The Last of Us Hands-On Preview: Tension and Fear Win the Day

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I wasn’t sure what to think when I first saw trailers for The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s first non-Nathan Drake game in six years. It certainly looked like a Naughty Dog game, with the same style and graphics, but this was set in a post-apocalyptic world, one in which humans had been infected by a strange fungus, which left the victims zombified. The remaining survivors of humanity lived in terror in a wasteland. While the Uncharted games had dabbled in science fiction (remember those crazy mutants from the second game?), this was the studio’s first real deviation from reality. I was doubtful that they could pull it off, mainly because the market is so saturated with these types of games, and in the end, not many of them are that great. But from what I saw in the half hour demo at PAX East this past weekend, Naughty Dog just might succeed.

Platforms: PS3
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Naughty Dog
Genre: Hey, You Got Zombies in My Uncharted! Hey, You Got Uncharted in My Zombies!
Release Date: June 14, 2013
ESRB Rating: Mature

It was impossible not to watch the screens as we waited in line for the demo, so I had to turn my back to them. I didn’t want to see any spoilers – although I also didn’t really want to see the strange setup they had at the booth, with a dead person in a gross bathtub. Nothing like a little ambiance to prepare you for the scariest game you’ll play all weekend.

Once we strapped in, I was ready to go. The demo had us playing as Joel, with Tess and Ellie following him around. The game’s controls include separate options for your camera and your gun, so you have to switch both from – or to, if that’s your bag – inverted. I went in and switched both of them to regular, and then Joel and I started from the top.

You find out very quickly that your goal is to get to the capitol, which is signified by the same mechanic used in the Uncharted games – you get a prompt telling you what to press, and then the camera moves to look at your objective, with the same sound you hear when Drake does it. I worked my way backwards and went into the nearest building, turning my flashlight on and searching around for any items I could pick up, which were faintly lit up in the darkness.

As I made my way through the broken-down building, which was shifting underneath our feet as our weight made it even less steady, I could feel the tension ramping up. Joel, Ellie, and Tess spoke quietly about the infected creatures, and through their conversations, we the audience learn more about them. The creatures with the deformed heads are called “Clickers,” because they can’t see and must make a clicking noise to get around. “Runners” are in the first stage of infection – they don’t have the mutation yet, and they are capable of seeing, meaning it’s even more difficult to get past them.

At first, we just walked around the building, picking up supplies and maneuvering our way around the destruction. We came upon a few dead bodies, including a Clicker that was stuck to a door we had to get through, so we had to peel it off the door, which was really gross. We helped one another around obstacles, offering boosts and pulling each other up over ledges. As we delved deeper into the building, we came upon our first living infected, and that’s when things got out of control.

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The primary goal here is not to get noticed, because once they know you’re there, they’ll attack you relentlessly, and you can get overwhelmed easily. To draw attention away from Joel, you can pick up bricks or bottles and lob them (with the same control options you use to throw grenades in the Uncharted games). There’s also a gameplay mechanic that allows you to “Listen,” which shows white outlines of enemies through the walls (and seems sort of out of place in this game that focuses on “everyday” people without high-tech gadgets). You’ve got weapons – you can pick up melee weapons as well as guns with limited ammo – but after trying unsuccessfully to fight them off, I started trying to play it smart. I’m not the best at sneaking, but after a few rounds of repeated brutal deaths, I was ready to try anything.

I was stuck in one situation for a little while – one that started with an easy sneak up on a Runner, which, if executed correctly, ends with your choice of either a choking or a shiving. After that, there’s a series of connected rooms that you had to try to make your way through. Toss a brick here, throw a bottle there, crouch and move as quickly as you can from room to room, accidentally stumble right into the face of a Runner, mash Square repeatedly to punch them to death, draw the attention of everything else, shoot your gun off frantically, get annihilated by a Clicker, lather, rinse, repeat. This happened several times as I tried to make my way through this area, until I finally succeeded far enough that I was able to climb up onto higher ground. They can’t get me up here, right? Wrong. Both Clickers and Runners can climb, and climb they did, right into my grill. I managed to kill them all that time, but my heart was racing by the time the encounter was over.

I should also mention that whenever I encountered a Runner, I was able to melee them to death. This makes enough noise that it draws all of the enemies closer, but at least you don’t have to use the gun to kill them. With Clickers, it was different – as soon as they were close enough for me to punch them, they grabbed me and ripped my neck off. No, seriously – they go right for the neck and just rip off a huge strip of it. And it was the same exact animation every single time. I’m hoping that the finished game has multiple animations for this, because in addition to being boring, it’s pretty repetitively gross as well.

Will The Last of Us be a successful new franchise from Naughty Dog? It’s too early to answer that, but this demo definitely shows that the studio is capable of doing more than Uncharted and Crash Bandicoot. While action-adventure and platforming are fun, it’s interesting to see a side of Naughty Dog that has only been hinted at with Drake. The Last of Us is scheduled to ship for the PlayStation 3 on June 14.

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Nicole Kline is Warp Zoned's Senior Editor. She first began preparing for the job by climbing a milk crate to play Centipede in an arcade. You can find her on PSN under the name toitle or you can email her at nicole AT warpzoned DOT com.

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