Hands-on with The Last of Us: the past, present, and future of survival horror
Twenty years after the outbreak of a fungal epidemic that ravages the United States, some of humanity's last remaining occupy a quarantine zone in Boston. Martial law dictates that any man, woman, or child stupid enough to step out of line or venture outside the camp will be shot on sight. So it is that 14-year-old Ellie knows nothing of the world outside these concrete walls. The Infected ravage the streets outside, hungrily searching for hosts to accept the fungus that will attack their brains and engulf their minds. Ellie knows nothing of their terrors, but she will soon find out.
The blame for the death of Ellie's innocence lies with Joel and Tess, two smugglers by trade that make their living in this apocalypse by acquiring and delivering rare or restricted goods to buyers with well-lined pockets. Their latest job casts Ellie as the package to be brought outside the quarantine zone – to the Boston capitol, through miles of territory long-lost to the Infected. It's here that my hands-on demo begins, approximately 90 minutes into the game. I'm eager for my first chance to play Naughty Dog's latest, but I begin with some trepidation. I will be among the world's first to encounter the Infected face-to-face, and Creative Director Neil Druckmann warns us that they are not to be trifled with.
As a black screen brightens to reveal post-apocalyptic Boston, my concerns are momentarily forgotten. The view is stunning, in a morbid way that recalls what's been lost, and I struggle to keep up with Tess and Ellie across rubble, ruined vehicles, and overgrown streets. Nature is taking over, and we soon come to an impasse: our only way forward is through an edifice nearly ripped from its foundation. School, office building, bank – it doesn't matter anymore. The only rule of this story is survival; the stage and players matter little. As we scramble up stairs and battle time's obstacles, I think to check my ammunition supply. I'm holding one pistol and four bullets. Suddenly, I don't like my chances.
My mood is lifted slightly by the number of objects and tools I find scattered in the filth. Bottles and bricks are reminders of the terrors I'll soon face, but other items – tape, scissors, and gasoline – disappear and go straight to my inventory. Before long, their purpose is made clear. With enough components gathered, I craft a health kit, and feel better than ever that I'm equipped to survive this journey. The comforting presence of my companions is no small blessing. Tess and Ellie react to my actions – the rooms I explore, the things I look at – with unnerving realism. This experience has already transcended gaming, but is beginning to bridge the gap with reality.
Then, I see them.
Two Infected, unaware of my presence, wait on the floor below me. Tess and I stare through gaps in a ruined wall and survey the situation. I'm too nervous to plan any approach, so when Tess urges me to drop down and secure our way forward, I'm astonished to see my fingers (and Joel's legs) obeying. With no staircase to speak of, a long drop secures my fate – there's no turning back, and I crouch to begin closing the distance. Holding R2 allows Joel to focus his hearing and attention for signs of Infected; I make use of this feature, and faint outlines of two Infected appear through the wall that divides us. One has its back to me; the other will be too far, I hope, to notice us. I creep out from behind the half-wall and I'm terrified to see a third, yet-unnoticed Infected. My first encounter, this one's only a stone's throw away. My heart is racing, and thumps louder with every creep forward. Closer. Closer. Still closer. I grab the grotesque being from behind and strangle it into submission, praying with every second that it doesn't escape my clutches.
I notice how tightly I'm gripping my controller. My knuckles are a white vice, and I let loose a breath I've been holding for almost a minute.
With renewed vigor, I push on to the next baddie. He's facing away from me like the last, and a strangle from behind works wonders twice. I'm starting to feel a rhythm. By ... (continued on next page) ----