From our latest hands-on with Naughty Dog’s hotly anticipated The Last of Us, it is abundantly clear that the Uncharted developer has successfully created a gripping action-adventure that is wholly distinct from the treasure-hunting, baddie-capping antics of Nathan Drake. And thank god for that, because The Last of Us is, by a country mile, shaping up to be one of the most compelling games you’ll play this year, let alone on Sony’s aging PlayStation 3.
Our latest hands-on with the game was separated into two distinct chunks: Lincoln and Pittsburgh. Fortunately, it’s clear this wasn’t an arbitrary choice on Naughty Dog’s part, as each ‘level’ offers its own distinct flavours, giving us an enjoyable--albeit brief--look at the different gameplay experiences available in The Last of Us.
To put it succinctly, Lincoln is The Last of Us in full-on exploration mode, with Joel and Ellie starting off in surrounding woodland before skulking through a creepily abandoned town. This being my first hands-on with the game (PSU's own Kyle Prahl went hands-on with The Last of Us in January, which you can read about here), I was immediately struck by the meticulous attention to detail in the visuals and animation. Joel and Ellie remind you right away this is very much a Naughty Dog game; each character boasts some characteristic behaviors, and much like Nathan Drake, they don’t sit around stiffly and lifelessly. Ellie whistles quietly and wipes the blood off her combat knife. A few feet away, Joel adjusts his backpack and tends to his aching muscles. It’s subtle, sure, but it adds to the authenticity and believability of the pair, both superbly voiced and instantly likable.
After trekking through a brief stretch of forest, the pair arrives in town, where things are deathly quiet. The atmosphere is palpable as I explore the dilapidated streets and homes; each wrecked car and ransacked home paints a grim picture of a society long since collapsed, with personal belongings strewn about the place and corpses rotting in the streets. Joel and Ellie’s journey really is a desperate fight for survival--I find myself scavenging for supplies in every nook and cranny. Ammunition is severely limited, forcing me to rely on my wits to make it past enemies. For example, I managed to distract one Infected by lobbing a brick at a nearby wall; as it darted over to investigate the noise, I snuck up behind him and delivered a one-hit kill with rusty scissors jammed through the tip of an iron pipe. Of course, this wasn't my first attempt; I had previously gone in guns blazing, which only resulted in my death. The gunshots had attracted a second Infected, which promptly latched onto Joel and tore out his throat in one swift, deadly motion.
Our previous hands-on offered an in-depth look at the Infected and proved just how deadly they are; the same is obvious from my brief encounters with them here. Still, the emphasis in Lincoln is clearly on exploration, punctuated the occasional scuffle with enemies (I'll get to the particularly thrilling climax later). The crafting system comes into the limelight here, with Joel able to cobble together various items of use--shivs, first-aid packs, Molotov cocktails, and more--by collecting and combining various materials found in the environment. It quickly became obvious to me that this system is paramount to survival, and you’ll have to think carefully about what items to make depending on how well you're faring at the time. It's all very well to make a shiv--which allows you to surreptitiously dispatch foes without fear of alerting anyone else--but if you’re low on health, you don’t want to risk death by assuming the game will chuck you a first-aid kit later down the line. Planning ahead is crucial.
A few environmental puzzles also reared their heads, although to say they weren’t too taxing would be an understatement. In fact, the majority of them involved lugging wooden planks around so Joel can place them across gaps, allowing safe traversal across small rooftops. Still, whereas many adventure games indulge in some odd tasks, The Last of Us’ puzzles feel entirely congruous with their surroundings, allowing for maximum cohesion between the plot and gameplay. Tomb Raider and Resident Evil veterans in particular will know what I mean here.
The climax of the Lincoln demo really upped the ante. Joel is caught in a trap laid by a fellow human survivor, and must be rescued by Ellie. He’s suspended upside down, and Infected are converging on their position fast. Cue some adrenaline-pumping action as you attempt to nail enemies with headshots while Ellie works to extricate our gruff hero from his compromising predicament.
While Lincoln ends on a combat high, Pittsburgh picks up right away on some frantic gun battles and doesn’t let up. Here, Joel and Ellie's truck is ambushed by a group of survivors and ends up crashing into a diner. Amidst wreckage, the two unlikely companions are forced to defend themselves. This playable taster really illustrated the intensity of The Last of Us’ combat and offered a fine showcase for the frankly brilliant AI. Yes, it was horribly short, but if Naughty Dog’s goal was to whet my appetite, mission accomplished. In terms of controls, the combat is strikingly similar to Uncharted, but that’s not a bad thing; Nathan Drake’s adventures had perfectly functional controls, and wielding Joel’s firearms and melee weapons here is a cinch. Hold L1 to aim, press R1 to shoot, and hammer Square to use melee attacks. What really struck me, however, is the aforementioned enemy AI. Your opponents really bust their balls to flush you out, and are crack shots to boot. They’ll flank you, pin you down, grapple with you, and take highly accurate shots at you, all the while keeping you on the move and staying constantly aware of your position.
Don’t think you can just sit tight and knuckle down behind a waist-high wall; Joel must take advantage of all space available and attempt to play his enemies at their own game by sneaking up on them whenever possible. I had to fight tooth-and-nail to dispatch my enemies, and I ran out of ammo fairly quickly. Your foes like to use cover just as much as you, and the window of opportunity to target and shoot them is all too brief. Despite Ellie's brave efforts to help out (she leapt onto an adversary's back to distract him), I was overwhelmed numerous times and beaten to a bloody pulp.
Speaking of Ellie, she’s definitely an asset in battle, and points out the direction foes are coming. As mentioned, she’ll also do her best to aid you when possible. If you've seen the trailers, you know that combat is brutal: blood sprays freely all over the place as your bullets tear through foes, Joel visibly recoils in pain as he’s smacked in the face with a wooden plank, and bodies crumple realistically as they're felled by wince-inducing melee attacks.
Sadly, my demo ends shortly after the last batch of baddies are dealt with, and I watch as the pair presses on. However, there’s no denying that, within these two stages, I’ve caught a glimpse of The Last of Us’ gameplay diversity, a crossroad between tense, exploratory elements and blood-pumping combat. Squeezing something negative out of the action was pretty tough, as even in its beta form, the game is already astoundingly polished. Ellie sometimes blocks Joel's path in particularly narrow spaces, and there were a few instances of visual clipping, but I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel here--the few flaws I did find were totally inconsequential.
From my time with the game, I can confidently say that Naughty Dog’s latest outing is going to be one of 2013’s standout titles. But then again, we already knew that, didn't we?
The Last of Us is due worldwide on June 14.