When the world ends, we’ll know what to do. Naughty Dog’s “The Last Of Us” fuses survival instinct and overwhelming odds with Nathan Drake’s nose for exploration, highlighting a diminishing population desperate to stay alive.
The Last Of Us’ singular trick, its subtle sleight of hand, is that although it looks, and even moves, very much like Uncharted, it still manages to feel completely unique. Yes, it has that similar, solid character modeling and texturing that is reminiscent of Drake and friends, and yes there’s the same level of carefully positioned interaction between the lead characters that Nate and Sully would no doubt riff off, giggling away, if this was some kind of late night comedy show instead of a desperate struggle for the survival of the human race.
Except here, in Naughty Dog’s last PlayStation 3 title, there’s none of the bravado and silliness that Sully projects, and long gone is the gung ho attitude that permeates the Uncharted series.
The Last Of Us is altogether more dour and foreboding, a slightly colour-drained, progressive trip that can only really end up one of two ways. It’s this – the sense that everything that can go wrong will, if it hasn’t already – that the developers have managed to squeeze into every frame of the game. Joel and Ellie’s tale is tragic from the off, but it only gets worse.
But the relationship with Uncharted is, of course, a very good thing. Even the environments here have a feeling of gentle, almost subliminal familiarity. In Uncharted, you traveled to ancient civilisations, often partially destroyed by disaster and well reclaimed by nature. In The Last of Us we see our own great civilisation in the relatively immediate aftermath of some great disaster, and in the throes of being reclaimed by nature. In another few hundred years, these might be the ancient relics that a future-Drake would be plundering through.
Those environment designs and backdrops are, predictably, just as beautiful as anything Nate and Sully adventured through and although the gameplay is very different, it still feels wonderfully familiar because of the existing relationship many of us have with that visual style.
The Last Of Us:
- From Naughty Dog, the developers behind the Uncharted series.
- Exclusive to PS3.
- Lengthy single player with multiplayer as an added bonus.
- Releases in June.
Pinning down a genre.
The gameplay, though, is markedly different. It’s more conservatively paced in The Last of Us and there’s obviously less “adventuring” than in those other Naughty Dog games we all know so well. Your jump button is contextual, for example, so it only works when you’re standing next to a ledge you might reasonably be able to hop up on to.
The gunplay is also far less prevalent, with an emphasis on scavenging and conserving ballistics while using objects to distract and crafted or found melee items to bludgeon your foes.
More careful and considered forward momentum is essential to making progress through the rather linear stages that will, in spite of their bright appearance, host several jump scares and tense moments. Indeed, The Last of Us is something of a hybrid. It’s not a third person action adventure game. It’s not a cover based shooter.
It’s not a light action RPG. It’s not a true survival horror game. It is all of these things at once and, perhaps as a result, might need a little more explanation.
The demo will soon become available to those who own God of War: Ascension and we got early access to preview the two sections of gameplay it provides. The first, Lincoln, is the meatier and more interesting of the two so we’ll get to that in a moment. The second section of gameplay, Pittsburgh, is only brief and exists to show off the action elements of the game.
Into the game.
You’ll start with a brief cut scene that sets up the action but the actual gameplay centres around a kind of base-defense or siege situation. You’re stuck in a location with human enemies attacking your position and you must fight them off. It’s not particularly difficult, although the enemy attacks from behind, without warning or indication, are a little cheap.
You might find that you run a little short on ammunition but that’s a recurring theme throughout the demo. Aside from that, it’s fairly typical cover-based third person action. It’s not particularly imaginative and it’s not doing anything new but it probably doesn’t have to. The Pittsburgh section is probably included in the demo to reassure Uncharted fans that there’s still plenty of ducking behind cover and shooting to be found in their new game.
Lincoln is the section you’ll probably play first, and it shows the most promise for The Last of Us. It slots into the storyline just before the Pittsburgh shoot out and it demonstrates the game’s stealthier, more thoughtful side as well as its familiar-feeling set pieces.
In Lincoln, you’ll learn how throwing bottles and bricks can distract enemies long enough for you to sneak up and dispatch them without a struggle or possibly even sneak past them completely without interaction.
You’ll learn to crouch and cover, you’ll be shown the seemingly light crafting system in operation and you’ll be encouraged to explore and forage for useful items. You’ll also encounter the most interesting thing about this demo: the Clickers.
But the interaction with the Clickers isn’t perfect, and here’s the elephant in the room.
How could a moment so carefully established, its piecemeal, serial setup spanning far more minutes than I had bullets, be so utterly ruined by the presence of just one button? The Last Of Us’ ‘listen’ mode, an option that systematically destroys all but the last remnants of any tension, is a dumb, pointless addition seemingly added once an arbitrary focus meeting determined that the Infected were too deadly unless they were highlighted with a big glowing white outline.
It’s optional, of course, but the game’s built around it. Joel’s gruff, Rick Grimes impression serves to illustrate that he’s grizzly and earthly, having survived a zombie (if we’re allowed to call them that) outbreak and all manner of hinted-at-but-not-quite-obvious-enough past endeavours, and yet he possesses some kind of magical ability to predict the future, painting anything that moves in an ill-fitting aura. It works through walls. Again. It works through walls.
Before that, we’re treated to a delicately poised, taut, miniature slice of Uncharted’s jungle escapades and a cute little plank of wood puzzle, enabling the two leads to play off each other physically and vocally. It’s a surprisingly balanced collision of two disparate individuals, depending on each other to survive, and acted with a level of care and control that’s all too absent in the industry.
And there are moments of sheer delight. At one point, Ellie stops to admire fireflies, and you can’t help but go over and see for yourself. Games rarely manage to so subtly push the player in a given direction, but The Last Of Us does it with such grace.
And yet the first encounter is spoiled by knowing exactly where the danger is. Don’t use Joel’s ability and you’re likely to be sprung upon, and these things – dubbed Clickers due to the way they hunt with woodpecker-esque noises rather than sight – hurt. In fact, if you’re caught by one it’s game over. Your natural instinct then is to try to predict when they might appear, and that means getting more than a gentle cue – so much so that it’s possible to just navigate around them, their AI needfully unintelligent and their vision null.
Thankfully, Joel’s ability to down a Clicker with a rifle is sketchy at best – Drake he’s not, and that re-instates a little balance to the gameplay. Naughty Dog have had to juggle plenty to get The Last Of Us to work, and whilst the first preview level doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that their persistence has worked completely, it’s clear that listen mode will be divisive.
What does work, though, is the game’s ability to keep you on your toes. Whilst some areas of the game feel somewhat lethargic in their pacing (for good reason) there are others that are downright frantic, and terrifying to boot.
It was the same in Uncharted (the second and third games, at least) – when Naughty Dog take the reins and control the speed of a section it can be relentless, and one section of the demo, where you’re suddenly charged with protecting Ellie under unexpected circumstances, is great fun.
The moments after this standoff are superb, too, a high speed chase against unbeatable odds, the perfect tonic to the plodding, all too gentle fifteen minutes that proceeded it. Naughty Dog know what they’re doing with set pieces, Drake’s recent adventures can attest to that, and things are no different in The Last Of Us.
In a sense, that familiarity is reassuring and comforting: the weighty animation, the jump-right-in controls, the abandon of a rollercoaster sequence that gets the heart racing. And yet, there’s hope that The Last Of Us will find its own path, one untrodden by a wisecracking treasure hunter. Joel and Ellie’s goals are much more grounded and human in The Last Of Us, their needs less greedy, more a necessity, and that works well from what we’ve played.
The danger is that the pockets of intensity outweigh the areas that demand more from the player in terms of tactics and instinct, and that the silly white glow doesn’t overshadow what should have been nerve-shredding creeps down alleyways and sudden jump scares, both of which are largely removed unless you’re dedicated enough to not utilise the feature.
The Last Of Us is intelligent, though. There’s a neat crafting system which encourages a little scavenging and exploration, a near future dystopian setting that evokes a tangible sense of fear and a couple of characters that the player will instantly connect with. Naughty Dog are masters of the hardware – The Last Of Us looks breathtakingly good, if not a little aliased – it’s just down to how the full game will play out over a much broader spectrum of areas and level types.
We’ll find out soon enough. The demo will be released at the end of May.