Preview: The Last of Us

We take a second look at one of the most anticipated games of the year, The Last of Us.

NameAction-adventure game: The Last of Us
Summary:Naughty Dog’s legacy in environment design and characterisation shines through.
Games Info:Developer: Naughty Dog; Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Test Platform:PS3

It’s easy to forget that Ellie is a kid sometimes. She’s a fighter, like you are. She swears like a construction worker who keeps hitting his thumb with a hammer, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind when she’s mad.

But then she stops suddenly, and exclaims, “Fireflies! Real fireflies!”

Indeed, there are fireflies fluttering around her, and she has a look of childlike wonder in her eyes as she twists her body to get a better look at one. But then the reality of the desperate situation Joel and Ellie are in hits, and she takes a beat.

“Sorry,” she says. “I lost myself for a minute there.”

She didn’t lose herself, of course. Amongst all this post-apocalyptic horror, where people have become infected and turned into terrifying creatures, where Joel has to keep this fourteen-year-old girl alive or die trying, Ellie found herself for a moment. But there’s no time for wonder or excitement anymore.

It’s funny, because one thing that becomes immediately clear on booting up third-person action game The Last of Us is that developer Naughty Dog really, really wants you to be filled with wonder when you look around. When we played through a half-hour segment back in March, there wasn’t much to see – Joel and Ellie were exploring darkened corridors, dodging infected and trying very hard not to be spotted by a particularly dangerous brand of zombie called a ‘clicker’. This time was very different.

In the beginning, you – through Joel – are wandering through a forest. All the detail is there – animals, a creek, drainpipes, fallen trees – and it looks much like many other environments you’ve seen in many other games. Then Joel and Ellie reach a dilapidated building, and you begin to see the differences. There’s always grass growing through the cracks in the concrete, and there are butterflies and other bugs in the air. The environments are colourful, vibrant and, most importantly, alive.

You could spend a good deal of time just wandering around looking at things, but it’s not always the best idea. There’s always danger just around the corner – often quite literally. Sometimes it’s best not to look too closely, but to just charge on forward and avoid any danger you can.

There’s plenty you can’t avoid. At one point in the preview segment, Joel steps into a trap and is strung up, upside down, by a rope around his leg. Then the horde moves in, and you have to kill several infected plus a clicker – who requires two bullets to the head to go down – while hanging upside down. (I would guess it took me about five or six attempts before I finally managed it without dying.)

Then there are the bandits. If you’ve ever taken an interest in zombie lore, you’ll know that usually the real danger isn’t the zombies themselves, but the people who will do whatever it takes to survive. In The Last of Us, the bandits have both numbers and weapons, and they’ll fake injury to tug on your heartstrings if it means they can get close enough to shank you. Fortunately, they’re much easier to take down than a clicker – you just have to get close enough to avoid their bullets.

Finally, while you’re navigating all this, you also have to protect Ellie. Most of the time she’s fine on her own – she’ll run and hide while you fight, or grab a nearby brick to brain an enemy who’s after you. But occasionally she gets caught, and a big red health meter pops up over her head, and if you don’t take care of business it’s game over. This only happened twice in the hour and a half I played, however, and once it was a scripted event. It’s not like the game feels like one big escort mission.

The Last of Us is gruelling, beautiful, and even frightening at times. For years gamers have been asking for a zombie game with a real story; this game is shaping up to be that and more.

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Siobhan Keogh

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