, close-quarters combat and exhausting exploration around many a broken city often overrun by the flora and fauna of Mother Nature.

It might be challenging enough to keep evading hostile military forces, looters and murderous rebels called Hunters, but the ever-growing presence of the moaning, brain-rotted infected delivers numerous spine-chilling moments.

Basically, a player is now immersed into the best of “The Walking Dead” and “28 Days Later” where desperation and violent acts against fellow mankind and former humans are commonplace.

By the way, the scientific background for the pandemic arrives from real-world biology and is tied to a family of neuroparasitic fungi called Cordyceps. Spores can infect insects and small creatures, control the nervous system and turn them into zombies-like beasts. It’s as fascinating as well as frightening to read about and makes the game so much creepier realizing this could potentially happen to humans with the right mutation.

One absolute key to The Last of Us is Joel’s wide range of movements and ever-bulging backpack of finely crafted goodies.

He can take cover behind most objects or silently slip pass creatures, move a plank into position to walk across, grab a ladder to move around and climb, turn on his flashlight to scope out a darkened train platform, swim underwater, sneak up behind an enemy and slit his throat, and listen in to locate danger.

He can also grab an opponent and use him as a shield, except this enemy is now smart enough to actually fight back if Joel hangs on too long.

As far as being a handyman, he collects gears to use at workbenches to upgrade firearms such as shotguns, scoped rifles, pistols and snub-nosed revolvers; finds other items to craft health packs, shivs, nail bombs and Molotov cocktails; uses a bow and arrow; and can even can attach a sharp device to weapons, including bats and pipes.

Another key to the action is a player always feels vulnerable in the staggeringly detailed surroundings (Naughty Dog packs an enormous amount of minutia into every environment that a movie-set designer would admire) and never quite sure when he will, once again, be ducking.

Does the dust falling from a ceiling mean something? Do I dare confront what’s pounding behind a door? Do I waste a shiv on cracking a lock or save it for battle later? Is it worth sending Ellie over a fence to open a gate?

During one early moment in the game, getting caught in a noose trap and hanging upside down while the infected attacked and Ellie tried to cut me down caused me a panic attack of epic proportions.

Of the few minor flaws in this gem, it’s worth noting that developers seem too concerned with players finishing the game. Dying can happen often and plays out in a grotesque scene of being chewed on or beaten to death with really no penalty for biting the dust.

That sudden and repeated closure sucks the emotional momentum out of the suspense and too often reminded me that I was part of a game and not an event.

I’ll also mention the game offers a concise but wonderful multiplayer option tied to becoming either a member of the Hunters or Fireflies factions in a pair of complex variations on Team Deathmatches called Supply Raid and Survivors.

Each requires that faction members work together to keep the clan well supplied and alive as they forage and fight across many of the game’s environments.

Developers Naughty Dog could have easily concluded its acclaimed Uncharted trilogy in late 2011 and taken a break to bask in the glory.

Instead, it gives us a thrilling gift with The Last of Us, an awesome reminder of the evolution of the PS3-powered video game and its ability to tell an impactful story of hope and horror.

Parental advice: The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), after watching a friend of Joel’s embed a machete in head of one of the infected and then chop it off while the blood flows like a faucet out of its torso, decided to label this game “M” and that stands for mature — gamers only 17 years and older need only take part in The Last of Us. So don’t let your 14-year-old convince you that “I’m just preparing myself to survive a zombie apocalypse, Dad. Wouldn’t you want me to live?” A player must make horrendous decisions leading to the very bloody and violent death of human characters across an interactive horror show lasting more than 20 hours.