It's been two decades since a viral outbreak devastated the United States and society collapsed. Its once-great cities now lie in ruins as survivors cling to their humanity in tyrannical military quarantine zones. Either you endure the hardship of the QZ, or risk life outside where the infected lurk in the shadows and ruthless gangs run wild.
Veteran survivor Joel has to escort Ellie, a young girl with an important secret, through this savage, unforgiving world, and it's their relationship that defines the game. Years struggling on the road have made Joel brusque and practical, but he has a likeable warmth in his laconic Texas drawl. Ellie, born after the outbreak, is spirited and witty, indifferent to the desolation around her.
Neither character is a lazy cliche. They have flaws and nuances, and are brought to life by impressively natural voice acting. They feel like real people. Naughty Dog's performance capture technology has improved since Uncharted, picking up subtler movements and making faces much more expressive.
Joel is the anti-Nathan Drake, never accepting praise or celebrating his triumphs. "It was luck," he grunts. "And it will run out." A traumatic event from his past, which you experience first-hand in the shocking prologue, has made him reluctant to open up to people, but as he gets closer to Ellie, he begins to drop his guard. That makes it sound like a saccharine romantic comedy, but it's handled in a way that never feels forced or overly sentimental.
"The narrative and characterisation are impressive, and not just 'for a game'."
Ellie is the perfect counterpoint to Joel: upbeat and talkative, with a goofy sense of humour. Joel considers her a burden at first, but grows to like her. She's fascinated by life before the outbreak, always asking Joel about the past, which he understandably isn't always keen to share. As the pair travel together she begins to look up to him and you notice her mirroring his personality. When another character compliments her skill with a rifle, she says "It was luck."
They're richly painted characters, and the script never betrays the unrelenting bleakness of the world. If you think something is going to happen in the story, your expectations shaped by years of predictable video game writing, it probably won't. The narrative and characterisation are seriously impressive, and not just 'for a game'. We're so invested in the characters that moments of suspense and danger, of which there many, are given an extra urgency.
The infected are everywhere. They're humans who've been consumed by a parasitic virus, making their heads sprout with gruesome fungus and turning them into violent monsters. But like all the best post-apocalypse fiction, humans are just as much of a threat. Taking advantage of the chaos, groups of bandits roam the country hunting for people and camps to plunder. Joel and Ellie meet a few friendly survivors, but most are hostile, giving you no choice but to fight back.
Joel can handle himself, but he isn't superhuman. Combat is something you find yourself trying to avoid, using stealth to outsmart enemies. Ammo and health are limited, so straight firefights are rarely a good idea. It's all about adapting; knowing when to sneak, when to attack, and when to flee. In listening mode, activated by holding R2, footsteps and enemy chatter reveal their position, allowing you to 'see' them through walls, but its range is limited. Throwing objects will lure them away, giving you a chance to slip past, or separate them from the group and take them out.
The fighting is incredibly brutal, and you really feel the impact as you slam a steel pipe down on an enemy's head, or bury an axe in their neck. The extreme violence never feels gratuitous, though. In this harsh, barbaric world, it's fight or die. If you attack someone near a hard surface, Joel will grab them and slam their head against it. Blood drips from noses, squirts from arteries, and leaves crimson splashes on walls. It's ferocious, ugly, and tremendously satisfying.
The infected require different tactics. Runners charge you as soon as they see you, and it's easy to get overwhelmed. Their mad shrieking alerts their allies, so eliminating them silently, one by one, is usually wiser than shooting. Clickers, named for the eerie clicking and popping noises they make, are more powerful, and will kill you instantly if they grab you.
Luckily, they're blind. They 'see' with sound and you can sneak past them by gently teasing the left stick. But make even the slightest sound, or bump into them, and it's game over. This makes for some brilliantly tense moments of claustrophobic horror, including sneaking through a pitch black tunnel full of them, with only a flashlight and their unnerving clicking to help you navigate through the darkness.