The Last of Us joins the long line-up of zombie games that includes everything from the G-rated Plants vs. Zombiesto one of the scariest games, Dead Space. So how does the latest and most popular PlayStation 3 game measure up to all these heavyweights? In short, it definitely holds it own with an engaging plot and likable characters that you’ll quickly get attached to.

The anchors of this game are the relatable protagonists, the hardened 50-something-year-old Joel, and Ellie, the precocious 14-year-old who’s immune to the fungus that turns humans into zombies. They meet when Joel is reluctantly tasked with getting Ellie hundreds of miles away from his home, to find scientists who will use her as a cure for the virus that inflicts the undead creatures. To make matters worse, the zombies aren’t their only enemies, as bandits and looters try to kill them. People are trying to rebuild their lives and towns even as they fight for survival each day.

Their dialogue is top-notch, injecting humour just at the right times to prevent boredom and to lighten up the dour mood that inevitably comes with the post-apocalyptic setting. For example, halfway through the game, Ellie picks up a joke book and from then on, would occasionally read out choice jokes when she decides that it’s “time for a joke”. They go through so much, from having their travelling partners abruptly killed to finding long-lost family members, that you can’t help but root for them to stay alive and together, even when it keeps going downhill.

You start to become really involved in their journey through America to find someone who could harness Ellie’s immunity into a cure, with little snippets of their past and their detached yet oddly sweet father-daughter like relationship. You could almost say Ellie is Joel’s replacement for Sarah, the daughter he lost at the start of the game. However, Ellie being so alike to the daughter Joel lost, causes so many past feelings to crop up in him that he refuses to treat her like anything more than a partner, until the end of the game. This is one of the aspects of the game that make you feel a lot of empathy for the characters. Not only are they faced against undead creatures, they also have very real, internal troubles like whether to trust someone or kill innocent but troubled people, that even people not living in a post-apocalyptic world can relate to. Ellie is but a child when Joel struggles with his decision to give her a gun to protect herself, and Joel is not the hero of the game but an old man, when only antibiotics can keep him from death.

One other winning factor is its realism from the landscape and sound, to the way you gather supplies. The sprawling environment of The Last of Us definitely doesn’t lack quality and complexity, with its attention to details, evident in every nook and cranny of the game. Abandoned houses are still intact and homey as if petrified in time, wildlife thrives without human disturbance and the sound of it all is so real.

Although it doesn’t have those epic music moments you find in games like Skyrim, this is something you don’t want played on low volume. The creators took pains to really understand the mood of the game in giving us music that isn’t constantly somber and ominous, nor inappropriately jaunty. In fact, sometimes all you hear are the quiet sounds of nature and a calm that’s highly reflective of the desolation in a world missing millions of humans.

Another thing that contributes to its realism is the fact that players need to be very resourceful in the game. Health kits and bombs aren’t just lying around for you to collect; you have to gather materials like alcohol, rags and bindings to craft and improvise items for use. This may frustrate those looking for the instant gratification of hacking away, but translates into useful skills and builds your patience.

The Last of Us has a finely balanced combination of puzzles and combat. You have to manoeuvre ladders, planks and rafts to get from place to place, which adds to the realism of the gameplay. This is great for anyone who likes to challenge themselves with games instead of just mindlessly killing things. However, some might find all the puzzles that need solving rather frustrating, as it seems like the journey is blocked almost every step of the way.

Additionally, the combat may not be for everyone as it’s heavily stealth-based. As expected of a post-apocalyptic environment, players have very limited weapons and ammo. As a result, they have to rely heavily on hand-to-hand combat and sneak attacks, which isn’t easy with the player’s rather high detection rate. Gamers who prefer a head-on combat style will be sorely disappointed when enemies outnumber bullets and stabbing the enemy from behind will be the only way to win combat. However, this is incredibly reflective of real life combat, where you have to bide your time, waiting for the right opportunity, instead of running into enemies, guns ablaze.

The Last of Us definitely deserves the plethora of awards, including Best PS3 game and Most Valuable Game, they received at E3 – an annual trade fair for the computer and video game industry – in 2012. It is a masterpiece that takes time to be fully realised. It starts off rather slow for you to get a hang of its combat style and controls, but when the story takes off, it gets very intense.

Be warned though, the patience you develop in crafting your own weapons will come in handy as the bulk of the action and climaxes are in the second half of the story, so you’ll have to plough through about 7 hours of gameplay before you get to the meaty bits. But the story, probably one of the most genuine reflections of life in zombie land, is definitely worth it.

Some may find this isn’t a value-for-money game with just 12 to 16 hours of gameplay. But that didn’t stop it from becoming the most successful PS3 game ever, shipping 3.4 million boxes in just 3 weeks. UrbanWire says get it anyway because it’s truly a different zombie game, where you don’t just hack and slash away at the undead, but also truly empathise and care about the characters. Play The Last of Us, for the story and characters, enjoy the incredibly designed environment, challenge yourself with the combat and your eyes will be opened to a whole new kind of zombie game.

Pros: Storyline, Character development, graphics
Cons: Slow and difficult combat
Price: $69.90
Rating: 8.5/10
Operating system: PS3