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Demo’d: The Last of Us

The post-apocalypse, the undead and an engaging relationship between an adult and a young child; these are all themes we’ve seen explored in video games and other mediums countless times before. Apply the craft and guile of Naughty Dog to these themes and somehow it begins to feel like something completely fresh and exciting. That is The Last of Us, a tale of a society ravaged by a deadly infection, and a young girl and her guardian just trying to survive against the odds.

“As you take control of Joel the first thing you’ll notice is a satisfying sense of weight and momentum”That relationship seems to be at the emotional core of this story, carrying the narrative on its back with the kind of heft you would expect. The demo, however, wastes little time getting into the action during its brief playtime, thrusting you into Joel’s boots as he’s accompanied by Ellie and another survivor named Tess. Arriving on the ruined streets of Boston, your goal is to reach the Capitol Building for some, as yet, unexplained reason. As you take control of Joel the first thing you’ll notice is a satisfying sense of weight and momentum behind his movement. He’s a big guy and it feels that way, naturally combining with Naughty Dog’s phenomenal animation to quickly immerse you in this haunting world.

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Heavy downpour lashes the streets as you walk along a ruined road. Burnt out cars and other vehicles are desecrated, lined by toppled skyscrapers that have crashed into others, ominously looming before you on a constant slant. 14-year old Ellie is full of questions, as one might expect, and Tess is willing to oblige, explaining how the city was bombed years ago in a failed attempt to eradicate the infection that has now crippled human life. Dialogue feels natural, not only conveying character’s emotions but elegantly imparting useful information, too.

This becomes evident once you find yourselves in a derelict office building. A dead body has been left to greet you, its flak jacket and flesh ripped apart by some formidable force. “Body’s pretty fresh” remarks Tess – foreboding indeed. Being a decaying office building, your route through it is fairly linear; however, there are opportunities to break from the beaten path, offering a chance to scavenge for some much needed supplies. One particular pickup allows you to upgrade Joel’s skills once you have scavenged the required amount. These range from expanding his overall health, to improving his ability with a shiv or increasing his crafting speed, something that seems imperative considering you’re never taken out of the action.

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Open up your backpack and everything keeps moving, forcing you to find time and space whenever you want to upgrade Joel’s skills or craft new equipment. This heightens the tension, particularly when you find yourself in a sticky situation with no med packs at hand and only the supplies to craft one. It’s engaging and intuitive, complementing the animation and terrific atmosphere.

“It’s engaging and intuitive, complementing the animation and terrific atmosphere.”As you edge further and further into the office block you discover more of the deceased, eventually discovering a body in the infection’s latter stages of corruption. This parasitic fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) exists in the real world, infecting the brains of ants and altering their behaviour. It forces them to abandon their natural habitat, searching out a leaf and clamping itself to the underside, eventually dying and allowing the fungus to grow by consuming the ant’s tissues and sprouting spores from it. The infection has been known to eradicate entire ant colonies, the alteration of their behaviour dubbing the hapless victims as zombie ants. In The Last of Us this infection has evolved, adapting to attack humans and turning a portion of humanity into crazed monsters known as clickers and runners.

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Fortunately for you this clicker has already met its grisly end, but the effects of the infection are immediately apparent. Spores have exploded from its head, rendering it blind and expanding outward, growing and merging with the environment. With their lack of sight they use sound to see, much like bats, heeding caution in your every move as you try desperately to avoid confrontation by making as little noise as possible. They earn their name from the disturbing clicking sound they emanate, its sudden arrival inciting panic. You can manipulate them, however, as Tess demonstrates, throwing a glass bottle to distract one you encounter later on, their keen awareness of sound working against them.

Their attacks are extremely deadly after all, so you don’t want to get on the wrong side of one. A single hit is enough to kill you unless you have a shiv handy to jam into its throat, and even that doesn’t finish the job – it just bides you more time. Using stealth quickly reveals itself as your best chance to survive, an excellent cover mechanic proving extremely useful at keeping you hidden. Rather than using a dedicated cover button Joel will organically hug any surface you move behind, provided you’re crouching. This works flawlessly, never sticking or betraying you.

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Platforming works just as well. Joel’s no Nathan Drake but he is capable, if much more human, requiring help from his companions to reach particularly high ledges. He clambers over cars, his bulky frame ensuring he has the strength but not necessarily the swiftness. He feels real and that fragility takes shape in combat. Towards the end of the demo you’re forced into an altercation with multiple enemies, some of which are in the early stages of the mutation, able to still see and charging at you with reckless, bloodthirsty abandon – earning their runner moniker. The first has his back to you, presenting a prime opportunity for a brutal stealth attack, an option to strangle revealing just how close the runners may still be to humanity.

“The action is savage and involved”With the first disposed of the rest aren’t quite as easy. The few bullets in your revolver are enough to take down two, but shots are missed as Joel’s aim wavers, the panic of the situation causing him to shake. Once again, this feels natural rather than frustrating, granting enough control and precision while also exemplifying his human frailty. With his pistol running dry you pull out a brick you discovered in the rubble earlier, suddenly sitting on edge as you hear the ominous sound of a clicker. The revolver’s shots have alerted it, the sound bringing it your way. As it edges closer you mash the attack button, swinging the brick with ferocity and bashing the clicker to a bloody pulp. The action is savage and involved, zooming the camera in to capture every grisly detail. It’s cinematic yet emergent; lessons learned from Uncharted but applied to a vastly different situation.

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And then it’s all over. Replaying again on the hardest difficulty reveals much more fiendish enemies. One engagement with a clicker displays their inherent danger as it easily knocks a pistol out of Joel’s hand and quickly overpowers him, biting into his neck as the screen cuts to black. It seems as though death is around every corner, whether it’s from the precarious environment of this post-apocalyptic landscape or the creatures that inhabit it. The demo doesn’t feature any human enemies, and it will certainly be interesting to see how the combat changes when faced with more intelligent AI. But this brief glimpse into the world of The Last of Us was a clear indication of how humanity is seeped into every facet of its execution, from the hints of its core character relationship through to your vulnerability in combat. This is only a brief taste of what’s to come, but if early impressions are any indication it seems like Naughty Dog just may have done it again.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in June 2008. Get in touch on Twitter @richardwakeling.

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