The Last of Us Hands-on (PS3)

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As far as I’m concerned, game developer Naughty Dog is a master of its craft. In the space of 20 years, and having gone from creating classic cartoon-like adventures in Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, to crafting realistic journeys through lush and exotic locations around the world in Uncharted, Naughty Dog’s focus seems to always be on bringing iconic new characters and highly memorable experiences to its fans. Despite the high bar it sets for itself, the team seems to thrive on the pressure to create new experiences and unbelievable moments for gamers.

The studio’s latest game, The Last of Us, sees Naughty Dog delving even deeper into the realm of realism, exploring more sombre and serious themes than any of its previous games while dialling back on a lot of the bombast and flair that characterises the work that the team is known for, resulting in a much more deliberately paced adventure than before with incredible new characters and recognisable, intense set-piece moments.

Is this new direction for Naughty Dog one that its fans will enjoy, or will we soon be yearning for snappy quips from Nathan Drake to deflate the tension?

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The mood of The Last of Us is immediately set by the surroundings you find yourself in. The world has been ravaged by a mysterious plague, infecting most of Earth’s population with a fungus-based virus that eventually takes hold of person’s nervous system, transforming victims into hideously deformed and vicious creatures. As the plague spread, society began to crumble and it’s been many years since humanity as we know it has existed.

Once great cities have long since fallen into ruin as buildings crumbled, pavements and streets were split by giant fissures and highways fell into collapsed heaps of rubble. As the years have gone by, nature has reintroduced itself to this world once dominated by bricks and tar and concrete and metal, with grasses and shrubs sprouting from cracks, flowing vines climbing up and down sheer building faces and resentful roots taking hold of the husks of cars, abandoned long ago.

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In The Last of Us, it is through this post-apocalyptic world that you must travel, and it is against these mutated creatures that you must survive. Playing as Joel while on a cross-country journey to deliver a young girl, Ellie, to safety, the preview build of the game I played saw the pair meet up with another key character, Tess, who joins Joel and Ellie while working through a network of precariously positioned and dangerously lopsided buildings, all before making their way to the ground again and hoofing it across eerily deserted streets.

Thanks to its work on the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog has been able to imbue the characters of The Last of Us with deceptively believable personalities. The voice actors’ speech is so natural and effortless that it puts other games’ exaggerated, over-the-top voice acting into stark relief. Every word is measured and every sentence is economical, spoken in the moment, while taking into account the virtual actors’ actions at the time, be it moving a heavy object, vaulting over a wall or catching their breath after an intense moment.

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To progress in the game, The Last of Us employs some simple environment puzzles and requires you to actively search for ways forward, even if it means using a flashlight to scan the murky darkness or wade through waist-deep water to find a hole to crawl through. Moving objects to create paths over walls or removing obstacles for Ellie and Tess to continue also seems to be an important part of Joel’s job.

Scouting ahead in times of danger is also solidly in Joel’s purview, and there are no times more dangerous than when a Clicker is nearby. These creatures’ eyes have been covered and removed by rampant fungus growth, leaving them to rely on the sounds around them to navigate their way around the world, to become aware of danger… and to find prey. Similar to a bat, a Clicker will use ultrasonic sound techniques to create a map of its environments – every ‘click’ sound it makes is pinging its surroundings for information.

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In my first encounter with a Clicker, Tess advised that we stay out of range and try to distract the creature by throwing bottles out of our path, effectively luring it away from the group. Although it’s possible to sneak up on a Clicker from behind and perform a stealth kill (either strangling it or slicing the monstrosity with a blade), one false step and it’ll be on you, tearing into your flesh and gnawing at your skin before ripping a bloody string of sinew from your neck. A quick cut to black and a checkpoint reload was enough for me to learn my lesson – don’t push your luck with a Clicker.

Runners, on the other hand, are extremely fast enemies who haven’t yet fully succumbed to the plague, but have already had their brains affected by the fungus leaving them dense and deadly if provoked. They can still see, so getting the drop on a Runner before they band together and hurtle towards you in a group is important else you’ll be overwhelmed in split-seconds. Stealth kills are best to use on runners if you find them on their own, but if worse comes to worst, you’ll need to break free from the herd and make your escape.

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The Last of Us at least gives us a slight advantage when trying to sneak up on enemies with ‘Listen Mode,’ which at the press of a button identifies the locations of nearby enemies with a silhouette visible through walls. From what I’ve seen, enemy encounters are set up as combat puzzles for you to solve which means you need to rely heavily on whatever advantages you have at your disposal. Sizing up an area and identifying where your enemies are located (and where they move, which can be random) is key to planning a way forward.

Joel will eventually pick up a range of weaponry, too, with a variety of pistols and a shotgun being added to my arsenal in the preview, but because ammunition is very scarce you’ll need to fall back on melee attacks as a brutal last line of defence either by throwing punches, or gripping a brick or bottle in hand and crashing the item into an enemy’s skull. Make no mistake, The Last of Us depicts a very desperate struggle for survival against ferocious creatures, and in order to stay alive Joel will use every dirty fighting trick in the book.

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Joel’s (and therefore Ellie’s) survival is also dependant on his ability to craft items like medical kits, shivs and batteries for the flashlight using everyday items found around the world. Molotov cocktails can also be crafted, while spiky upgrades to longer range melee weapons, like a bat, are on the cards, too.

You’ll need to wait for a quiet moment to create these items or patch yourself up with a medical kit, because unless you enter the game’s menu, there’s no pausing the action of The Last of Us. If you choose to enter the lengthy bandaging animation while Clickers and Runners are near, you’ll be dead soon enough.

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One might be tempted into labelling The Last of Us a survival horror game, and while standard tropes synonymous with this genre are definitely present, including scarcity of resources, sparse enemy encounters and foreboding environments, this description doesn’t quite ring true for me. I never felt completely at the whim of the world and the mood is lightened by the presence of other characters, even if they are controlled by artificial intelligence. I would say The Last of Us is something new – an amalgam of classic survival horror and the action adventure games that Naughty Dog knows so well.

That doesn’t mean The Last of Us is a walk in the park, psychologically speaking. In addition to the violent melee attacks and scuffles which can see Joel repeatedly beating an enemy’s head against a wall, the sound work in the game is terrific and terrifying, reminding me of Condemned with its muffled and bassy footsteps ahead of you, above you and all around. The screams, groans and grunts of creatures lurching towards you is also horrifying and even after beaming a Runner in the head with a thrown bottle to disarm it, it’s an unsettling proposition to follow that up with a flurry of fists as it snarls at you.

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If you’re looking forward to the next globe-hopping and light-hearted Uncharted adventure from Naughty Dog, then you won’t find it in The Last of Us. The developer’s next title is an intimate, intense action adventure game set against the sombre backdrop of a post-apocalyptic world dotted with survivors desperately struggling to make it from day to day, while contending with rapidly dwindling resources, inhuman creatures, bandit raids and a militarised government.

At the heart of the story, however, is Joel and his relationship with Ellie as they make their way across the United States to a promised safe haven. The world and themes of The Last of Us may be incredibly harsh and difficult to witness, but Joel and Ellie’s journey will be fascinating to watch, supported by best-in-class writing and voice acting, as well as set-piece action moments that only Naughty Dog can deliver. I can’t wait to see the adventure unfold.

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The Last of Us is out on June 14th, exclusive to PlayStation 3, with a demo going out to owners of God of War: Ascension on May 31st.

Don’t miss El33tonline’s extensive previous coverage of The Last of Us for many more screenshots, trailers and details, and be sure to read Lisa’s excellent series of features, too:

Gamescom 2012: A behind-the-scenes look at The Last of Us – Part One

Gamescom 2012: A behind-the-scenes look at The Last of Us – Part Two

Also don’t miss Lisa’s write up on the role of female characters in games, asking why women aren’t seen as suitable for lead roles.