Heading into Sony's game showcase, The Last of Us was one of my most anticipated games. Since the game's reveal, I've remained cautiously optimistic as I've seen playthrough after playthrough at the hands of developers, who rarely present the game in a way a casual consumer would approach it. How many times have we seen developer walkthroughs where they perform the precise movement at exactly the right time? They present it in a way that makes the game look its absolute best, and while I don't fault them for doing so, it's hard to get a feel for a game without actually playing. Which is why I was glad to finally go hands-on with The Last of Us.
The preview threw me in somewhere near the relative beginning of the game, with Joel, Tess, and Ellie somewhere between the outside of the military quarantine zone and the outskirts of Boston. Joel and Tess are partners who run a smuggling operation, bringing supplies, or in this case a person, from the quarantine zone to survivors outside known as Firefly.
At this point in the game, Ellie doesn't quite trust Joel and it showed in their back and forth conversation. As we've heard time and time again, The Last of Us places a heavy emphasis on character -- relationships, reaction to the end of the world, etc. As creative director Neil Druckmann put it, "We want to see the best and the worst of humanity."
Upon entering the outskirts, I was immediately taken in by the lush environment Naughty Dog has created. Although it's an end-of-the-world type game, Naughty Dog has taken a different approach, opting for greenery and vegetation as opposed to the dreary browns and grays we're so used to. In it's own way, the environment in The Last of Us is beautiful.
I wasn't the only one taken aback by the beauty of The Last of Us; this being Ellie's first time outside of the quarantine zone she, too, was equally as stunned with the sheer size of the buildings. Much of my playthrough consisted of traveling through a run-down, abandoned building on the verge of collapse. Though out of the pouring rain, what awaited me in here was much worse.
The Last of Us does a perfect job of setting the mood and tone. There was a sense of eeriness as I navigated the dark hallways, occasionally encountering an already dead Clicker (the term used for the infected in their final stage). A lot of what I learned about them was done so through conversation between Tess and Joel. Like Ellie, I was experiencing all of this for the first time -- almost like I was a tag-a-long survivor.
I definitely encourage exploration. Though the game is primarily linear, there are multiple routes you can take. Going off-the-beaten path will often lead you to supplies (battery, blade, rag, alcohol, etc.) which can be used during combat or as a crafting material.
That's right, The Last of Us has crafting. Supplies are limited, so it's up to you to find the resources needed to make them. Looking in drawers or behind debris will lead you to discovering materials that you can then combine in an easy-to-use menu to craft explosives, medkits, and upgraded melee weapons.
Prior to my playthrough, Naughty Dog explained to me the different stages of infected. In my demo there were two types: the Runner and the Clicker. The Runner is classified as Stage 1 of the infection. As creative director Neil Druckmann noted, "They know they are doing something beyond their control, don't want to do it, but do it uncontrollably." Runners can see, often travel in packs, and try to gang up on you.
The second type of enemy I encountered was the Clicker. These are the final result of the infection, blinded by the parasite that has grown through their eye sockets. So why are they referred to as Clickers? They make a terrifying clicking noise that serves as echolocation. Although blind, the sound they make bounces off walls and returns to them, creating an image.
At one point in the playthrough, I had to drop into a room filled with about three or four Runners and a Clicker. The first thing to note is that this game is NOT Uncharted. You can't just shoot your way through enemies. In fact, I was quite surprised to discover how difficult the game actually is.The only way to kill a Clicker is to sneak up on them and stab them in the head with a Shiv or to shoot them with your gun. But with limited ammo and the sound attracting other nearby enemies, I recommend the Shiv. Because of this, there is a heavy emphasis on stealth. Darkness is your ally. I found often found myself crouched in the shadows, sneaking behind walls and desks, as I carefully planned my next move. And I can't emphasize enough how much planning is needed.
As I mentioned, darkness is your friend. If the Runners see you, they will swarm. To help counter this, Naughty Dog has armed Joel with a special "Listen Mode". Holding down the shoulder button transforms the game into a black and white state, allowing Joel to truly focus on the sounds of nearby enemies. This outlines enemies that are making noise through walls, allowing you to see what you're up against and plan accordingly.
The worst thing you can do in The Last of Us is run into a room guns blazing. The game is extremely unforgiving. One wrong move and it's over -- especially if a Clicker gets hold of you (it's basically instant kill). Not to mention, ammunition is extremely scarce (though boosted for my demo). Runners and Clickers each require several bullets to take down, and hitting them is no easy feat.
As I said before, the Clickers are blind, so you'll need to use the environment to your advantage and outsmart them. For example, to kill the Clicker I had to throw a glass bottle at a wall. The sound distracted the Clicker, allowing me to sneak up behind and stab it. These type of encounters present the player with choice. I could've shot it, but as I learned from my prior deaths, the noise attracts the Runners and ammo is rare. Was I prepared to encounter a wave of Runners? As I found out prior to my stealth tactic, no -- I was ripped apart.
In a round-about way, The Last of Us is like a strategic action puzzle. Each encounter is cleverly laid out, requiring intense concentration and careful planning. The intensity of each encounter, knowing one wrong move can be your demise, leads to some intense moments. Because Joel is so vulnerable against Clickers, there's a heightened sense of emotion when heading in to each room.
From what I played, surviving The Last of Us will be easier said than done. Naughty Dog has seemingly balanced character development and intense action. Even during what some may call the "lull" times of exploring this wonderfully crafted environment, I was still at the edge of my seat knowing that behind every corner could be a deadly Clicker waiting to eat my face. Unfortunately, there's still no release date for The Last of Us, but fans will get a taste of the level I played through when the demo arrives alongside the release of God of War: Ascension.