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Hands-on: The Last of Us
Exclusive to PlayStation 3It doesn't take much exposure to The Last of Us before you realise that Naughty Dog's game is more than just Uncharted meets The Road. Sure, you could call it an action-adventure, and there are elements of Uncharted in the cinematic presentation, the fluid in-game dialogue, the way your playable character, Joel, runs and climbs. Yet in its own way, this is the Uncharted developer's take on survival horror, though here survival means more than just conserving ammo to gun down zombies, while the horror is more in the game's bleak tone than in the usual sudden shocks and scares.
The first part of a new playable demo set in Lincoln, Nebraska rings the changes pretty quickly. Following a brief woodland preamble to introduce Joel and his teenage companion, Ellie, we get our first taste of the game's post-apocalyptic urban landscapes, and of what the gameplay actually involves. Some of it is oddly mundane - collecting supplies from abandoned stores, moving planks around to bridge gaps - but the core of the game lies in traversal, stealth and combat, using a combination of all three to get Joel and Ellie where they need to go.
The Last of Us - CombatOur first taste of fighting is a brutal shock. Not quick enough to defend himself, Joel falls prey to one of the mutant clickers in a sudden assault, a chunk of neck rather gruesomely torn away with a single bite. Lessons learnt, we explore our options, smacking the clicker with a thrown brick, then rushing in to finish the job with an improvised club. The Last of Us goes big on bottles, bricks and melee weapons, the former aimed by squeezing the L1 button and thrown with a pull of R1, the latter wielded with quick tapes of the square button.
Before the demo ends we get a chance to play with shotguns, handguns and bows as well, each one dishing out a satisfying amount of damage, but each hampered by some weakness - low ammo capacity, slow reload times - that means you need to think carefully about each and every shot. This isn't the Hollywood violence of Naughty Dog's normal adventures, but something more demanding and intelligent. The violence in The Last of Us will be controversial for its blunt, sometimes shocking presentation, but you get the sense that it isn't being shown gratuitously, but to ensure that it doesn't lose its impact.
More obstacles, traps and fights await, including a brilliant set-piece that sees Joel all but defenceless while Ellie struggles to get him free. Playing The Last of Us two things strike you. Firstly, Ellie rivals Bioshock Infinite's Elizabeth as a believable and genuinely useful companion. Alternately nervous, reckless, frightened and curious, she doesn't need constant micromanagement - you can't order her around - and she helps you with last-minute attacks on life-threatening mutants with whatever lays to hand. Secondly, The Last of Us can be almost unbearably tense. Lurking in deserted buildings, listening keenly for possible threats - the game's way of helping you keep track of foes in the vicinity - the atmosphere is almost nerve-wracking.
The Last of Us - Graphics and PacingNaughty Dog's technical expertise is very much in evidence; this is a stunning-looking game. The combination of wrecked urban scenery and lush vegetation works brilliantly, and the harsh, oddly grainy lighting and murky lens effects give it the feel of a gritty seventies sci-fi movie. Joel and Ellie are superbly modelled and animated, and the detail is impressive everywhere you look. There are areas - the lifeless trees, some slightly overblown effects - that remind you that this isn't a next-gen game, but this is certainly as good as you're going to see on a current generation machine.
It's also expertly paced. Tension leads to panic and panic leads to some frantic situations, with the normally spare soundtrack ramping up to match. The Last of Us isn't afraid to take a quiet moment to develop character relationships, but it knows when to pack in the action and drama.
The Last of Us - Under Fire in DetroiThe second section takes us to industrial Detroit, putting Joel and Ellie slap-bang in the middle of an ambush. This is where we get more of a feel for the combat, and also for the game's approach to stealth. Basically, The Last of Us makes things hard for run-and-gun players, and in some cases the key is to use stealth and take out your enemies one by one.
By crouching and moving slowly you automatically move in and out of cover, then intuitively spring from hiding to lamp an enemy with a solid two-by-four or blast them point-blank with a shotgun. Enemies will pursue you while you're noisy or in their line of sight, but breaking that line or sneaking around gives you a chance to escape their vigilance, sneak around and get in close. Strike quickly, and you can get a few blows in before hitting the triangle button for a context-sensitive finishing move.
Get some breathing space and you can also use the game's crafting systems, using scraps of tape, blades and other bits to construct more powerful melee weapons, or even that ever-versatile prison favourite, the shiv. There are even situations where you can avoid combat altogether, though playing things too safe might mean missing out on some useful items.
The Last of Us - First ImpressionsEven from this brief sample, it’s clear that Naughty Dog has something special here: a late bloom for the PS3 with PS4 just on the horizon. Based on the evidence, this is a dark, gritty, mature piece of work, and likely to be one of the most thrilling games this year.
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