Sony's PS3 exclusive The Last of Us has been wowing us since the first of its many well made trailer premiered late in 2011. The rich textures and subtle color palette make the game look as gritty and realistic as anything we've seen in this generation of video games. The stand out question I've had the entire time is : will the game look as cinematic when it's under my control? Now we know the answer to that question is hell yeah, it will.
The cascade of information and details on just how The Last of Us will play and feel begins now as we're still processing just what happened in the extended 30 minute demo we played. The setup is Joel, Ellie and the recently revealed Tess are just departing Pittsburgh's quarantine zone heading to the outskirts where they'll being their journey to deliver Ellie to Joel and Tess' "clients." The barter system is alive and well in this version of America where a virus that explodes people's heads has decimated the country.
The are multiple types of enemies running around in The Last of Us and we had the chance to go up against two of them. The stage one infected enemies are only recently turned humans who can still see (more on that later) and simply want to eat you even though they can't really tell you why. These enemies are affectionately called runners by the developers at Naughty Dog because they retain most of their human abilities....such as running. Because of this, you can find yourself swarmed with these suckers if you don't dispose of them efficiently. It's inaccurate to say they attack in packs because they're actually just running up on you one at a time as you're engaged with the first runner. It's your fault you've got pack of them on you. In terms of dealing with them, strangulation, punches to the nose and other direct blunt force trauma (including bullets) are all solid options. Strangulation was my preferred method because it requires stealth to sneak up on them which, not coincidentally, helps keep a crew of runners from jumping all over you. They're still very human but they don't seem to care very much about their fellow infected brothers and sisters when you start snuffing them out.
The second type of enemy we experienced was the stage 3 infected, commonly know as a clicker. The virus in this vision of America is plant-based so as humans become infected their condition worsens until the "seedling" in them "blossoms" and explodes the human's head. This leaves a gaping, open bowl-like structure where the face used to be. These guys are nasty, but they can't see now that their eyes are gone. They sense their environment like bats using sonar and a persistent clicking sound. They also shriek when they're upset or when they've found something to eat; namely, you. Playing with a good sound system or headphones will make The Last of Us a very engaging experience because a shrieking clicker is very unsettling. They don't stop shrieking until you kill them or run away. And killing them is only possible if you have firearms or a shiv for stabbing in the neck. Not only is there no strangulation or punches to the face with clickers, they will kill you instantly once they get your hands on you by biting Joel in the jugular, no questions asked and no struggling. When TLOU launches don't be surprised if one of the common events is a clicker stepping in out of nowhere to end your mission right then and there because you didn't see them.
Finding materials and making things is going to have a unique feel in The Last of Us. Batteries, binding, scissors, bottles, bricks and alcohol are just some of the items we saw Joel collecting and storing in his backpack. Some, like the bottle and brick, are single use weapons for clubbing or to be thrown as a distraction or attention getter. A brick in Joel's hand when he punches a runner will end that runner right then and there. Or he can throw it across a room to get a clicker to turnaround and leave itself open for a sneak attack. Bottles are better for that though and are louder. However constructing new goodies using items will be key so now that bottle when it's combined with alcohol becomes a Molotov cocktail, best used to clear a room of infecteds including clickers. Similarly a pair of scissors and be split into two separate blades that can be combined with binding and made into a prison-style shiv. Or you can take a scissor blade, binding and a 2x4 and make a spiked melee weapon which will always ALWAYS work best against the undead in any game or movie. It took those numbnuts on "The Walking Dead" two seasons to figure that out, so I just like to make things like that clear.
Hopefully you can already see that figure out what to make with the raw materials you're scavenging is very important. Scarcity is the rule in The Last of Us so you have to decide on either a shiv or a spiked melee weapon because it's unlikely you'll have enough of everything to make both. Every thing you make has a limited life before it depletes are deteriorates. The shiv goes into a neck once. The melee weapon has five or six hits in it and is more effective against runners than clickers. In our time with the game we scavenged plenty of bricks and bottles but hardly any alcohol, 2x4s or blades. Clearly certain items are more precious that others.
Bullets are a whole other story because while they're very scarce, the level we played had lots of dead security guards and soldiers from whom we could scavenge pistol and revolver rounds. Even with all those rounds, this game makes no accommodation for your accuracy as a shooter. My pistol had about 11 rounds in it at one point, which feels like a lot, until you realize runners and clickers move their heads and bodies in a way that makes them tough kills at range. As they close on you, yeah they make bigger targets but your nerves really start getting to you after two or three misses. This is one of the brilliant ways The Last of Us goes retro and keeps the tension sky high in the game: you're only barely going to make it even if you're good and know what you're doing. Missing shots or even having to hit a clicker in his split open dome two or three times does a number on your confidence level as you move through the game world. You just spent five or six bullets to drop one enemy and you have no idea how many are waiting for you in the next room or area. So you think melee must be the focus of the game then, right? Ok, what do you do when you're out of shivs, spiked 2x4s or bricks and there are two clicker screaming at you as they run down the hallway? Let me know when you have the answer because we're going to need it if we're going to get through The Last of Us in one piece.