It’s easy for developers to include all the elements of post-apocalyptic, survival horror. From “Dead Island” to “I Am Alive” to “Left 4 Dead,” to countless more, we’ve been in this world of ammo-light, enemy-heavy combat before. It may be the most glutted genre in video games. And so when you start playing “The Last of Us,” coming this Summer from Sony and Naughty Dog (“Uncharted”), it may first seem awfully familiar. What “The Last of Us” reminds us, at least in the 30 minutes I’ve been allowed to preview in advance of its June 14 release, is that it’s not the elements but how they’re arranged that matters. The ingredients that truly elevate the masterpieces above the generic – atmosphere, tension, dread, character, gamer authorship – they’re here. We’ve already played two great games in 2013 – “Bioshock Infinite” & “Tomb Raider” – and if they build on what’s available in this preview demo, “The Last of Us” will be the third.
The world of “The Last of Us” will feel not only like a lot of modern video games but fans of “The Walking Dead” will certainly see some echoes of their favorite show in the story of Joel and Ellie, a pair of weary travelers looking for supplies, shelter, and safety. You take on the role of Joel, a protector to Ellie in a dangerous new world, one that has been overgrown like those early commercials for “Revolution” and feels ten times as dangerous. Not only are you threatened by marauders and violent thugs who want to take your stuff but there are creatures out there like the racing, maniacal infected in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” “The Last of Us” is a game in which you will constantly be presented with options. Much of the game plays not unlike “Uncharted” in the way you’ll have to climb on roofs, move planks, place ladders, etc. But then there are the encounters and that’s where there will be more than one path to safety.
After some puzzle-solving, I heard a noise from what they call a “Clicker.” He looks kind of like a Walker from AMC’s hit but with much more speed and menace. If you crouch, you can move around them stealthily. They’re attracted to sound and so it’s easy to throw bottles or bricks found in the environment to distract them and avoid combat altogether. In fact, the first two enemies in the environment don’t need to be encountered at all.
However, I like to play. The first thing you’ll learn in “The Last of Us” is that firepower is not as easy of an option as we’ve become accustomed to in the average shooter. I took a shot, missed and he was on me. I swung my metal pipe, which I had outfitted with some upgrades that made it a one-kill machine and thought I was in the clear. Turns out something else heard the noise from my missed shot and was on top of me. I was dead. I think gamers are going to have to get accustomed to a lot of death in “The Last of Us” as trial and error could lead to some very deadly scenarios.
The first city in the demo/preview ends with a stunning set piece in which you’re hanging upside down while creatures charge at your most precious cargo. The sense of tension, dread, the idea that my shots mattered and I better not miss – one really feels the drama of the scene instead of merely going through the mechanics.
That feeling comes back in the second, shorter scene in Pittsburgh. You arrive via vehicle only to be ambushed by a group of marauders who want your supplies and are willing to take your life to get them. With limited ammo, you crouch, take cover, and plan your flanking of the enemy. You’re in an abandoned store in this sequence and I have rarely seen stronger enemy AI. I flanked one way and they seemed to communicate to go another way to find me. I honestly felt like I was playing multi-player, which is the dream of AI – that it responds to you like a real person.
Crafting tools, medikits, and new weapons. Finding supplies. Barely staying alive. Making choice after choice. And it’s all in what looks like it could be one of the most fully-realized worlds of video gaming this year in terms of graphics. I can’t wait to play the whole thing.
Stay tuned for more news and a full review and check out this image gallery for what you’re in store for this June.