The Last of Us takes the done-to-death post apocalyptic setting and mixes it masterfully with a character-driven story that makes you care more about the people than the fact that you've played a half dozen games with the same premise. While the story is enough to keep your attention, the levels are crafted with similar finesse, transporting you to a world slowly being reclaimed by nature, with crumbling buildings overgrown with plant life, and a devastating fungal infection that turns its victims into nature's warriors.
But that's not really what The Last of Us is about. It's not about the apocalypse, or zombies, or nature fighting back. What The Last of Us is really about is people. It's about what drives one man to perform heroic acts, to take on responsibilities that aren't his, and dedicate his entire being to seeing his commitment through to the end. The Last of Us is about what makes others band together in villainy, killing and looting with utter disdain for the lives they end. It's about what happens when you put a reluctant hero in a dire situation, surrounded by enemies, with only a memory to keep him fighting.
The Last of Us actually starts at the beginning, with the outbreak of a lethal fungal infection that turns its victims into zombies. You'll play as Joel who, with a flash forward to twenty years after the outbreak, distances himself from the world and the people around him and focuses on just surviving at all costs. Joel reluctantly accepts a mission to escort Ellie across the country, which has become filled with bandits, the infected Runners and Clickers, and even a rare friendly face along the way. The story in The Last of Us is rather minimalist, even clichéd, but the characters are so well executed that they become the focus of the story, much more so than the plot. You'll be so taken with the characters and interactions that you won't even notice that you're on an uninspired quest.
As you trek across the country, much of your time will be spent in adventuring segments, where you're looking for a way to move forward through desolate cities ravaged by time. Typically, this just means finding a ladder, a plank, or a dumpster, which you can use to access the next area, as well as hunting for crafting materials, which you can use to create items, upgrade your weapons, or power yourself up. These sections are certainly nothing novel, but they're a great way to take in the world and appreciate nature's reclamation of civilization. As you pillage abandoned offices for supplies, it is really striking how well nature's creeping influences are done. Throughout your adventures, you'll run into various enemies, be they infected, bandits, or the often better equipped military forces. These encounters can be approached with subtlety or ferocity, but a blend of the two is your best bet. You'll find some situations where stealth is not an option at all, and others where you can avoid combat entirely, but after a handful of each, you'll really come to appreciate the balanced approach.