Naughty Dog is Sony’s tame PS3 (and no doubt PS4) developer, and while the company is best known for its efforts at bringing wise-cracking Nathan Drake to life in the Uncharted Series, it’s got possibly a far more important game on its hands in the form of The Last of US. While the game seems to have a lot of similarities – exploration, climbing, and some very gritty combat – it’s the differences that really set it apart. Where Drake is always in control and brashly confident, the protagonist of The Last of Us wears a perpetual scowl of unease – both for his own precarious situation, and for the people in his care.
So, a bit of backstory, in case you’ve not seen the trailers: in The Last of Us the world has gone quite thoroughly pear-shaped. Ruined cities, bands of marauding raiders hellbent on scavenging everything you’ve got then killing you (and maybe doing worse to the young girl in your protection), not to mention ‘the infected’, your basic zombie-analogues, but infected with something akin to a bad case of fungal rot. In fact, the final stage sees them kind of blossom and meld with walls and the environment.
And through all of this, you’ve got to get yourself, and one or two AI companions, from point to point.
Running with scissors (strapped to sticks)
Sony’s been showing off the game for the first time last month, letting people actually get hands-on with the game after its big reveal at E3 last year. The interesting thing is that when we sat down for the game, we had an hour slotted, and were informed the portion of preview code was only 25 minutes long. If we wanted, we could play again, or back-track and explore, but in the end, I didn’t even get to finish; I was close – about three infected short of the preview kill-screen – but not quite all the way there.
This is a good sign.
There’s a constant sense of risk and reward playing in the background of the game, as you search through the ruins to find scissors, water, bottles of alcohol, and other supplies. You don’t find clips of ammo, you find bullets. Or just a bullet. With the other stuff, you can craft up important supplies like medkits, or improve weapons. However, a lot of gear has multiple uses; rags and alcohol equals a medkit, while rags and scissor blade can be added to a stick to make a really nasty spikey thing – making the right choices with the gear you find in the game is almost as important as making the right decisions in dealing with the enemies you come across.
The infected come in multiple types, generally trading speed for effectiveness, and how you deal with them also comes with different challenges. The Clicker, for instance, locates you via echo-location, and can only be taken out with a makeshift shiv or a mess of bullets, while lesser Runners can be choked to death. And, since shivs are one-shot items, you need to be careful how you use them.
The bit of game we got to play is apparently pretty early, though it covers a lot of ground. There are portions outside, though most of it is spent traversing the crumbling, leaning corridors of a dilapidated building. There’s a lot of climbing, both solo and with AI help, pushing things around to find new ways past obstacles, and careful exploration to make sure you don’t miss any items or gear. This is why the game’s so easy to lose time to; while it’s quite linear at times, it rarely feels overly so, and there’s always extra rooms to check or doors to bash open – even taking our time, there were areas that we didn’t get to.
It’s also worth pointing out that a lot of cues – both verbal and visual – are very similar to the Uncharted games, so the shorthand of discovery is pretty easy to pick up.
The mechanics are all pretty straight forward – it’s a controller-based game after all – but they all combine to create a classically simple system with lots of deeper complexities. You can boost weapons, but then you may not have enough medpacks. You can go loud, guns blazing, but that’ll generally draw more enemies. And you can try and play in a hurry, but then you’ll be missing a lot of the game.
You’ll also be missing what is shaping up to be a very emotional experience. Dialogue is sparse, but what is there hints at shared histories and even more things shared and unsaid. And with the young Ellie to look after, there is a distinctly Ico-like feel to the game, and that’s high praise indeed. Given how brutally violent and impactful the game can be, as well as full of slow-burn emotional intensity, The Last of Us is looking like something to look forward to – and get a PS3 for.