It so often seems to be the way that the most interesting games happen towards the end of a console's lifecycle. Maybe it's that some of the commercial pressure is relieved as all eyes turn towards upcoming new hardware - in this case the PlayStation 4 - or maybe it's that developers are that much more able to squeeze the very best out of the existing stuff. In any case, one thing you'll be unlikely to think when playing PS3-exclusive post-apocalyptic survival tale The Last of Us is that it looks or feels outdated.
It comes from the studio behind the Uncharted series, but other than some highly impressive facial detail and animation The Last of Us doesn't have a lot in common with its lavish but arguably shallow predecessors. Set in the aftermath of a viral outbreak which has killed or zombified most of humanity, this is no relentless monster-killing marathon. The Last of Us asks two things of its players - firstly, to use a combination of stealth and careful resource management to stay alive in a devastated and hostile America, and secondly to care about why you're trying to stay alive.
It's this latter which will see The Last of Us winning a disorientating number of awards later this year, even if more sober minds might protest that it's actually the least important of these two aspects. Despite being a little emotionally distant in its initial hours (a gut-punch introduction aside), the game soon finds its human stride, documenting the developing relationship between gruff, cynical, middle-aged Joel and the sparky, wise-beyond-her-years teen Ellie as they traipse across a deadly world looking for escape and answers.
Mistrust gives way to dependence gives way to affection, and in small touches such as minor animations as well as more obvious dialogue, the game works hard to make its player feel involved. Playing as Joel, it steadily becomes important to keep Ellie alive, rather than simply a necessity to progress. This is a game that's working incredibly hard to chase the coat tails of cinema, and for the most part it's very successful with it.
But it's the game that's about the player's own story that seems the greater achievement. While The Last of Us could in theory be described as a shooting game, incredibly limited ammo and a terrifying degree of vulnerability ensures that sustained gunplay simply isn't possible. While a level of violence is always possible, The Last of Us is really a stealth game, a matter of creeping out alternately large and claustrophobic environments filled with zombie-like enemies who will swarm en masse if any one of them catches you at it.
It's when the stealth fails, however, that game's power is really revealed - the sheer desperation and terror as you're rushed by a half dozen former humans, struggling with imprecise and slow weapons and forced to use the most outright, uncomfortable brutality to take these things down. Almost every fight feels faintly traumatic, because it's a fight to survive, not to conquer, and the animation and sound go out of their way to make it clear you're taking a life, not erasing pixels. While that's understandably going to upset some, it gives the game power - as opposed to making it the over-familiar macho power fantasy that so many other action games opt for.
Between these outbreaks of hiding and terror, we're treated to an artist's-eye view of a devastated America. Rather than videogames' traditional greys and browns, here we get plant life taking over, vast swathes of green wrapped around crumbling suburban houses and into car parks and schoolyards. This is a post-human world, rather than a world without life, and for all the bleakness, for all the violence there's something rather beautiful about it. If it weren't for the ever-present threat of infection and sudden death it would be wonderful just to wander through this changed America, marveling at the sights. Instead, it's necessary to crouch-run from shelter to shelter, combing fallen shelves and mouldy kitchen surfaces for supplies.
Where other games make searching for loot a soulless box-ticking affair, here it's absolutely necessary to stay alive. A pair of scissors here, some cloth there - found items can be transformed into weapons and first aid, and all of which are depleted at a frightening rate. Using any item requires consideration and sacrifice, because there's no guarantee you'll be able to replace it any time soon.
Sometimes the illusion shatters, as too many locked doors or conveniently blocked-off stairways, or a ladder that can only be used in one place, reveal that The Last of Us is often a particularly elaborate rollercoaster. Sometimes it does feel as though emotional buttons are being pressed a little knowingly. It's testament to how well art, acting and peril come together to keep both those issues at bay for the most part, resulting in an experience that feels grown-up and uncompromising despite its near-incomparable gloss.