Tough survivor Joel fends off a hideous Clicker in The Last of Us.
Crouched in darkness amid the rubble of a wrecked office building, I strained to listen. The inhuman clicking was coming from the other side of the splintered desk, and coming closer. I knew it would be only seconds before the thing making that noise would discover me, so I had to think fast.
I checked my gear for options. My weapon of choice, a silent shiv, had snapped off in the last infected wretch I had taken down, and while I had a pair of scissors I could fashion into a new one, I didn't have any tape to bind it together. My less subtle baseball bat, glittering with sharp pieces of metal and banded with tape, was probably only one good hit away from breaking in half. My options weren't looking good at all, and the clicking was getting louder.
That's when I saw it, a gleam of steel in the dim light, lying in a pile of rubbish by the feet of a dead soldier. A shotgun! I was saved... presuming I could get to it before the Clicker chewed out my throat. A plan started to form in my mind. I could toss an empty bottle, distract it with the noise, then rush forward, snatch up the shotgun, and blow its repulsive head off before it knew what was happening.
I risked a quick peek over the low barrier, then quickly tossed the bottle into the darkness behind the shambling figure. In the quiet ruin, the smashing of glass seemed deafening, and the Clicker wheeled around, seeking out the source of the noise. I darted forward and reached for the shotgun.
That was when I heard the alarmed shrieks of the Runners. So, the Clicker was not the only Infected in the building. Great, just great. I checked the breech chamber: three shells. I risked another peek over the desk, and noted three Runners rushing toward the Clicker. Three shots, four enemies. Suddenly, my options were looking worse than ever.
One of 2013's most hotly-anticipated games is also one of its most secretive.
The Last of Us was revealed at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles last year, a bold new property from Naughty Dog, the studio that had brought the hit PlayStation 3 exclusive Uncharted series to life. All of the demonstrations for press were strictly hands-off, and the gaming press has been impatiently waiting for a chance to get to play some of it.
Almost a year later, I am pleased to announce that I have played a 40 minute chunk of The Last of Us, and if that little taste is indicative of the finished product, we are in for a treat.
This is clearly a game from the studio that created Nathan Drake, as it's created in the same proprietary engine and shares similar controls. Much like Uncharted, this is third-person over-the-shoulder action, involving climbing, exploring, melee fighting, and shooting.
That is where the resemblance ends, though. The Last of Us is a slower-paced game than Uncharted, with an older, less super-powered hero. Joel is a survivor, but he bears the scars of a frantic life scrabbling for supplies in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic America. When he runs, climbs, and fights, you can feel that this is an older hero, capable and strong but also worn down.
It is also a much darker game, both figuratively and literally. Many plot details are still under wraps, but we know that a large proportion of the earth's population has been infected with a voracious, brain-destroying fungus. Those infected are not killed, but they become aggressive cannibals, essentially zombies. At later stages of the infection, fungal blooms sprout from the victim's head, rendering them blind and reducing them to finding their way in the dark with echo-location clicks.
Fully human enemies also abound. While many people are working together to make viable colonies, including a government-controlled sector called the Quarantine Zone, others are banding together to attack and rob their fellow survivors. Infected and bandits fill a blasted cityscape, the trappings of civilisation destroyed long ago by aerial bombardment, a vain final attempt to eradicate the deadly fungus.
Into this dangerous world come Joel and his young protégé Ellie, a tough, smart-mouthed teenager who has been paired up with Joel because of a favour he owed her previous guardian. For reasons not made clear so far, Joel and Ellie have to make their way across a dangerous ruined city to a safe place on the far side. The environments are gorgeous, with the section I played being subjected to never-ending rain. Sound design is also amazing, creating a mood of quiet dread.
Survival involves gathering useful scraps - rags, tape, scissors, batteries, and so on - and fashioning them into tools, including shivs, clubs, first aid kits, and more. In this world, everything wears out quickly, so you must always be on the look-out for new supplies, and limited resources means you will need to make choices. Should you drive sharp metal through this baseball bat, knowing it will do more damage but will also break sooner? Should you instead use that metal to make a shiv, a one-shot weapon that can take down enemies silently?
You can find the occasional firearm and a few rounds of ammunition, but they need to be carefully managed. If you miss your first shot, you run the risk of an Infected getting close to you before you've had the chance to change to a close combat weapon. Also, noise is a factor, and gunshots are very noisy indeed.
The demo that I played was short, perhaps 45 minutes for a player like me who feels compelled to check out every nook and cranny for useful gear, but it made an excellent first impression. Joel and Ellie must make their way through the middle of what was once a modern metropolis. Fallen skyscrapers have created a series of artificial mountains and chasms, and progressing safely turns out to be a challenge.
In order to reach their goal, the companions need to brave the darkness of an abandoned subway station. Once packed with commuters, it is now crowded with the Infected, both the freshly-infected Runners and the more advanced and deadly Clickers. It may be possible to sneak past them unnoticed, but I couldn't stand the stress and just picked fights with them.
Combat is quick and brutal. Mess up your timing when trying to club an infected in the head or grab it from behind and stabbing it with your shiv, and you risk having its teeth at your throat. The three options are stealthy takedowns, toe-to-toe melee, or those noisy guns. Everything runs down your desperately limited supplies, though, so you need to make smart choices.
It was only a quick look, but I am now more eager than ever to get my hands on the full game when it is released exclusively on the PlayStation 3 in June.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez