We’ve finally been able to get our hands on Sony’s The Last of Us, to see if the hype around this survival horror game stacks up. The game comes from Naughty Dog, who has already established that they know how to provide action with the Uncharted series, but rather than focusing on loot plundering, The Last of Us is meant to be a terrifying escort mission, taking you across a dystopian United States.
You play the game as Joel, a weathered and bearded black market smuggler who has been saddled with the task of escorting the 14-year old Ellie out of the city and to a militia group known as the Fireflies. Along with Joel and Ellie comes Tess, Joel’s partner, although in most of the advertising for the game, it’s just Joel and Ellie, so look for something bad to happen to Tess along the way.
When the game was last seen at E3, the developers were showing off Pittsburgh, which has devolved into an enormous, overgrown trap, and we saw Joel and Ellie being harassed by a group of survivors known as Hunters. This time around, we were shown Boston, which is one of the last remaining quarantine zones in the country. Inside the city, movement is tightly restricted, there are strong curfews in place, supplies are rationed, and the atmosphere is very oppressive.
Boston is under martial law, and if you break any of the rules, you are executed. The demo takes place in the Outskirts of Boston, where the military has bombed the area heavily in an effort to eradicate the infected. This is the first time Ellie's outside the quarantine zone. She doesn’t yet know if she can trust Joel and Tess, and as they make their way through the Outskirts together, it begins to solidify the relationship they will have throughout the game.
This playthrough gave us a good look at the infection that the game centers on, wiping out most humans, and turning many of them into zombie-esque creatures with a twist. The infection, which is a fungal virus in nature, produces plant-like growths in people, with different results. We were shown two types of infected and were able to play against them in the demo.
- Runners – These are stage one infected who have a slight sense of humanity left but can’t control themselves. They are fast and attack in packs, but they have limited sight due to the infection growing out of its victims' eye sockets.
- Clickers – These are full-blown, stage three infected, who are completely blind and use echolocation “clicks” to find prey. They can hear the slightest sound, so you’ll want to distract them by throwing bricks and bottles to lead them away from you.
The game uses a control scheme very familiar to Uncharted, which isn’t a surprise since the game comes from the same developer and both offer a third-person view of the protagonist. But The Last of Us goes beyond Uncharted, giving Joel the ability to “listen” to his environment and “see” enemies even when they are behind walls, and a crafting skill that lets him upgrade melee weapons, build shivs, make Molotov cocktails, and more. You’ll need to utilize this crafting skill often, as ammunition and guns are very scarce in this world. You’re lucky if you’re able to find more than three or four bullets at a time.
Joel also isn’t a jumper and scrambler as much as Nathan Drake is, although climbing is a large part of traversing the ruined outskirts of Boston. He needs help from Tess to get up to areas that Drake could get to with his eyes closed, and he doesn’t move quite as quickly. Plus, he has Ellie to worry about, and most times this means clearing out areas or exploring alternative routes before she can proceed.
He is also equipped with a flashlight that has a limited battery. Luckily, you’ll find batteries fairly often, as long as you explore, and you’ll need them because in some places light is your only friend. While Joel’s listen mode highlights enemies that are near him, they don’t let him see in the dark. Thankfully, the infected can’t see the beam from your flashlight, which is good because it gives you one less thing to be afraid of.
The Last of Us plays out like we wish Resident Evil 6 would have (sorry Capcom!), meaning it provides a creepy experience slowly moving through abandoned environments, while wondering what lurks around every corner. As soon as you hear a Clicker, you’ll freeze in place while frantically looking around for a brick or a bottle to throw in order to distract it. And if you happen to get surrounded by Runners, you’ll want to hit sprint and pray.
Most of our time in the Outskirts involved making our way through a partially collapsed office building, which was a good place to look for crafting supplies. But one area in particular was a difficult bottleneck full of Runners and a Clicker. If you sneak up on an infected from behind, which you have to do carefully and slowly so as not to make any sounds, you can shiv them silently… provided that you’ve crafted a shiv.
But if one of them happens to notice you, it’s a terrifying race around what limited cover there is, hoping you can lose them. Headshots will take the infected down, but nailing one while on the run is nearly impossible. Later in the demo, Joel finds a shotgun, which provides a welcome relief to trying to nail one of these things in the skull. But like most weapons, you need to get a very close eye on your ammo. Especially when clearing out groups, because you’ll hear the “click click” of empty all too soon.
Your best bet for dealing with Clickers is to crouch and distract them by throwing something, and then either sneak past them, or try to sneak up behind them and shiv them. With groups, throw a couple of Molotov cocktails to immolate them, although watch for burning stragglers to charge you. Melee weapons are great against single foes, although they will break over time, meaning you’ll have to find a new one.
The demo provided plenty of edge of your seat excitement, with a few “gotcha!” moments thrown in to keep your heart beating. While Ellie’s character model has been tweaked a bit, she does still slightly resemble actress Ellen Page, which is slightly confusing given that she’s starring in Quantic Dream’s upcoming video game Beyond: Two Souls. But that’s just coincidental, we’re told.
This is yet another game where the end of the world looks beautiful, but we aren’t complaining. There is a rich amount of detail present throughout the ruined periphery of Boston and an attention to detail in its destroyed and hauntingly empty buildings. Game Director Bruce Straley and his team were inspired to create the infection after seeing the Cordyceps fungi consume an ant in BBC’s "Planet Earth", but part of the look and feel of a world without humans comes from Alan Weisman’s fascinating book "The World Without Us."
While The Last of Us doesn’t contain the same high action and adventure that gamers have come to expect from the Uncharted franchise, it provides a fantastic survival horror experience with some truly terrifying moments. The gameplay is smooth and fluid, and we look for more good things to come from this title in the months to come before it launches in May, only on the PlayStation 3.