We hope that you cope well in a crisis, because you’re going to need nerves of steel in order to navigate The Last of Us’ nightmarish vision of the future. A near-final build of the hotly anticipated PlayStation 3 exclusive demonstrates just how developer Naughty Dog intends to masterfully turn up the tension, as a slow jaunt through the scenic outskirts of a neglected Lincoln, Nebraska eventually make way for a desperate chase through the lethal location’s urban centre. One moment we’re doting over a rack of old vinyls in a quaint record store, the next we’re hanging upside-down pointing our last bullet at a blistered corpse. There’s uncertainty lurking around every corner, and you’re going to have to deal with the pressures that each crossroads brings.
Your burden certainly won’t be eased by the fact that you’ll be constantly conscious of the safety of your accomplice. There’s a sense of ambivalence to the drawn-out drawl of weary protagonist Joel, but in Ellie – a fresh-faced tween with a fiery temperament – it’s clear that the character has happened upon just enough motivation to continue trudging through the infected world which both personalities inhabit. And while the youngster successfully eschews the escort horror stories of yesteryear from a mechanical stance, your mind will never stray far from the vulnerability that her feeble frame and adolescent personality portrays. It’s a balance that the Californian developer has clearly spent hours crafting.
And yet, the attention to detail is not just evident in the touching relationship between the two lead characters, but every element of the experience itself. A slow shuffle through a rural area hints at just how much care and attention the studio’s invested into every moment, with busy woodland creatures filling every frame with animation, and Ellie’s reactions to the foreign animals – the kind of which she’s never seen before after a lifetime in quarantine – bringing a semblance of believability to the fictional proceedings that few other games attain. The presentation is stunning, with intense lighting effects and impressive shadows elevating the fidelity a notch beyond even the most accomplished visual feasts on the PS3.
For the next iteration of the incredible Uncharted engine, though, such qualities are to be expected. It’s the gameplay, then, that’s perhaps most surprising. The early moments of our hands-on consist of the same sort of simplistic puzzle solving and cinematic-laden scrambling that Nathan Drake’s perfected over recent years, but it quickly becomes clear that there’s a lot more density to Joel’s endeavour. Items can be salvaged from around the world and combined to create makeshift utensils, all of which are underlined by an ingenious risk/reward mechanic that’s designed to really amplify your decisions. You can, for example, choose to combine bandages, bottles, and alcohols to construct crude Molotov cocktails. Or you can use similar materials to concoct a lifesaving medical pack. Ultimately, it’s down to you to decide what you do with your plunder.
You’ll need to think fast on occasion, however, as the action never pauses while you’re rooting through your gear. Such a simple mechanic really highlights the necessity of forethought and careful preparation. We spent a lot of time in the sanctuary of safe surroundings reloading our weapons and checking the order of our equipment, ensuring that we were adequately equipped for any possible encounter. The game makes this simple resource management system cumbersome enough to be a hinder in a fight, without ever being obnoxious or frustrating. You can craft an item in an instant, for example, but it’s going to feel like a lifetime when a horde of infected foes are descending on your position.
The combat itself is not merely a repurposing of Uncharted’s divisive third-person action either. With bullets in short supply, there’s a huge emphasis on melee conflicts. This has been evolved since Nathan Drake’s last adventure, with context sensitive animations baked into every environment. Joel will smash faces into shattered glass, kick enemies in the back of their knees, and utterly eviscerate the undead with sharpened baseball bats and lead pipes. You’ll feel the impact of every swing, and Naughty Dog’s done an impressive job of conveying aggression in every attack. However, it’s not necessarily the contaminated that represent the highlight of our hands-on.
At one point, we’re carted off to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where we’re promptly ambushed by a team of survivors. These are not victims of the plague that has decimated the world, but are humans much like Joel and Ellie. The abolition of society has sent these people mad, and we’re instantly backed into a corner against unthinkable odds. It’s from here that the game opens up into a mini-sandbox, and merely leaves you with the tools to dispose of these foes as you see fit. You can use bricks and bottles to draw attention, as you slope around the outside of an old grocery store and unload the contents of your hunting rifle into the heads of your rivals. Alternatively, you can face them head on with your handgun bullets, or burn them alive with a fiery Molotov cocktail – a strategy that prompts Ellie to cringe despite the desperate circumstances.
The action feels raw and ruthless. Unlike in the Uncharted games, you really get the sense that you’re being backed into a corner, and being forced to improvise on the spot. Every misstep will be reflected in the game, as Joel wears the consequences of a punch to the face or a shot to the shoulder. The only real disappointment is that enemies still fail to fall in a realistic manner, with foes shaking off two shots to the chest like it came from a paintball pistol rather than a magnum. Given the desire for authenticity that encompasses every other element of the survival experience, it’s odd that the developer hasn’t opted to fix this design relic from its previous PS3 games, and it feels out of place in the ruthless world that the brutal adventure occupies. Sure, with the limited ammunition on offer, it lessens the emphasis on gunplay, but a single bullet should still critically wound any non-infected enemy that it comes into contact with.
It’s a minor niggle in an experience that’s already promising so much, though. While it’s the cinematics that will undeniably turn heads – and rightly so, it’s immediately evident that actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson have poured their hearts and souls into stars Joel and Ellie – we came away from our excruciatingly short hands-on surprised by just how much density there is to the impending title’s gameplay. Work benches allow you to upgrade the potency of your weapons in exchange for cogs and gears, while pills can be invested into new skills such as steadier aim and enhanced health. It’s nothing necessarily new to the genre – in fact, many of the ideas feel reminiscent of Eden Games’ ambitious but flawed PS3 reboot Alone in the Dark: Inferno – but everything feels polished to perfection here.
Whether the game will be able to maintain that level of attention to detail throughout its entire running time remains to be seen, but considering the portfolio of the studio at the helm, we’d bet that the odds are favourable. It’s too early to say what kind of impact The Last of Us will have on the industry, but we’re increasingly eager to find out. More than that, though, we want to know where this tale between two completely incompatible personalities leads. And honestly, judging by the short slice that we’ve been lucky enough to sample, you’re definitely going to want to join us for the journey.
Are you looking forward to The Last of Us? What’s got you most excited about the impending PS3 exclusive? Let us know in the comments section below.