The Last of Us: hands-on preview

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It may be a third person action game with melee combat, cover and guns, but Naughty Dog has ensured that The Last of Us is no lazily-filled Uncharted template. In fact, if Drake’s adventures are a mixture of Tomb Raider and a Donald P. Bellisario reimagining of Indiana Jones, then The Last of Us is a mixture of The Walking Dead and… more of The Walking Dead.

Robert Kirkman’s runaway success – or more specifically, the TV adaptation of his work – has clearly had a huge, undeniable influence on development. Though the preview code only gives a sliver of the game, it’s hard to imagine the omnipresent sense of untroubled nature and eerily abandoned Americana being dropped for the rest of the experience (not to mention the fact that the diseased are, to all intents and purposes, zombies). Then you also have suspicion of strangers being essential to survival, the need to scrabble around in abandoned buildings for supplies… but I’ll go into detail soon enough.

The Lincoln section of the demo opens in some woodland, and Joel and Ellie talk as they make their way through. It quickly becomes apparent that Ellie, with her enthusiasm and innocence, is meant as a narrative counterweight to Joel with his gruffness, pessimism, and Hero Beard. Although there was no real explanation of exactly how or why these two came to be together at this point, it speaks volumes for the writing and acting both that, even out of context, there’s a real sense of the two sharing a very recent yet important set of experiences.

“Give just £2 a month to provide American children with the unshaven heroes they need to fight off murderous mutants.”

This section also features the back-of-the-box feature of… planks of wood. They’re very big planks of wood though; long enough to bridge gaps between roofs, and awkward enough to elicit the occasional grunt from Joel to let you know that they’re heavy – but it’s not a problem because he’s a real man. The game was now and again fussy on exactly where you had to stand to lean the wood against a wall (so you can lift it up from a higher point) but nonetheless, this fitted in nicely with the initially quiet part of play.

Already armed with a few guns and a melee weapon in the preview, a few options were open to me when I encountered my first enemy. Said enemy was a more powerful type of infected, alone, with a crusty head that looked like the poor chap had a cold sore that got completely out of control. He hadn’t noticed me yet; I drew my pistol, and let off a few headshots.

He ran straight to me and killed me dead.

Next time, I went for the shotgun; I was dead before I managed a second shot.

Third time was indeed the charm, as I allowed him to rush me and made short work of him with my upgraded melee weapon. This surprised me, but it wasn’t an unpleasant surprise. This hints at a game where you’ll be grabbing seemingly random bits and pieces from the environment not only because it’s what the industry has taught you to do, but because the items and upgrades you craft really make a difference. There’s very little combat in the demo however, and I always had more ammo and/or weapons than I needed. How this pans out in the finished product remains to be seen.

“When I say ‘Look at that beautiful squirrel in the tree up there’, YOU DO IT! Now look.”

On my second run through, I decided to bypass this enemy entirely, and here’s where Naughty Dog take an important step away from Uncharted. Though this game is necessarily linear to keep a tight rein on the story, there’s reason to believe that it won’t be stiflingly so (as Uncharted 3 was). There are buildings and corners that hide ammo and crafting scraps, but they can be ignored – you can choose to carry only what you absolutely need, and also to forego the unique snatches of dialogue that these areas trigger. In fact, though I decided to ignore much of what I explored the first time round, I also stumbled upon a garden full of gnomes (causing Ellie to vocalise another unprompted memory) and a door I could jimmy open with a shiv that I’d crafted; both of which I’d missed in my first playthrough. It seems that there’s a lot the game doesn’t force you to see, and that’s brilliant.

The Pittsburgh section was very brief, and seems to have been included only to emphasise the fact that you’ll also have to fight ‘normal’ humans, and that this combat will be very different to fighting off unthinking zombies. Again, this is no Uncharted clone. Not only is there no snap-to cover, but you can carry more than two weapons. Most ammo was limited however and that, combined with painfully (and intentionally) slow reloading times, meant that accuracy was vital. I also paid the price for complacency regarding the AI, as I was taken by surprise when an armed enemy flanked me while I was busy keeping his friends across the road at bay.

Not all situations allow you to be stealthy…

Loading screens and on-screen hints encourage you to consider stealth for certain situations, but that wasn’t much of an option in the demo. Enemies usually made an appearance via set-pieces, where they were immediately aware of the player and on the attack. In addition, the crusty-headed zombie needs to be used carefully. Not only is it tougher than the others, it kills you instantly if you let it get too close. There’s nothing wrong with teaching the player to be cautious and to aim carefully; but there’s a fine line between education and frustration.

The Last of Us is a very pretty game crammed full of potential. In the demo at least the atmosphere is immediate and gripping; your AI partner never gets in the way, and never annoys; and combat strikes a neat balance between tight and pressurised. If done right, this could be something very special indeed.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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