At first glance, The Last of Us embodies the tired nature of gaming at the end of this generation. It's a third-person cover shooter with zombies (or as the game calls them, "the Infected"). Perhaps the only genre more thoroughly exploited in the past few years is the modern military first-person shooter.
While it would be easy to dismiss Naughty Dog's latest as simply an "undead Uncharted," The Last of Us does so much to separate itself from its predecessors. This is the most mature title to come from the Santa Monica studio, and not simply because of the violence and gore on display. Even in the confines of such a familiar genre, The Last of Us dares to challenge many modern gaming tropes. The end result is a journey that is as thoughtful as it is exhilarating, and easily stands as Naughty Dog's best work to date.
Simply put, The Last of Us is a joy to play, with every encounter becoming a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse. The post-apocalyptic world envisioned by Naughty Dog is an especially hostile place, and it's reflected in the game's core systems. Crucially, regenerative health is gone. Even more importantly, bullets and supplies come in short supply. Instead of being able to mow down dozens of enemies with a fully automatic assault rifle, you'll approach each encounter with a greater appreciation for every bullet you have, every inch of health your character has left.
Joel can be killed in one bite, and players will undoubtedly be exposed to a number of gruesome deaths throughout the journey. But, never does it feel like he is frail or underpowered. Instead, The Last of Us finally makes good on the promise of the first Uncharted game--to make an "everyman" hero that would be far more relatable than the space marine so common in our medium. Joel wouldn't be able to survive plummeting out of an exploding airplane, let alone multiple gunshot wounds.
But neither can the people you encounter. The game's most thrilling battles place you and a handful of other survivors in an open environment. Every human opponent is no more hearty than you, and they are equally aware of their own mortality. Unlike most third-person shooters, the threat of a gun can be an effective tool.
The intelligent AI makes every encounter dynamic and interesting. E3 presentations must always be taken with a grain of salt, given the heavily scripted and practiced nature of those demos. However, The Last of Us manages to deliver on all the promises made by its impressive stage presentation. Yes, the AI will flank you, run away, and become aggressive when they hear an empty clip. Yes, Ellie will find opportunities to help you in meaningful ways in combat. Yes, certain enemies will beg for mercy when completely outmatched. You could recreate that compelling E3 presentation if you wanted to--but more importantly, you'll likely have an entirely different experience based on how you play.
And while each encounter will play out differently, The Last of Us is ultimately designed to be played in a certain way. It is not a game meant to appeal to the masses. Modern stealth games like Dishonored and Hitman Absolution celebrate the ability to play-as-you-wish by having systems that adapt to both stealthy and loud play styles. The Last of Us is not one of those games, making no concessions for the impatient gamer, one that wants to go from point A to point B in the quickest way possible and simply wants to kill lots of people along the way.
It's telling that the game's trophies don't center around combat or progression. You'll never snap someone's neck to hear that "bling" sound and see some pun-titled trophy pop up: "A HEAD OF THE GAME: Choke 50 enemies." Instead, the achievements center around enjoying the environment, scavenging for collectibles, and simply talking to people. At many times during the adventure, you'll be able to talk to Ellie and explain the meaning behind a movie poster, or simply talk about how life was before the collapse of society.
The Infected are terrifying, but battles against survivors are more fun
The story is massive, told over the course of four seasons. Joel and Ellie's journey spans thousands of miles, and during that time, you'll see their relationship evolve into something quite special. Terrific writing and fantastic performances across-the-board make it easy to become invested in a story that might otherwise be by-the-numbers for the zombie genre. And the varied, detailed, gorgeously rendered environments invite mesmerized appreciation.
Yet, The Last of Us is not without its flaws. Occasionally, Naughty Dog resorts to the "game-isms" that define other mainstream titles. More than once, the game will instantly spawn enemies in an area, rendering useless the deliberate gameplay that the game is designed around. Being forced into a bombastic gunfight feels cheap, especially after methodically clearing the previous area. The endgame also starts ratcheting up the number of enemies and the amount of ammunition you have--disappointingly devolving the game into the dumb shooter it was intentionally trying not to be.
The first boss fight is an utter shock--simply because the mere notion of having a boss fight seems rather unnecessary and forced. Another boss fight towards the endgame is also a disappointment, because it drags down what should have been a satisfying story arc. Instead, by turning the encounter into a standard three-hit-kill boss battle, it negates any of the moral complexities of the situation at hand.
The journey will take you across the entire country
These shortcomings are blemishes on an otherwise impeccable experience. Naughty Dog was wise to hide so much of the game from the public's eye. There are so many genuinely memorable moments, with surprises and cliffhangers leading to major shifts in gameplay. To reveal any of them would be a disservice, but the surprises begin from the very moment you press Start and begin a new game.
As a package, The Last of Us is a meaty one. A single playthrough can take up to 20 hours, depending on how thorough you are and what difficulty you choose to play in. There's also a multiplayer mode which captures the essence of the campaign--although it falls short in content.
When it stays true to its vision, The Last of Us is a masterful, suspenseful, and beautiful experience that weaves together a compelling narrative with thoughtful gameplay. While it occasionally falters, Naughty Dog proves that they can breathe new life into the third-person cover shooter. 
Bill is one of the many memorable characters you'll encounter
This The Last of Us review was based on an early debug copy of the game provided by the publisher. The game will be available on PS3 on Blu-ray and PlayStation Network on June 14.