To break it down a little further (there are no spoilers here, because you should play this game, and you should play it like you watch a great film, with no preconceptions – just get swept up in the experience).
First, story and dialogue. Brilliantly, brilliantly written by Neil Druckmann – a story that develops and holds true emotional story-telling with believable characters throughout. There wasn’t a single moment in the entire game where the actions of the characters didn’t feel real to me; especially from the two lead roles. Every moment feels like honest acting, with great choices from both Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson at every turn. Of course, these performances would be nothing without the work of the cinematic and gameplay animator, who produced some beautiful work that compliments the vocal performances brilliantly – a fantastic job by all involved.
Second, music. The score for the game is fantastic, thematically perfect, sparse, melancholic, never intrusive – brilliantly done. In many cases the lack of music is a really powerful choice that elevates tensions and focuses the experience even more. It was a brave decision to strip back the audio component as much as they have, but the silences build the tension to a wonderful degree.
Third, combat. It’s brutal, and unforgiving, and as an experience to play through is beautifully tense. The design of the various combat mechanics, with the crafting elements, limited ammunition, and the brutality of the combat animations (which feels like the characters are genuinely fighting for their lives, terrified, desperate) – so different from regenerating health and wonky AI that you can find in comparable titles. The design of the enemies in the game also feeds into this, with different opponents encouraging you to make different choices. As an example of contrast, the Assassin’s Creed games have brutal hand-to-hand combat, but it never feels as desperate, adrenaline-fuelled, and edged with terror as the combat in The Last of Us, and as a result lacks tension for me – with The Last Of Us, you can feel that tension in every combat and it works brilliantly.
Lastly, world design. The art is absolutely stunning; every element of the ruined world the game is set in feels right, the overall aesthetic is so wonderfully grounded – the areas that you explore feel real, they feel as I would imagine that world to be, and do so in a manner that doesn’t feel … the best way I can describe it is that none of it feels like a film set. The visual storytelling that’s inherent in the world never feels forced, you never feel made to look at these elements in the world, but it all adds to the experience.