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 this time, the third Infected has moved quite some distance away. I stay crouched, closing the distance inch by inch. All three foes have been Runners, an early stage of Infected that is partially blind and will move to strike you with ferocity and reckless abandon. As I sneak up behind my third foe, pausing hesitantly every time he turns, I hear a shrill shriek to my right that signals my doom. A Clicker has spotted me, and I’m dead before I remember how to sprint.

I approach the room a second time, determined to focus my attention on the fully blind, echo-locating Clicker as soon as time allows. I’m stunned to see that only one Infected – the first – is in the same position. As I inch closer to the point where I died, I spot all three remaining Infected in the next room. This time, I pull my pistol – bullets are valuable, but I’ve got this Clicker’s number. I carefully line up a shot to the head – and I miss. The loss of a single bullet has me in a frenzy. I feel stupid, worthless, unfit for survival in this world. I summon the confidence to sprint forward, to a ledge that will take me where the Infected can’t reach me. I’m wrong to underestimate them: the Clicker climbs after me, and I swing a wooden plank wildly. Holstering my gun was a mistake. I watch in vain as the Clicker grabs Joel’s shoulders and violently sinks its teeth into his neck – my neck.

My third attempt through this section of the demo is a success, but I’ve learned my lesson. The Infected in The Last of Us are an aggressive breed of absolutely frightening creatures that, perhaps worst of all, behave unpredictably. Stealth and combat in Naughty Dog’s latest is a highly organic affair, and every victory over the Infected – even a single mutant – feels like a product of intelligence, resourcefulness, and luck. Suspenseful and absolutely frightening, The Last of Us is survival horror that once was, and, somehow, survival horror that has yet to be. Moments of respite are a welcome relief and a treasure to cherish, and in these lulls, I mourn the loss of every bullet.

That last point is important, for it was with a spent bullet that the demo’s most powerful moment hit home with me. A large, pitch-black room houses god-knows-what. I’ve got a wooden plank with scissors jammed through the tip, a molotov cocktail, an empty pistol, and a shotgun with three shells. I resolve not to use the shotgun unless my life depends on it, but what begins as one lone Clicker becomes a charge of four that pin Ellie, Tess, and I at the end of a narrow hall. It’s a free-for-all. I seize one Clicker’s occupation with Tess to bash its skull until it falls. Ellie’s screams echo in my ear: “JOEL! BEHIND YOU!” I wheel around in time to fire off a shotgun round into an oncoming Runner. Two more Infected turn the corner. Without thinking, I fire off another round. Only one Runner remains. My wits are about me, and I whip out my molotov cocktail before the near-human terror can pinpoint our location. The flaming bottle sails just past the Runner’s feet. Desperation kicks in, and I turn to run with Tess and Ellie in tow.

The light of day gleams down from above. A ladder – our only chance of escape. I don’t dare to turn and look for my companions; self-preservation is my only concern. I reach the ladder and bound upward. I’m out, but my friends are not. I turn to see Tess and Ellie directly below me. Tess fires a round at the pursuing Runner, but I suspect it’s her last. The Infected is only a few feet from tearing into Ellie’s flesh. Without a second thought, without knowing the in-game consequence of ally death, I fire my last shotgun round into the oncoming Runner. He’s down. I’ve saved Ellie’s life.

In my hands-on time with The Last of Us, a game that has challenged me like no other before it, that single shotgun round was the most valuable thing I scavenged. In a moment’s notice, I threw it away to save the life of a 14-year-old girl who isn’t real. Let me remind you: I played this game for 20 minutes, with absolutely no pre-established context for emotional ties to either companion. In 20 minutes, The Last of Us sold me on this world and these characters – so much so that I couldn’t distinguish their relationships from my emotions. Reality and game were, for one brief instant, one and the same.

As I walked away from my demo minutes later, I’d never been so excited about the state of gaming.

If my hands-on impressions have you eager to hear more, stay tuned to for more on The Last of Us – including interviews, gameplay details, and more – throughout the week. If you’re a PS3 owner, you have every reason in the world to be very, very excited.