It’s safe to say that unless you have been living under a rock for the best part of a year, you would have, in some way, heard of the next installment being produced within the wonders of the four walls at the Naughty Dog Studios in California. And most importantly, the survival horror title in question: The Last of Us. We were lucky enough to be given a chance to trot (sprint) with excitement down to Sony to have our very own hands-on with one of the most highly anticipated titles of 2013.
The Last of Us is a totally different experience from what we have become accustomed to with Naughty Dog since they debuted Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune on the PlayStation 3 in 2006. Those expecting something very similar to what Nathan Drake and co. bring to the table will be in for a big shock indeed. There are no huge, action-packed adventure action scenes in The Last of Us and although technically the same studio developed both titles, this is a game that will put you in a totally different mindset from the moment you pick up and start playing. Although you can see similarities between the two series in some aspects like the mechanics and look, that’s as far as the similarities go.
The section of the game we played sees Joel, Ellie and Joel’s partner, Tess attempting to safely navigate through a section of Boston, while dealing with the ravaged, diseased and infected surroundings that are all around the trio in abundance. While Uncharted goes for a colourful and fun outlook with its superb action-adventure, The Last of Us is a gritty, dark, disturbing and realistic experience thrown in front of you and it’s clear straight from the get-go, this is what the development team wanted to create.
It’s a brutal reality and it pushes you into an experience that is so different from any previous Naughty Dog title. Realism is key within the context of the game and it plays a huge part in the strategy element that is bolted on to the core mechanic in The Last of Us too. You scavenge for parts of metal, wood, ammo and cloth and you are then able to use a ‘crafting’ element. This gives you the opportunity to build and make various items from the parts you have acquired while exploring the deranged city and extend the lifespan of items that break down over the course of extended use. Items such as Molotov cocktails, shivs, a wooden spiked baton, health packs (made from collecting alcohol and a rag) and ammo are dotted around for you to collect.
What really brings the strategy element to the forefront is the fact that supplies are sparse throughout, so there is no chance of having a ton of Molotov cocktails while carrying a gun that is loaded with 300 bullets. To say most of the time we had to deal with a stealth approach on the infected would be an understatement as yes, we did (for the most part I might add) have very little in the way of ammunition.
The fact that supplies were thin on the ground made a huge difference to the way that you approached the game. It made you think as to what your next move would be and how you would get from A to B, without getting your head taken off by one of the infected. The difference here between The Last of Us and Uncharted is that you are not thrown into a level with huge amount of weapons and ammunition dotting around the environment. To put it bluntly, its sparse. Some sections more so than others, but the general design of the game is like that to make the challenge more terrifying yet realistic at the same time. It’s clever as it means your decisions need to be thought through before you rush into anything stupid and end up being attacked by a group of the infected enemy.
Items dotted around like bricks and bottles can be used to your advantage by distracting the infected and luring them into unsuspected traps, giving you the chance to find a way past. The infected that we experienced during our play test were the ‘runners’ and the ‘clickers’. The runners are more human like in their appearance and in an early cycle of the disease. Although they are the easier out of the two types to eliminate, they can still attack with an almighty force if they spot you in their sightline. The clickers on the other hand are a very advanced stage of the fungal disease with their heads split open. They cant see you, but instead they use sound to locate you.
The various types of infected have different strengths and weaknesses. The runners for example, can be killed with a stealth kill or a hit to the back of the head with a spiked wooden post. The clickers really are the ones to watch out for. Unless you have bullets loaded into a gun or a shiv equipped, stay away from them. It’s as simple as that really as they are brutal. If you are caught by one, thats the end for Joel. If you try to attack a clicker with your bare hands, you’re in deep trouble.
One trick that Joel has up his sleeve is the ability of using the environments to his advantage. By pressing down the R2 button, it shows where the infected enemies are through walls. Don’t be afraid that this might dilute the experience as it really doesn’t. On the contrary, this makes the already tough difficulty level that little bit easier. Without this skill, the superb and unpredictable movements of the infected enemies could prove to be a frustrating problem, so having the ability involved is a big bonus.
The infected that prowl the environment really are very advanced in the way that they move and act if they sense human interaction in any shape or form. They move naturally and erratically and their sense of movement isn’t ‘on rails’ so you have to be on your toes when approaching a room full of nasties.
Sound was something that Naughty Dog had to nail down to give The Last of Us even more suspense and an atmospheric presence and without a doubt, they have come up trumps. The subtle dropouts in the audio soundtrack, the horrific sound that the infested make and the eerie silence that is present throughout huge chunks of the section we sat down with, it all works brilliantly well and really adds to the overall experience. The sound that the clickers make for instance is one of the most horrific noises ever created in a video game and one that will have you running scared into an empty room for a breather. Disturbed?… You could say that!
One thing that really hits you when you sit down and experience it first hand for yourself is just how brutal The Last of Us is. Not in a bad way though as this is what makes it a special game. It has a fierce point to make as anyone who is put in the situation that the characters from the game are, would no doubt react in the same way.
Character development is something that Naughty Dog are very good at replicating and nothing has changed in this dark and dreadful existence that Joel and Ellie have been thrown into. It’s clear from the off that Naughty Dog wanted to bring the character chemistry and development across from Uncharted and just like expected, it transcends brilliantly well. You relate and feel for the characters and their stories of despair and desperation and at the same time, accept that the brutality is something that needs to be there as without it, The Last of Us wouldn’t be the same.
Graphically, The Last of Us is gorgeous and even at the early stage that we had experience with the game, you could see just how much the team put in to making it a fabulously looking game. Backdrops are detailed with incredible finesse, derelict interior environments look fantastic and the animations of each of the characters look and feel impressive. The way Joel lumbers over obstacles, while Ellie is quicker and more spritely feels spot on and perfect within the context of the survival horror genre and the characters themselves.
Naughty Dog are one of the leaders in the gaming industry for their approach to how both motion-capture is recorded at their studio in California. The development of characters like Nathan Drake, Sully and now Joel and Ellie that tie into the whole process come together with such brilliance. Our play test of The Last of Us last around 30 minutes and once we had finished our time with the preview, it left me not only a physical mess due to the game being so intense and harrowing, but also wanting more. Naughty Dog somehow manage to strike a perfect balance in the way the title makes you feel terrified and abused, yet at the same time, the game feels fun, addictive and most importantly, brilliant to play.
Survival horror titles have been on a bleak period for a number of years now but The Last of Us has rescued a genre back from a lackluster future. Not only is this a perfect example of how to bring suspense and dread to the player, but the game oozes atmosphere and in equal measures, terror. There were plenty of moments while playing The Last of Us that felt harrowing and strenuous and that’s not because it’s a bad game, but it’s because of how it is full in your face and gets to the point without pussyfooting around.
The Last of Us is a title that is so different from the Uncharted series, yet it proves that with the right team at the helm like Naughty Dog, a change in direction isn’t a bad thing at all. The Last of Us has everything. It’s fresh, exciting, frightening, scary and, most importantly, it’s shaping up to be one of the best titles released on this generation of consoles.