I was skeptical of The Last of Us. Despite all the hype and high promises, to me, it looked like post-apocalyptic Uncharted. I wasn't sold on the dynamic nature of how the game progressed, and as we all know, zombies have been literally done to death in the past five years.
Then, I got a chance to actually play it. How many days until June 14th again?
The Last of Us (PlayStation 3)
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release date: June 14, 2013 (WW)
The Last of Us is the tale of the hardened Joel and the young Ellie, as they wander the post-apocalyptic United States, not unlike the BioShock Infinite tandem of Booker and Elizabeth. Cities are ruined, gangs roam the streets, and oh yeah, there are fungus zombies all over the place -- no biggie. To be clear, Joel is not the father of Ellie, and Ellie is not voiced by Ellen Page as many people think to this day (she's voiced by the capable Ashley Johnson).
My playable build opened up with Joel and Ellie in search of Bill in Lincoln, Pennsylvania. Almost right away, I was pretty blown away by the art style. Naughty Dog reportedly looked to I Am Legend, No Country for Old Men, and The Road (both the books and the films), for inspiration on multiple levels, and I'm definitely seeing that here. The bleak, yet brighter colors mix very well with the The Last of Us beautiful graphical style, and every character model in the game looks wonderfully detailed. In fact, you could say this is the closest to a videogame adaption of The Road as you can get right now in terms of more than just visuals, which is a major compliment.
As I was trekking through some wildlife on the way to the city, Ellie commented on a cute rabbit hopping into the trees, and a group of fireflies. In fact, she commented on a whole lot of things, which helped illustrate the dynamic nature of Ellie within the confines of the map. As you progress and enter certain events, Ellie will react differently depending on the situation. It's not a groundbreaking system for sure as there was some overlap during my multiple playthroughs, but like Elizabeth in Infinite, it's interesting enough to help build a bond between the player and Ellie -- and unlike Elizabeth, Ellie can die, which adds a whole new layer to the game.
But despite the comparisons, Ellie isn't as prim and proper as Elizabeth. She's foulmouthed, raw, and scrappy. This part of the build seems to be very early on in their relationship, as Joel is still asking questions about how he ended up with her. At one point earlier in the build she asks Joel for a gun or something to protect her with, to which he replies in a stern voice "No! Of course not." I could immediately tell through repeated (well-written) dialog that they we would see some growth between the two of them and not something forced or robotic -- something real, and raw.
Walking around with Ellie the entire time is basically an escort mission, but thankfully, Ellie puts Resident Evil 4's Ashley to shame with her quick wit, helpful hints, and interesting personality. There was this really funny instance where I opened an iron door with her on the other side and glitched the game, but I was able to reload a checkpoint from a minute before without issues after realizing what happened.
Joel will be solving the majority of the game's puzzles, which in the demo ranged from moving planks to cross over buildings to locating and disarming traps (hint: shooting them works great). Despite what I initially thought, this isn't Uncharted with zombies. Joel is formidable, but he's not a super-hero like Nathan Drake. He isn't going to be leaping across buildings with cat-like reflexes due to his very, very limited jump range. In fact, Joel needed help getting across one gap Nate could have jumped twice over.
Despite the fact that it controls very similarly to Uncharted, Joel's combat prowess is pretty limited too, as there are no 60+ maximum ammo pistols in The Last of Us. In fact, the six-shooter and shotgun that I obtained at the beginning had a scant few shots, lest I find a few lying around in the world. Monsters and humans alike will come running if you just go shooting willy nilly, further adding to the allure of stealth, and the realism of the game.
Stealth is so important that the game actually strongly suggests that you use it all the time, and that running is often the "best" course of action. Like Metal Gear Solid or Assassin's Creed, you can elude your pursuers and go back into a normalized state should you be seen, so thankfully that mostly eliminates the idea of constant forced action. Instead, the focus is on your survival, which I really enjoyed.
This is accentuated in the demo's second "Pittsburgh" portion, which pitted me against an all-human gang for the first time. The action picks up right after Joel and Ellie crash their car into a convenience store, putting them both into a corner, low on ammo with the gang rapidly approaching. I noticed that the AI was particularly sharp here, opting to constantly use cover, notice when I wasn't, and sneak around slowly to my position.
Tension were so high, I was constantly looking around in silence, watching both sides and flipping the camera as Ellie shouted their positions. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a thug try and go for Ellie, so I ran at him and busted his face in with a baseball bat, cracking the bat in the process and leaving me out of a melee weapon.
Quickly, I moved from cover to cover watching my back as I shotgunned a few other thugs, and shot another two in the head with a pistol. During all this I had to scavenge for another melee weapon, heal myself with a medkit -- which doesn't work instantly, and leaves you open as enemies rush towards you -- and constantly look for new cover. Given the limited amount of ammo and the tenacity of the enemies, I knew I was going to be in for a challenge in the core game.
There is one thing that felt really strange and took me out of the game a bit gameplay-wise. Basically, there's a polarizing mechanic that functions similar to Hitman Absolution's instinct mode (or the many other games that feature x-ray vision), where you can see enemies through walls. All you have to do is hold R2 to do it, so it's not like it has to be used sparingly or anything. It seemed weird and went against the realistic feel of the rest of the game, but thankfully, you can resist the urge entirely by turning it off in the main menu -- in fact, I'd recommend it alongside of a harder difficulty as that's where the game really shines.
The Last of Us has a few elements that feel tacked on, but are wholly inoffensive, like crafting and workbenches. These systems are basically set up to allow some form of RPG gameplay, as you can level up Joel and your weapons through various menus. My guess is this will pay off for multiple playthroughs (if there is in fact a New Game + option), when the dynamic events dramatically increase replay value on higher difficulties. Like Dark or Demon's Souls, the game does not pause when you're crafting items, which is a nice touch.
I can't help but wonder if The Last of Us would be better without zombies in it. My absolute favorite parts were the ones with humans, in the depths of their depravity, brutally attacking Joel and Ellie. Either way, I'm sufficiently excited, as the game is leaps and bounds more challenging and unique than I thought it would be going in. I can't wait to be backed into a corner, five enemies approaching slowly, with one bullet left, ready to protect Ellie at all costs. Bring it on.