Developers: Naughty Dog
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
Lincoln unfolds before us, a lush, verdant landscape of dilapidated, crumbling buildings succumbing to nature's throttling embrace. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Ellie, commenting on a little patch of woodland. Her relatively cloistered life up to this point, not to mention her age (she's fourteen), has given her a certain childlike wonder when it comes to the calm, still surroundings. Little creatures dash about here and there, somehow having escaped the clutches of the virulent fungal infection that has starved the city of humanity.
Whereas the demo we played previously was a very tense, rather linear affair, with a number of claustrophobic, interior sections, this new build manages to evoke a sense of openness, particularly when we manage to overcome our first obstacle: a chain-link fence.
Where Nathan Drake would have leapt over the thing, probably slipping halfway for a quick QTE, The Last of Us' Joel simply picks up a plank nearby and uses it to bridge a gap between buildings. It's a simple, effective solution to a pleasantly organic puzzle of sorts that subtly highlights the fact that this game is all about the simple things: scavenge what you can, make use of the environment. There were no heroic acrobatics to be had here, but there's a pleasant solidity to everything, Joel seems to handle a little heavier than Nate, and that physicality will become impactful in time.
It's tempting to rush off and explore the deserted streets of Lincoln once safely over the fence. However, as we drop down a ledge on our way to check out a nearby building, Ellie lets out a sharp whisper and we turn to see her crouched low, scurrying away for cover. The reason for her behaviour soon becomes readily apparent as a Clicker comes shambling out of an outhouse. We've got a 9mm pistol with a handful of bullets, and a wooden pole with scissors taped to one end, but the noise from the gun would attract more and the battering pole won't help us against the instakill mandibles of the Clicker.
Don't piss off a Clicker. We learn that the hard way.
Shooting it in the head with an arrow won't get it down, and you'll waste precious time and ammunition trying to down it with a gun, and don't even think about trying to stab/bash/smack/choke one. Burying a shiv in one's neck will do the job, but if you don't alert a Clicker to your presence, you can slip on by with relative ease. Chucking a brick or a bottle in the opposite direction works well too.
What's nice about this whole section, nervously peeking into run-down shops and long-abandoned homes, is that you can do it at your own pace. Not knowing what could be lurking around the next corner, coupled with a rare sense of being unprepared in a video game thanks to the scarcity of crafting items and ammo, makes for an oppressive and tense atmosphere. It makes the quiet sounds of nature, normally delightful to the ears, seem rather foreboding. There are a few little vignettes of poignancy that emerge from the gloom too should you trigger certain conversations. We end up ransacking a record store still stuffed with LPs and Ellie laments that there are all these records and not a soul to listen to them.
Our objective in the area is to locate Bill, an acquaintance of Joel's who's gone and rigged up a whole bunch of traps to fend off the infected, in the hopes that he might have a car. A spot of ducking under tripwires, and triggering explosives with a well aimed brick or two leads us to a warehouse and the pace changes in a heartbeat with a brief cutscene. Joel is swept off his feet and launched skywards as we trigger one of Bill traps, and the noise attracts attention. So it is that we spend a couple of minutes blasting away at oncoming foes, desperately trying to stop them getting to Ellie, who's cowering behind the husk of a car nearby. The pace lurches so suddenly that we don't really notice how we've suddenly been gifted with unlimited ammunition, there's no time to consider the rather contrived nature of this action sequence, and we end up being thankful that Clickers don't seem to be able to eat Ellie as quickly as they can snuff out Joel's life.
It's a very effective sequence indeed, and although we reflect later on upon the inconsistencies such as moment presents, a little suspension of disbelief to facilitate maximum impact is well worth it. Naughty Dog exploit the disorientation of suddenly finding yourself upside-down very well. Both hands-on experiences with The Last of Us have presented fight-or-flight as a fundamental, player-driven gameplay mechanism, but by taking away the choice every so often (and there's a sequence later that involves fleeing from a horde through the narrow streets of Lincoln that's just as frantic and heart-pounding), the developers have found a way to relinquish a bit of control overall while still providing key changes of pace.
We're whisked away to Pittsburgh for the second part of the demo, and this little pocket of gameplay could have been easily called "Violence". Ambushed by a gang of human scavengers, Joel and Ellie are forced into a combat situation. There's no sticky cover system in here, instead Naughty Dog have opted for a sort of dynamic crouch that'll allow you to pop up and bust caps with a nudge of the left trigger. Moving fluidly in and out of cover is essential. Joel can't take many shots before going down, and neither can Ellie, so surprise is your best weapon.
The melee combat is a variation on Uncharted 3's robust, timing-based system, albeit with slightly more crunch. Environmental finishers, though not quite a luridly over-the-top as in Sleeping Dogs, can be fairly wince-inducing. After dying a couple of times because we got carried away with trying to engage gunmen in hand-to-hand combat, we remembered that Joel had three shells left in his shotgun, and promptly blew the arm off of a bloke brandishing a wooden club who came charging at us.
Bricks and bottles become your best friends, as distracted foes can be swiftly silenced with stealthy takedowns. Impressively, The Last of Us' manages to keep its pace, even in stealthier moments. We didn't have time to plan and execute, instead combat is about working with what you have, and manipulating the perceptions of your would-be killers. Once you've dispatched two batches of scavengers, you're given an opportunity to explore their lair, and the things you find are relatively grisly. The demo ends as you witness man's inhumanity to his fellow man in this broken world.
It's this final note that makes us salivate for this time next month, when the game will be firmly ensconced in the PS3. The narrative components -- plot points combined with a level of player freedom Uncharted never delivered -- married with the subtle complexities of Joel and Ellie's relationship are intriguing and engrossing. Joel is so taciturn in the demo that it's difficult to get a handle on his character, but Ellie makes an instant impression. The F-bombs and the strongwilled defiance in the face of danger speak to her having had to grow up quickly, but there are a couple of touching moments that remind us of her youth and naivety. There are many questions still to be answered in terms of how the whole game will play, and how often Naughty Dog will force familiar action onto the player. It's my personal hope that we'll see more slightly open areas, giving the player a chance to wander and explore, and potentially run into dynamic trouble, but we'll have to wait for the final product. Eagerly.