I initially saw this game 11 months ago at E3, where Sony and Naughty Dog proudly showcased their survival-horror thriller off in front of a mesmerised crowd. I was part of the drooling masses and I’ve been eager to get my clammy meat-digits on it ever since.
This latest ‘sneak peak’ of The Last of Us, exclusive to media, finally gave me this opportunity. Shrouded in secrecy with strict embargoes, I can now reveal it contains two playable missions taking place in Lincoln and Pittsburgh (two of the American locales that appear at an unknown venture in the full game).
Lincoln opens up to a setting I hadn’t seen before in The Last of Us. Here we find our survivors, a bearded Joel and young Ellie, surrounded by nature. This open woodland environment is a stark contrast to the cold urban settings initially showcased; and Naughty Dog have poured in an incredible level of detail to bring it to life.
Birds drink from a nearby stream and wild rabbits scamper between logs. Tree roots emerge from the ground in a naturally awkward manner as they cut between rocks in a fight for survival. It’s a beautiful precursor for the desperate survival themes that permeates The Last of Us continuously.
All of this nature isn’t lost on an adolescent Ellie either. Her sassy charm is in full effect as she investigates the outside world, playing with fireflies and marveling at the wildlife (“ooh – a bunny!”). She’s from a world far from here and her genuine inquisitive nature is relentless. That being said, Ellie’s banter is never an irritation. For instance, her occasionally bursting out into song when bored is an adorable juxtaposition to her grim surroundings.
It’s evident that a strong emotional bond will be formed between the player and Ellie – and in a far more efficient manner than the ‘hero and girl’ dynamics recently seen in Bioshock Infinite. Her witticisms are even quite revealing, often offering insights about this new post-apocalyptic world that she was born into.
Being a survival-horror title, there is a large emphasis on scavenging and Joel will constantly be on the lookout for items to help his cause. Scattered around the environments, you’ll be able to salvage scissors, bandages, bottles, and more before crafting up a storm like a mullet-less MacGyver.
Weapons like a shiv can be made from bandages, scissors and tape – but then you’re faced with the dilemma of whether you use the bandages for first aid, or perhaps the wick in a Molotov cocktail? In true survival-thriller fashion, every decision you make has to be weighed up, often in a split second. Weapons carry a life-span, forcing you to use them sparingly and with ammo being extremely limited, this is a game that requires wits and strategy.
When it comes to the combat, The Last of Us is a real challenge. Your weapons are often slow and the aiming controls in the game are heavy and bordering on clumsy; but in an uniquely realistic way. It has a completely different feel to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and often in The Last of Us, picking up a gun will be secondary to simply just legging it to safety.
Adding to the difficulty, all of the enemies you’ll face in The Last of Us are no walk in the park either. The infected, or zombies if you want to be stereotypical, are difficult to hit with their random, almost manic and jerky movements. They can take multiple shots to take down and often they will attack in packs of varying speed. The fact that a single infected can render you dead instantly gives the combat a true sense of desperation and panic. It works beautifully.
Even against other non-infected humans, the difficulty borders on that perfect blend of challenging / rewarding. Here your foes will patiently take cover, flank your position intelligently and attack with alarming speed. The second part of my hands-on, which took place in Pittsburgh, introduced gangs of hardened survivors who have had to take extreme measures to ensure survival. These survivors will ambush, kill and steal to prevail. A stark contrast to Joel and Ellie’s pursuits. However these ruthless conditions require desperate action, and you know that these moral boundaries will be blurred before this game is through.
The violence in The Last of Us is brutal and explicit. But it never feels excessive or forced. Instead it’s completely appropriate and almost artistic - making a swift, sudden impact when it counts most. They flow in-between moments of terrifying tension and suspense. Even veteran gamers exposed to years of videogame violence will appreciate the ‘jolt to the senses’ that this title delivers. For example, there was one sequence where I spent ten minutes upside down, desperately trying to shoot advancing infected, the blood rushing to my head while a defenceless Ellie is screaming for help. ‘Intense’ would be an understatement.
There are problem-solving elements in The Last of Us, which on the surface might consist of carrying planks of wood around with you. But they’re executed in such a fashion that they never feel repetitive or like a chore. This could be partly because the character animations are exactly what you’d expect from the studio that delivered Uncharted and simply watching Joel cart things around is a joy. The attention to detail in the character models even extends to Joel’s backpack, which accumulates the weapons you pick-up.
The Last of Us demonstrates just how good survival-horror titles should be. Naughty Dog appear to have solved that perfect balance of action, storyline, great controls and horrific suspense. With the weeks counting down to the 14th June, it won’t be long now until we get to see if this game will be worth the wait. But my money is on ‘hell yes’ and we’ll be sure to bring you the full review soon.