With a month to go until release, I was given the opportunity to get my mitts on Naughty Dog’s highly anticipated PS3 exclusive, The Last Of Us. The build I was given had two playable areas, Lincoln and Pittsburgh, and together, these areas highlight the major differences between the infected and human enemies that Joel and Ellie will have to battle through if they’re to survive.
The “Lincoln” area of the demo starts off with some beautiful forest scenery, with some fantastic dynamic lighting that peeks through the trees and causes Joel to wince a little. Ellie certainly shows that she’s never left the quarantined areas that are hinted at with her dialogue, as this is the first time she’s really seen nature. The section pushes forward and introduces you to the crafting system, similar to that of Dead Island, which allows you to create some increasingly deadly melee combinations. The example given was taping a pair of scissors to a piece of pipe, creating an effective short ranged bludgeoning tool.
It’s not long before you’re able to put this to the test, with a sequence designed to show how to distract the sightless Clicker enemy types from their hiding spots. Similar to bats, these infected enemies have fungus engulfing their entire head, and as such are blind, so use a series of clicks and dolphin-esque noises to create a sort of radar effect to find their prey. Throwing a bottle at a wall sets off the noise that they hear and it draws them out just enough to sneak up on them and bury your makeshift blade into them silently. It’s an extremely satisfying mechanic, and one that is complemented well by Joel’s “listen” ability, which allows you to locate enemies within an area and plot your next moves accordingly. The rest of the demo flows through an abandoned street and into a warehouse, and eventually reuniting with the friend you set out to meet. There are some incredibly tense moments throughout, and a couple of genuine scares as well for good measure.
The “Pittsburgh” section showcases the immediate aftermath of the ambush that was shown in the trailer from last year, and throws you into a fight with humans that highlights the different ways to play through the combat scenarios. Ammo conservation immediately becomes one of the key points to focus on, with only two bullets in the handgun, and a multitude of enemies hunting you down. I found that a stealthy way through the enemies was the best option in this case, as the AI always seems to find a way to sneak up on you just as you’re about to pop off that crucial headshot on someone that’s got you in their sights. The bottles that were used to draw enemies from their hiding places are now used to distract the humans, enabling you to either make a quiet getaway, or line them up for a stealth kill. The thing that really struck me about this section was the massive difference in environments, going from derelict buildings to lush greenery in the time it takes to open a door.
Naughty Dog have obviously attempted to distance themselves from the label of “The Uncharted guys” with The Last Of Us. Thematically, tonally and visually it’s a very different game. Sure, there might be similarities with the foliage that’s found in this and Nathan Drake’s world, but you won’t find Joel leaping from ledge to ledge with the type of gusto that our intrepid adventurer has done for his three outings. It threw me slightly during my play through when I found myself on the top of a small building, and attempted to leap across to another only to clatter to the floor, and realise that in order to cross the gap, I needed to create a makeshift bridge. It’s little touches like this that help the atmosphere stay grounded in a reality that’s clearly taken its toll on Joel, as he struggles to survive and protect Ellie at the same time.
Speaking of Ellie, there were fears that the game will be one long escort mission. Well, given what I’ve seen of the game so far, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Ellie is a superbly well-rounded character in her own right, with a wit and charm rarely seen in “side characters”, and you don’t need to worry about protecting her in general combat. Having said that, one of the set pieces did involve a pseudo turret sequence where Joel needs to protect Ellie as she assists him out of a tricky situation, but it never felt like a chore. The most immediate comparison is probably with Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth, albeit in much less fantastical surroundings. Ellie ducks and dodges enemies, warns Joel about incoming dangers, and on the odd occasion when you think all hope is lost and you’re in a Mexican standoff with an enemy, she’ll lob a brick or a bottle at your foe’s head to distract them, giving you the upper hand to pounce on them and unleash a brutal melee kill.
Environments have been lovingly created, and the stark contrast between the lush forestry of Pittsburgh’s abandoned streets and the dank and dreary abandoned buildings give a sense that the world has been in decay for an incredibly long time. Animation is fluid and weighty, with each and every one of Joel’s thumps and swings of weapons connecting with sickening cracks and pops. The violence is something that will no doubt be put into the spotlight once the game releases, and it is unrelenting, although there is an option to turn the more brutal aspects (such as the closeup melee kills) off in the settings. Anyone who’s played Uncharted will be familiar with the control scheme, although as mentioned, Joel’s range of movement is a world apart from Nathan Drake’s acrobatics. The incidental dialogue is absolutely fantastic, with the two characters picking up on elements of the world and making comments ranging from a joke about garden gnomes to an explanation of the dire straits entire communities found themselves in, and it really does pay to stray from the beaten track, as there will be invaluable supplies hidden in areas alongside these amusing little anecdotes.
Naughty Dog really have excelled with the PS3 hardware, and their past performances with the Uncharted games is a testament to that. However, The Last Of Us looks like it’s going to be a step beyond that, and has the potential to be the system’s final true masterpiece. The care that has gone into the creation of this post-apocalyptic nightmare really does shine through with every turn, and I can’t wait for the game’s release in four weeks’ time.
The Last of Us is set to be released on 14 June exclusively on the PlayStation 3.