The Last of Us made a big splash when it was revealed in late 2011. How could it not? Developed by none other than Naughty Dog (the ultra-talented team behind the Uncharted series, among other smash-hit titles), the game was unveiled with considerable fanfare, resulting in the instantaneous creation of a legion of franchise fans.
Since then, we've learned relatively little about the game; we know it's a post apocalyptic survival game, and we know that it features many similarities to the Uncharted series' third-person action adventure brand of gameplay. We also know it's brutally violent, and set in a post-apocalyptic America - where characters Joel, Ellie, and Tess will need to try and survive the relentless attentions of both zombie-like infected and even other survivors.
But the how and why of these events have been relatively closely guarded; what happened? What, beyond survival, are the trio hoping to achieve? How will they go about their day-to-day existence? Just how different is it to Uncharted?
Keen to find the answers to these questions, and to see how the game is shaping up (ahead of its June release date), we sat down with the game and spent about an hour exploring its moody corridors. Not all of our questions were answered, but we did find out some interesting things about what is sure to be one of the last big games on PlayStation 3.
The section of the game we were able to play started off downtown in an American city (Chicago? Not sure.) What's immediately apparent is that whatever cataclysm affected the people of the Earth, it was a violent one; not only are skyscrapers collapsed against one another in some sort of perilous mid-dominoes like tumbling, but the very ground itself is ripped and broken. Whatever happened (and that has yet to be revealed), it had a massive seismic impact on the world.
This impacted gameplay by, despite the fact that you're in a vast urban sprawl, limiting the section we played to the familiar "camouflaged corridor" type of level layout (you know the type; it seems open, but in reality there's only one way to progress.)
After a brief stint outside, in which the characters all chatted amiably away about their situation, we headed indoors. The goal of the section was to explore inside one of those leaning skyscrapers and see what sorts of things we could scavenge; finding stuff, you see, is an important part of surviving post-apocalypse. There isn't any manufacturing going on, of course, so supplies are fundamentally limited - something that factors tightly into the gameplay.
After a wander around inside the building, during which time we found a few batteries (sparse use of the torch ensured these lasted throughout the demo; that sort of decision making is continuous as you consider how to spend your limited resources), we eventually encountered our first enemy - a "Clicker."
Representing stage 3 of the viral infection that's resulted in the death of much of the world's (or at least, America's) population, Clickers constantly make a clicking sound as a form of echolocation (they're otherwise blind, you see.) Fortunately, this one's already dead; the reverence shown to it by the characters, however, sets you up to be genuinely wary of the type which you just know you're going to encounter soon enough . . .
First, though, we stumbled into a bunch of Runners. Kinda like your regular zombie archetype (from a myriad of movies, games, and general pop culture), the key difference here is the speed at which they move (much more like the 28 Days Later type, than the Shaun of the Dead variety, which is to say, pretty quick.) Easily dealt with one-on-one, the risk they otherwise present is serious: in packs, or by surprise, you're screwed, and fighting them generally makes a lot of noise - attracting the much more dangerous Clickers.
Fortunately, to help you deal with the threat, Joel (who you play as, at least in this part of the game) has a number of skills at his disposal. First is the ability to stealthily approach an enemy from behind and then silently kill it (assuming you have the requisite shiv weapon.) You can also throw various objects (including bricks, etc, which you find all over the place but can only carry one at a time), causing the creature to "stagger", which lets you close the gap and beat it down with relatively low risk (but still some; a mistake is fatal here.)
The best tool at your disposal, however, is Joel's ability to "listen" to what's going on around him. Simply hold down a button and the camera zooms in, and any noise-making (i.e. shambling zombies) objects are now visible as an outline - even through walls, etc. This nifty skill is extremely useful when planning your route through a populated environment, letting you track the routes of the infected, etc, and isolate them for one-on-one takedowns.
That said, we didn't get to use this often as a purely evasion tool in the demo, as each group of zombies generally had to be taken down before Ellie and Tess would join Joel and the level could progress. Instead, we used it to figure out a strategy by which we could take them down one at a time, or at least, in smaller groups - something it was very effective at.
Something else that was pretty effective, and which helped to hammer home the desperate nature of Joel, Ellie, and Tess' plight, was the crafting system. As we wandered around, we found all sorts of interesting - and realistic - materials. Pairs of scissors, tape, bits of pipe, etc. The general idea in the full game is that you'll be able to craft all sorts of things; in the demo, we taped some scissors to a pipe and created a pretty effective zombie-sticker, something that seems quite likely to be high on the agenda should an actual zombie-based apocalypse befall the world.
The level of violence used to dispatch the infected was breathtaking; it wasn't just the way in which enemies were killed (heads caved in with bricks, etc), but also the speed; Joel's clearly been in this world a while and he doesn't hesitate - kills are often extremely fast and executed without hesitation. We didn't see any survivor vs. survivor combat, but based on the trailers alone... there will definitely be some eyebrows raised at just how brutally impactful the violence in The Last of Us is.
After some more wandering around, during which we moved through a few other city-based locations, we found ourselves in an underground railway station (or something similar). More importantly, we were now in the possession of a shotgun. Noisy, and hard to find ammo for, the thing was an impressive zombie-dispatcher. There's nothing quite like the thrill of obliterating a Clicker after having been repeatedly eaten by its pals earlier in the game; it's a great payoff, to be sure.
Visually, the game was fairly lacklustre; nothing about the environments, the textures, or the way in which levels were constructed was particularly thrilling nor representative of the kinds of games you'd expect at the end of a console generation.
That said, there's still time before the game releases, and the build we were playing was described by Sony's PR team as being "pre-alpha" (a pretty early state for a game to be demoed in, and one which is often not clearly demonstrative of final quality.) Given it's by the guys that made Uncharted (one of the most visually impressive games of the generation), we're quietly confident those issues will be resolved once post-processing effects and similar polishing methods are applied.
How the final game will play, and whether we'll want to go on this dark journey with Joel and his pals, is far from certain. What is clear, though, is that The Last of Us is one to watch; there's potential here for a new kind of experience, and with Naughty Dog at the helm, it seems fair to suggest they're odds-on to execute on that potential.