Hands-on: The Last of Us scared me sh*tless

Don’t eat the mushrooms!

Everything we’ve seen of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us up until now has featured humans as enemies. Really mean, crazed, do-anything-to-survive type humans. In everything we’ve seen it was like the entire starving, crazy, post-pandemic world was up against lead duo Joel and Ellie, and that was plenty scary on its own. 

But with the reveal of a new type of enemy that is not fully human, Naughty Dog has turned up the thrills and tension to a new pit-sweaty level of scary. 

Our first hands-on with The Last of Us scared the sh*t out of us.

The Last of Us (PlayStation 3)
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release: May 7, 2013

Think you hate mushrooms now?

At a preview event last week, we got our first look at the result of the fungal virus that put earth in this post-pandemic state. Like any fungus, the infection spreads through airborne spores. Humans that ingest spores, or are bitten by other infected, will succumb to the virus. Eventually. First, they go through a few stages of infection, with each one taking them farther away from humanity.

In the earliest stage, infected humans still have a sense of self. It’s like a very bad cold, except the symptoms include insanity and cravings for human flesh. If that wasn’t bad enough, infected are able to run quickly and work in packs. Joel and Ellie call them Runners for this reason.

When the infection worsens, eyesight is lost. They’re alive but suffering. Fungus causes crusty, mushroom-like growths to burst from their eye sockets. As enemies, they’re not able to see the player, but if they can get a hold of Joel or Ellie it’s going to be bad.

The worst are the ones at the final stage of infection: Clickers. They’re now fully blind from the fungus overcoming their heads, giving them a horrible look. They are hypersensitive to sound and use echolocation to spot enemies. They emit a clicking noise to send sound waves bouncing around an area and then back to their ears, which means that you’ll have to crouch and hide immediately when you hear one coming. As enemies they’re the absolute worse — one touch by a Clicker and you’re gone. 

Our first hands-on session with The Last of Us had me going up against (or running from) all three types of infected. And dying. And looking around to see if anyone saw me dying. And sweating. 

Beantown goes Meantown

In this part of the game, which we were told is about an hour or so into the game, Joel and Ellie aren’t really acquainted yet. Joel and his partner, Tess, work as black market smugglers in Boston, which is one of the country’s last quarantined zones. This area is under martial law, under an oppressive military rule, where curfews and rations are set. Joel and Tess normally make a living moving weapons, rations and drugs into the area.

A new, bigger-than-normal mission has them smuggling a nine-year-old girl out of the area to a militia group known as the Fireflies. That girl is Ellie. As this section of the game begins, Joel makes it clear that he is having second thoughts about this mission. Tess? Not so much.

They start their move from Boston’s quarantined zone to the capital building, located near dangerous territory. It’s Ellie’s first time to see this area that was bombed by the military to wipe out all life beyond the quarantined zone. Humans couldn’t have survived this bombing, but somehow viral fungus infected still lurk in the shadows.

Moving to the meeting point wasn’t easy. Controlling Joel, I worked to move through the ruins of a bombed Boston, crawling up and over debris in the pouring rain as Tess and Ellie followed. A roadblock redirected us through partially collapsed buildings in downtown, but simply walking through them was not possible. Damage from the bombs caused the building to lean, and internal structures were blocking our way.

It seemed as if Naughty Dog drew from level design experience gained from the Uncharted series. Of course, the ruins of a post-bombing modern day Boston are a bit different from ancient ruins, but there was still plenty of crawling and ducking and climbing going on — Nathan Drake would feel right at home here. Exploring is always fun, but an inordinate amount of room changing through twisted, maze-like paths felt like they went a little overboard, like they couldn’t shake the Uncharted vibe starting out. I couldn’t help but thinking that any buildings this messed up would have collapsed. 

I didn’t have much time to mull over maze crawling, as suspicious noises were growing in the distance. Even from this first demo, Naughty Dog’s attention to detail in sound design is apparent. Atmospheric sounds come from nature only, but given that just about everything has died in this post-pandemic world, there’s little to hear. Background sounds and music are kept to a minimum, with near silence heightening the tension as exploration takes place. Whenever you hear something, it’s probably bad. 

Despite the noises, which sound like shuffling and faint clicking, our first encounter was with a deceased infected. Leaning against a doorway, the fungus seemed to have overcome their head and upper body, with mushrooms growing from this person’s face to the nearby wall, sealing the door shut. Joel had to break away the body and pry the fungus-sealed door open. It made a crunching noise. Nasty.

Next to a dead body, beyond the door, we found a log from some military mission. One entry read “negative contact” and the following read “negative FUCKING contact.”  It seems that an evacuation mission never finished.


A surprise attack had Joel struggling to fight off what looked to be Runners, but he finally overcame them with only a few injuries. Using the game’s crafting system, I was able to create a health kit with a found rag and alcohol. After creating the item from the Select menu, Joel physically applied the kit (by holding down R1). You watch him physically wrap his hand, which likely means that healing isn’t something you can expect to quickly execute in a battle. I learned this the hard way later on. 

Continuing on, our first encounter with a Clicker took place in the remains of a large office room. The game prompts recommended avoidance through either distraction techniques or stealth. Naughty Dog was clear in an earlier briefing that we should not take these guys on, so I didn’t try. I found myself scrambling for something to throw off into the distance to distract, but I took so long to do so that Tess and Ellie were already too close for comfort with the beast. 

While crouched and hiding from its horrible noise, I haphazardly threw a brick at the corner which sent the Clicker after it, unaware that Tess and Ellie were near where the brick hit. Tess quietly called for my help, which sent a chill up my spine. Panicked, I threw something closer to myself, so the girls could move into the next room. Stuck, I crawled as quietly as I could behind the Clicker, following Tess and Ellie to the next room. Unfortunately, the Clicker’s echolocating clicks bounced right off of me, sending the Clicker my direction. I scrambled into the next room to find Tess and Ellie safe, up on a higher ledge. Tess reached her hand down to boost me up; I just barely made it. 

My heart was pounding.

Further obstacles had us crawling outside windows in a tall building to move across hanging window cleaners. Coming back in, more runners were waiting for us. I learned that a found pipe made a great weapon, though it has finite uses. The crafting system allows you to tape scissors to a pipe or add nails to a 2×4 for harder hits and quicker kills. While the situation may sound easier to deal with equipped with these weapons, more infected will always win out. 

One particularly memorable situation had me moving into a sunken area alone, leaving Tess and Ellie in a safe place while I worked to clear out the area. The first encounter wasn’t so bad — I quietly crept behind a runner facing the other direction and sunk a handmade shiv (which I crafted) into its neck. Just beyond him, in a narrow corridor, a few more runners and another meaner, second stage creature awaited. Oh, and a Clicker, too. To run in, even with a few bullets in my inventory, would mean instant death. I know because I tried it. 

A second try had me throwing a glass bottle just beyond them to distract a few. I snuck around a corner to take another Runner out, but I wasn’t aware that two more were just beyond it. Surprised, I used the breakaway button (L2), which allows a quick burst of speed while running away from an encounter or dog pile. The rest was a panicked blur: I ran to find anything I could, hid to catch my breath, heal, and tried to pick off lighter enemies when the chance was provided. In running, I found a higher area to climb to, hoping for safety. Unfortunately, these creatures had no problem following me up. 

A third try had me gradually taking all enemies out, leaving the Clicker. His clicking had me so nervous by this point that I’m sure I wasn’t making great decisions. Barely getting by, I took to higher ground and finished him off with all of the stray bullets I found from running around like a wuss. 

Even in this third try, I was terrified. A lot of the credit goes to slick AI that seemed to react to my running and placement. Though killing all of the enemies was mandatory to proceed, it all felt less like a ‘wave’ and more like an unfortunate encounter where I had to use quick thinking to survive.

Superhero powers?

I didn’t give one particular ability the attention I should have in this section. A quick game prompt before this section showed that holding down a shoulder button switched on Listen Mode. I tried it quickly — the screen dimmed and a faint outline of an enemy’s location showed up. To be honest, the action became so heated that I didn’t think of using this ability again. It wasn’t until talking with others later that I realized how much of an advantage I would have had in this situation by using it. 

Maybe it was that I didn’t like that ability subconsciously. I don’t. Up until this point, each encounter was a struggle in itself, and there is something extremely satisfying about using everything you’ve scavenged and every trick in the book to barely break free and survive. And now, here’s this superpower that has this everyday Joe seeing through walls. 

Later, in watching someone else’s playthrough of the same section, I noticed that even the footfalls of enemies were shown for a short time by using this Listen Mode. Suddenly, what was an absolutely thrilling encounter became a bit of a bummer. I wouldn’t say that Listen Mode makes things too easy — I still saw plenty die using it. It’s just that it doesn’t feel or look right. It doesn’t fit. Let’s hope that Naughty Dog tweaks this aspect of gameplay.

Taking the F U line

I watched others at this event not make it to this next section of the game, let alone through it. Not bragging, mostly because I have no place to (I died a few times.)

The next section involved dragging Tess and Ellie through a ruined, dark section of underground subway, but it wasn’t going to be easy as the station and surrounding passageways were filled with Runners and Clickers. Aside from footsteps, the area is quiet, letting the maddening guttural noises from Clickers echo and bounce around. What makes things more unnerving is the excellent sound design, which gives the noises that all enemies make some directionality. Even in the dark you can clearly hear where they’re at. Having a loud and sudden bleat of clicks pop up, from what sounds like is directly behind you, is so frightening that I found myself paralyzed more than once. 

Even with the shotgun that I found, this section was not easy. I finally succeeded by shutting off my flashlight, crawling around in the dark, and using sound cues to beat them at their own game, planting shivs in the necks of the Runners. The Clickers ate lead.

Survival and horror

I expected a lot of things from The Last of Us, but what I didn’t expect, and what I was pleasantly surprised by, was that it scared me more than any recent survival horror game. I don’t know that Naughty Dog would classify it as a straight up survival horror, but between the time I spent scrounging to survive, and the rest of the time I spent scared shitless, it definitely fits under the classification. 

I’m sure that this was but a small taste of what the game offers. I was totally fine with what I expected from my first impressions last year when the game was first debuted, when it looked to be a nice post apocalyptic survival/adventure game. But add this horror/monster aspect in and I’m that much more excited. In fact, aside from the too-revealing Listen Mode ability, if the rest of the game doesn’t lean more toward what I saw in this preview, I’ll be disappointed.

I’m so ready to be scared shitless again.

Dale North