Developers: Naughty Dog
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
At a time when survival horror seems to be a dirty phrase amongst mainstream triple-A development circles, it might seem odd that a critically acclaimed studio are eschewing the Indiana Jones-esque action-adventuring that placed them in the highest circles of elite games creation for something with more scares and less ammo. But this is Naughty Dog, after all; one of the hardest working outfits in the industry, and no-one could exactly accuse them of resting on their laurels.
When The Last of Us was unveiled back at E3 last year, it was the snapshots of sudden, brutal violence in a crumbling post-apocalyptic world that caught the eyes of an anticipatory public, and made the headlines. We were presented with the brief skeleton of a story that features the gruff, bearded Joel escorting a 14-year old fellow survivor named Ellie to some kind of safety. But it wasn't long before the cynical whispers began: what if it's 'just' Uncharted with mutant zombies? Will the shooting mechanics still be fairly mediocre? How many QTE button presses will it take to fend off these monster? Is that Ellen Page?
Having jumped into a fairly scripted (this is a Naughty Dog game) demo and gotten some hands-on time with The Last of Us, it's clear that certain things haven't changed from one franchise to the next. Joel moves and handles in much the same way that Nathan Drake did in his later appearances. Smooth traversal over objects comes at the push of a button, and the loose third-person perspective is instantly familiar.
However, the game's atmosphere is strikingly different. The breezy liveliness of Uncharted is replaced with a vacuum of humanity. Our demo begins on the outskirts of Boston, one of the few remaining quarantine zones attempting to hold back the hideous infection that has ravaged mankind. Dilapidated high rises and crumbling skyscrapers claw at the dark cloudy skies, and the streets are a mess of debris, rubble, and the wasted remains of civilisation.
Our demo sees Joel, accompanied by his partner Tess ('what happens to her?' we wonder) and an Ellie who's rather new to the group, and experiencing the death and destruction of this fresh dystopia for the first time. We sneak in and out of ruined office complexes, shifting weighty, rusting photocopiers around, and scavenging anything that we can find.
The Last of Us is littered with glimmering items of interest, from foodstuffs that can be used immediately for a quick health boost, to useful supplies such as blades, water, bandages, and tape. Combining raw items together, once you reach a certain number, can create useful tools such as batteries to power your torch, or shivs for stealthy kills. Early on, we locate a hefty piece of two-by-four, and then jab a load of scissor ends in it to form a nasty-looking spiked club. There are firearms in the game, but ammo is scarce, and headshots don't work quite as efficiently as you might expect. Furthermore, and this is a problem I had with Uncharted series too, they don't feel particularly weighty, nor impactful. But where I saw that as a negative in Nathan Drake's hands, here it underlines the focus of this game, and presents a key message: guns won't save you.
There are two main enemies that we encounter in our demo - both of them examples of human bodies in the various stages of being taken over by a debilitating, hideous fungal infection. The Runners are speedy, gnashing zombies of sorts; they still retain a human appearance, and are relatively easy to silence, but they hunt in packs and can overwhelm you in numbers.
In a section where we leave Tess and Ellie to scout and clear the route ahead, we find ourselves on a floor with four or five Runners. The first is brought down by creeping up behind it, and brutally introducing a shiv to its neck. Holding the R2 button causes Joel to pause and listen carefully, bathing the screen in monochrome, and silhouetting nearby enemies. The area of effect is compromised, however, and we make the mistake of thinking that there's just two around the next corner. A revolver comes out and we line up a headshot. It doesn't put the creature down, and both of them advance on us. Two more come out of a side room, slavering in desperation. We run. An ascent to what remains of a neighbouring floor gives us a moment to pause, but those things can climb. Two more are down, but the revolver is empty and two creatures remain. Thankfully, we still have that spiked monstrosity. The first Runner goes down with a sickening crack, and the DualShock squirms in my hands. The other takes a few beatings before finally succumbing, and the wood smashes over its head with the last blow. The powerful bass rumble that has dictated my heartbeat for the past minutes subsides.
"You're the first person this week to get through that bit without dying," the Sony rep tells me. I'm too busy trying to stave off a heart attack to revel in pride at this point.
Of course, any glow of satisfaction is thoroughly extinguished in the next section, where we meet another horde of Runners, and a couple of mean-spirited Clickers. These creatures, as you may have seen in the recent 'Hush' video, are so far gone in mutation that their faces have been totally replaced by fungal abscesses. They can't see, so they track prey through echoes of the clicking sounds that they make, allowing for some stealthy sneaking.
A large office, filled with cubicles and desks provides the freedom for different tactical approaches, but there's a Clicker directly ahead of us, and we'll need to deal with that first. Unfortunately, this is the moment that we find out your partner AI can sometimes ruin a perfectly good stealth kill. Tess has been a pretty solid companion up to this point, but every time I sidle up to the Click to silently put it out of its misery, she panics and shoots it in the head, thereby attracting the attention of everything else on that floor. And when Clickers catch you, there's no QTE...they just rip out Joel's neck and you have to start again.
I ask if there's any way I can instruct Tess to stay put. The rep shakes her head. In the end, I use a series of bottles to create diversions, and sneak past everyone (well...I do manage to shiv one Clicker en route) to the escape ladder on the other side of the room.
And this is what I mean by "fairly scripted". It's clear, even from this small snippet, that Naughty Dog's focus on narrative and character is still intact, but now it's complimented by pockets of relatively open-ended gameplay that give the player some responsibility when it comes to working out the best course of action. In doing so, hopefully we can finally become active parts of the story, in a way we never really were when controlling Mr. Drake. Better yet, it might be that Naughty Dog have provided the tools for us to be able to flesh out the tale with anecdotes of our own.