The Last of Us Preview
You can imagine that the offices at Naughty Dog at this point in time must resemble something like Santa’s workshop on Christmas Eve as the developers frantically try to make sure that everything is perfect due to the high level of anticipation and expectation for The Last of Us. With a month to go before they release their non-Nathan Drake adventure into the wild they have been kind enough to send us some preview code showing us what to expect.
The preview we got our hands on came in two very distinct parts with each of the two locations helping to demonstrate differing elements of the game to come, those of exploration and combat. First up is the town of Lincoln, a classic all american town that has succumbed to the ravages of mother nature as overgrown fauna pervades the once pristine man-made structures. Ellie and Joel are here to find a person from Joel’s past but to do so they must navigate their way into and then through the town. Immediately you will sense a great weight to the characters, Joel feels firmly rooted to the world and moves through it with noticeably less flexibility than messr Drake. Even at a sprint Joel feels weighty, but not cumbersome, and he feels a real part of this world. Accompanying him is Ellie, slight in frame but very capable, who wanders around this forestscape in wonderment as she has never known this type of environment. She follows closely behind you but a quick glance behind you will see her investigating what she can as she makes her way towards the town and even in this short playthrough she has been given a great sense of a child who has had to grow up quickly. It is not clear from the code supplied if we will get the chance to play as Ellie but it would be an interesting approach from Naughty Dog and could be the first time they have attempted a multi-perspective narrative.
This is very much a Naughty Dog world, linear but with a sense of freedom, and while it is not as obviously linear as Uncharted 3 from this preview it seems you would be mistaken to believe you are about to receive a wide open world to explore. There is an eerie quietness pervading this section of the demo, the music is scant and leaves you with a real atmosphere of tension and isolation, a trick that is not easy to pull off but managed here with aplomb. As you wander around the urban greenscape the emptiness of the audio landscape will give you the urge to shout just to hear your echo amidst the desolation. This lack of noise is genuinely unsettling and before you realise it you are crouching and walking quietly in some state of fear of upsetting something unseen, with every corner you turn feeling like a legitimate threat. The path you must travel has you enter a building from which you can hear something dwelling inside and if being out in the open gives the feeling of being uncomfortable then the second you step inside a building knowing ‘something’ is in there you will feel truly terrified. Ellie voices her concerns about this idea and you can’t help but agree with her but to progress you have to put yourself at risk.
If the exteriors are full of lush fauna then the interiors of The Last of Us are full of beautiful entropy; wallpaper coming off walls, broken stairs, belongings strewn across the rooms as if the occupants fled with no time to prepare. However this building is not empty and for the first time I come face to face with someone in the first stage of infection which basically has them in a rage and intent on hurtling themselves at you at breakneck speed. With little time to react you realise that guns can be of little use in this type of situation, reasonably inaccurate, loud and with substantial reload times. What is best in this situation is brute force, get up close and personal and bludgeon the infected until they don’t get up, although this is not an advisable tactic against multiple infected in restricted areas as you will be swarmed.
While the Uncharted series has its fair share of violence it always felt like swashbuckling violence, cartoonish and over the top, but that is not the case here. As the infected rushes me I pull out my melee weapon, a crudely constructed weapon made of a steel pipe with a makeshift shiv taped to the top. These weapons are constructed by collecting materials littered throughout the world so prepare to be checking every drawer and locker that you can find and then experimenting with various combinations. The melee weapons also degrade over time so you will need to weigh up what weapons you use and when you use them. As the weapon plunges straight into the infected you can feel the brute force, you feel that Joel is throwing his entire weight into the attack as if it may be his last chance. If only in delivery alone it is a world away from Uncharted’s melee combat. As you finally beat the infected to the floor Ellie expresses her shock at the violence and it pretty much echoed my feeling at the time, Naughty Dog have really captured the idea of the fight for survival in that when called for it you will have to be uncompromising to stay alive.
One worry that emerges in the first part of the preview build comes in a section, and I’ll keep details vague, where you have to protect Ellie. As she comes under attack a circular gauge appears above her and if it reaches a full circle then it is game over for Ellie and also Joel. There is a concern that The Last of Us could have that feeling of a long escort mission, at this point however it’s hard to tell how much of this will be in the final game. It is a concern that was also levelled at Bioshock: Infinite but as we know the character of Elizabeth never felt like a chore and could look after herself. We hope that it is more of the same when it comes to Ellie, she is a feisty and very likable character and it would be a shame for her to become a nuisance.
The second part of the preview is based in Pittsburgh and sees Joel and Ellie trying to keep moving but while driving along a highway they are forced to cut into the city due to abandoned cars blocking the way. As they drive through the streets a wounded man wanders out in front of them asking for help, Joel immediately pegs this as a ruse and floors it. The wounded man pulls a gun and his, unseen until now, partners emerge with weapons and vehicles that eventually force Joel and Ellie off the road and into a shop window. This section brilliantly demonstrates the utter urgency in the combat in The Last of Us as the would be hijackers start to rush towards the crash scene.
With the hunters now within the shop examining the crash scene you are faced with how to deal with this situation; all guns blazing, stealth or try and escape. What emerges in this scene is that you probably have more to fear from humans than the infected as they are calculating, organised and as desperate as you are to survive. Joel is dragged from the car by the first hunter, and Ellie by another, and he is then thrown into a glass pane with the attacker then trying to force Joel’s face onto a vertical shard of glass. Unfortunately this struggle is managed by an uninspiring QTE and a mashing of the Square button sees Joel reverse the attack and slam the attacker’s throat against the glass. As the attacker lies grasping at his throat and gargling his last breath Joel rushes to Ellie’s aid and slams the raider’s face, teeth first, into the corner of a shop counter. It is an utterly brutal moment with nothing left to the imagination but this violence is not dwelt on and one could say that is because it is necessary to the character’s survival and they have to move on.
Taking control there emerges a real sense of panic, confined to a small area with hostiles coming your way and with Ellie to protect there is a lot to decide in ever-decreasing windows of decision making time. Crouching low behind a shop counter to hide Ellie tucks herself in between Joel and the counter, his arm overreaching her out of protection. It is a lovely and simple animation flourish but it serves to show the relationship between Joel and Ellie, this is Naughty Dog at their subtle best. As the first hostile enters the shop Joel fires off a round, aiming is unsteady and the gun inaccurate. This gives the intended target the opportunity to fire back, he doesn’t miss and the bullet sends Joel staggering backwards and nearly ending up on his back, it’s a very real and brilliant touch. Staggering back to his feet Joel throws a brick at the raider which lands with a sickening thud to his head and down but not out Joel pummels him off this mortal coil. It’s obvious that a straight up fight with his compatriots will not end well so it is time to change tack and move to a stealthy approach. Much like their other output there is nothing revolutionary in this sequence as at a basic level you crouch, you sneak and you knock people out while sometimes throwing bricks or bottles to distract your pursuers. But it is the atmosphere that the development team have built that turns that simple combination into something special and every footstep is fraught with tension as you know that one wrong move and Joel and Ellie are in for an unpleasant end.
So will The Last of Us be a defining moment for Naughty Dog? Will this be the story that shows that they are much more than that studio that make Uncharted? It certainly looks promising, they have everything in place for something special. There are the minor gripes that could emerge such as the linearity, the QTEs and will trying to keep Ellie alive become frustrating? These are problems that will have been well in the minds of the developers and if experience tells us anything then it is that they will have accounted for nearly everything. There is a lot to be excited about based on this preview, but it would be a wise move to manage expectations. The Last of Us drips with atmosphere, is infused with striking brutality and tinted with that Naughty Dog storytelling magic. If it fully delivers on its potential it is not unthinkable that The Last of Us could have us asking ‘Nathan who’?.