This is the second time GodisaGeek has gone hands-on with The Last of Us, the upcoming post-apocalyptic survival horror from Naughty Dog, and it’s safe to say right away that it’s shaping up into something incredibly special. Set two decades after a global, fungus-based epidemic annihilated most of the human race, The Last of Us follows survivors Joel and Ellie as they cross the barren waste of Middle America, doing whatever it takes to survive against infected mutants and, worse, other humans.
The latest preview contained two cut-down levels, one set in Lincoln and the other in Pittsburgh, and was certainly more action-packed than you’d expect – which is not to jump on the nay-say bandwagon and declare that The Last of Us is looking like a slightly less bombastic, slightly grimmer Uncharted; in actual fact the comparisons to Drake’s adventures and Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West are largely unfounded. Recent time spent with The Last of Us brought to mind two games and two games only; the Tomb Raider reboot, and Ubisoft’s Wii U exclusive ZombiU. Naughty Dog’s game takes elements from both – the cinematic gloss and the sense that you’re facing insurmountable odds come from the former, while the pervading undertones of dread, the necessity of scavenging and the unexpected explosions of horror and violence come from the latter.
The section I played begins in Lincoln, on a bright afternoon that seems worlds away from a post-apocalyptic wasteland, as grizzled survivor Joel (that’s you) and his teenage ward Ellie pick their way through an eerily-silent forest towards the city. They’re looking for Bill, an old acquaintance of Joel’s who they hope can provide them with a working car (the rusted husks that litter the harrowed cityscape have been long-since picked clean by scavengers). Where they’re actually going is, at this point, unknown (as Naughty Dog have been tight-lipped on plot details since day one), but, as with all good stories, it’s the journey, and not the destination, that counts.
The opening moments of the Lincoln scenario are tranquil, almost light-hearted, the banter between Joel and Ellie that of a single father and the daughter he raised – with him surly, succinct and almost businesslike and her sassy, sarcastic, but respectful. Judging by the short preview, this will be how the bulk of exposition is conveyed: Joel was around during the initial outbreak 20 years ago, and answers Ellie’s questions without bothering to apply a sugar-coating. It works well, giving you an insight into the world as it exists now without beating you over the head with flashbacks or collectible diary pages (although you will discover letters and notes and various official documents that add depth and context).
However, the serenity doesn’t last long, and as I pass from the wilderness into the city, the sense of foreboding increases; it’s so still, so silent, that I’m immediately on edge, trained by countless horror movies and zombie apocalypse scenarios to immediately distrust the appearance of safety. As Joel and Ellie come upon a fence too high to climb, I notice a plank of timber leaning against a small maintenance shack. A little brain power solves the puzzle: I find a convenient arrangement of boxes for Joel to clamber up onto the roof, helping Ellie behind him. A push of Triangle drags the plank up onto the roof, and a second push lays it down to bridge the gap between two buildings and over the fence. It’s a simple idea that sees a few uses over the next forty minutes or so as Joel and Ellie traverse the derelict streets of Lincoln.
While bullets are scarce and should be preserved, weapons are not, and you’ll find plenty of impromptu clubs and shivs scattered around – or you can make and modify your own in the crafting menu. Shivs can be used as emergency lockpicks, allowing you entry into abandoned buildings to scavenge supplies. Water, cloth, alcohol, tape, blades, nails, and a whole selection of other incidental items can be crafted together into explosives and medkits, or temporary damage modifiers for your melee weapons. Beware though, as in ZombiU the world doesn’t stop while you read documents, rummage in your bag, upgrade Joel’s skills or craft equipment. Wait until it’s safe, or keep an ear open for Ellie’s warnings. If you get surprised by a “clicker”, you’re as good as dead.
Clickers are individuals in the later stages of infection, whose heads are covered in grotesque fungal growths that render them almost completely blind. As a result they see by a form of sonar, facilitated by a menacing – yet tell-tale – clicking sound. The first time I meet one, it’s understated. I’m on the rooftops and idly playing around with the bow I’ve just found (Joel’s pockets are deep, allowing him to carry a selection of pistols, rifles, explosives, curatives and decoy tools like bottles and bricks) when I spot it just running back and forth, clicking away, looking for food. It’s unrecognisable as human (unlike the Runners, more traditional zombie-type enemies who haven’t yet fully succumbed to the infection), and I feel no remorse crouching down, aiming an arrow at its bulbous head and firing. Unfortunately, that just pisses it off, and while it’s screeching and clambering across the roof towards me, I frantically whip out Joel’s hunting rifle and start blasting. In my panicked state I miss twice, hit it twice, and leave myself with just one rifle round… It goes down – just – and I’ve had a stark lesson about keeping cool, picking the right tool for the job, and being prepared. If a Runner gets you, you can fend it off by mashing Square, but a Clicker will usually kill you instantly.
The Lincoln section finishes with a heart-pounding set-piece as Joel – caught in one of Bill’s many ingenious Clicker traps – dangles from the ceiling of a gutted warehouse and Ellie desperately tries to free him – all the while surrounded by Runners and Clickers. Despite having to fight off repeated close-quarters assaults, protecting Ellie with your handgun is the top priority, as she can only run and weakly fend them off, and you’ve got a very finite amount of time to save her life if she’s grabbed. If I’m dead honest, it’s a little bit disappointing that Ellie isn’t a tougher character – especially being a child of the apocalypse. Despite being only twelve years old, this world is all she’s known, and she exhibits a sassy, no-nonsense attitude in the following cutscene (which you’ll have seen in the “Bill” trailer) that just isn’t present when she’s running away from the infected. That said, I don’t know much about her backstory or her time with Joel prior to The Last of Us, so there may be reasons behind it.
The Lincoln section ends when you reach Bill’s makeshift fortress, and the action jumps forward to Pittsburgh, beginning with the “Ambush” trailer revealed a few months ago. Tricked, run off the road, beaten and dragged from your car, the Pittsburgh level sees you facing off against an altogether more dangerous foe: other survivors. Rocking shotguns, pistols, planks of wood with nails hammered into them and the ability to take cover, flank you and counter your attacks, large groups of scavengers are more frightening than the charging hordes of undead.
Encounters with human enemies are a mixture of gunplay, melee and stealth. Dropping into cover will allow you to sneak around an enemy – whose attention will be fixed on your last known position a la Splinter Cell: Conviction. This allows you to regroup, reload and outflank them – but stay on your guard, they can do the same to you and it’s easy to lose a bead on one guy while you’re tussling with two others. Ellie will warn you when you’re about to get clubbed, but only quick reflexes will save you.
Combat is frantic and desperate. Joel is a slugger, a Nathan Drake-style fighter who uses whatever’s close to hand to end the fight fast. The melee system borrows heavily from Uncharted 3, and peppers each area with triggers that cause context-specific moves such as smashing a guy’s head against a low counter-top, for example. Fighting is messy and loud, and hugely satisfying as a result. Lumping the last guy in the chops then spinning round to find that you’ve smashed your way through eight enemies and survived brings an incredible feeling of accomplishment – tempered by the horrible realisation that you’ve got no ammo left and you used your last shiv. Looting enemies is a no-no – at least in the preview code – but it seems out of sync with prior behaviour. Joel loots everything, so why not his enemies? Hopefully you can loot in the finished game, but if not then it’s either a glaring omission or a device to limit your resources, which is daft as you can literally carry loads of crafting materials in Joel’s rucksack – not to mention several guns in invisi-pockets.
Similar to Tomb Raider, The Last of Us is intent on reminding you that this is a game and not a movie. You can collect items that allow you to level up Joel’s skills, workbenches let you upgrade weapons from seemingly mundane parts and conversations between Joel and Ellie trigger regularly, only to cut off immediately if take one step too many away from her. Rest assured, however, that these minor flaws don’t break the immersion or ruin anything – and may well be corrected or altered in the finished game.
Judging from my limited time with The Last of Us (the preview code only ran for around 90 – 120 minutes), Naughty Dog have a hit on their hands. With so little known about the backstory or the plot, anything could happen to influence the game’s popularity either way, but as it stands, I’m incredibly impressed. The graphical detail is amazing and, speaking aesthetically, The Last of Us will serve as a fantastic swansong for the PlayStation 3. Incredible performances from the actors – especially Ashley Johnson as Ellie – combine with the kind of cinematic flare that Naughty Dog are now famous for and a truly frightening, atmospheric game world to present a master-class in tension and desperation.
The few minor issues will either be fixed, or I’ll learn to live with them as, besides the looting conundrum, they really aren’t that detrimental. With only a month to wait until the worldwide release, all that remains is to get our hands on the finished product and face the full horror of The Last of Us alongside Ellie and Joel.