Putting the “fun” in “fungal”
The core tenet of any great survival game is tension. Not cheap scares or unfair disadvantages, but rather a persistent sense of dread that keeps you on the edge of your seat, constantly looking over your shoulder, eyes darting from corner to corner. Creating that tension—and stretching it until it’s nerve-rackingly taut—is something Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us seems to do quite well.
With a month left before The Last of Us launches on PS3 worldwide, Naughty Dog and Sony gave the gaming press an opportunity to spend some hands-on time with their latest exclusive before its release. The demo they provided was short, consisting of only two excerpts from the game, but it offers a taste of what’s in store for protagonists Joel and Ellie.
The first part of the demo is set in Lincoln, Pennsylvania. About 20 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, it’s a town so small it doesn’t even have its own post office. If not for the haunting absence of townsfolk and its state of ruin, Lincoln would be an idyllic slice of rural life. As the demo opens, Joel and Ellie—and players—see some of the beauty that’s survived. Hopping a highway guardrail, they take a shortcut through a lush deciduous forest still vibrantly alive with flora and fauna. The Last of Us is set in a world in ruin, yes, but not in devastation.
That unassuming sense of serenity, of safety, is betrayed by the town itself, which has been barricaded with barbed wire and laced with traps. Because Lincoln is locked up tight, getting in requires a bit of creative thinking by way of environmental traversal through simple puzzle-solving.
Getting Joel and Ellie into Lincoln—where they hope to find Bill, an old acquaintance of Joel’s he believes can supply the two with a working vehicle—involves leveraging a plank of wood as a resource. It’s not a terribly complex puzzle (using the plank as a bridge linking the roofs of two buildings), but the solution isn’t immediately apparent. It took me a moment or two to figure out how to get the plank up where I needed it, and the solution—while obvious in hindsight—still felt rewarding.
Once inside Lincoln, it wasn’t long before I encountered my first Infected—hearing the creature well before spotting it in a nearby toolshed. The sounds made by the Infected are perhaps the biggest contributor to tension in The Last of Us. See, these once-humans are blind and emit a series of unsettling clicking sounds to navigate by sonar. Naturally, they’re aurally sensitive and easily alerted to Joel and Ellie’s presence by even the slightest scrape of their boots. It took me three attempts to successfully sneak past this particular Infected.
One-hit kills from Stage 3 Infected—Clickers, as they’re colloquially referred to—also ratchet up the tension. At the advice of the demo’s tutorial, I attempted to distract the Clicker by throwing a brick. It worked, but as soon as I made a run for it, the creature picked up on my footfalls and was quickly on top of me. Dead—try again. The next time, I took a makeshift melee weapon—a pipe with scissor blades duct-taped to one end—and bashed in the creature’s skull. That approach was more successful, but the ruckus drew the attention of another Clicker, who summarily dispatched me.
The third time was—as always—the charm. By tossing the brick again, I drew the Clicker away from the toolshed, hunkered down, and crept safely past it into an abandoned building. And while I managed to survive, a sense of threat lingered as the sounds of the Clicker carried in from the shattered windows and broken walls of the building. I was convinced it might find its way through the same door I got in through, and I’m inclined to think that had I rummaged through the remains of that building more noisily, I might have turned around at some point and suddenly found the creature feasting on my neck.
Deeper into Lincoln, another Infected encounter—this time Stage 1, the Runners. They’re less fungal than their Clicker cousins, but still rabid. Drawn to pounding coming from a door to an apartment, Joel—against Ellie’s protest—decides to poke around. Inside, I found the hastily abandoned remnants of the apartment’s former occupants—pictures of a family, the personal touches of home décor, ghostly fragments of pre-infection normalcy.
Entering the kitchen, I was blindsided by a Runner—presumably the husband of the household. And while Runners don’t instantly kill Joel, the whole experience was thoroughly unsettling—as was the way Joel callously shrugged off the attack and continued to ransack the house. Not so much in the fashion videogame characters typically tend to dismiss things like emotionally detached monsters, but because this is everyday life in Joel and Ellie’s broken world. It was a jarring, if not sobering, realization.
After weaving through more of Lincoln’s abandoned streets and alleyways, Joel finds himself on the receiving end of one of Bill’s traps, ensnared and dangling from his feet. And since his capture causes quite a stir, players must protect Ellie—immobile and strung upside down—while she tries to sever the counterbalance and free Joel. Armed only with Joel’s handgun, the controls during this sequence felt awkward. Perhaps this is intentional—an attempt to convey Joel’s compromised state. But it didn’t feel altogether tense—just frustrating, like fighting for decent control over the game. Had Ellie died, I wouldn’t have felt like it was on me. I would’ve faulted the game.
The Lincoln section of the demo wraps up with Ellie eventually freeing Joel and the two of them being rescued by Bill, who leads the way during a hair-raising flight from the remaining Infected. While the gunplay didn’t feel like a great fit, this moment certainly did, and it was a thoroughly satisfying endnote for the first part of the demo.
The second half of the demo takes place after Joel and Ellie have procured a truck from Bill, as they enter Pittsburgh. Much shorter than the Lincoln excerpt, the Pittsburgh portion illustrates another type of enemy found in The Last of Us—Hunters, uninfected human raiders. As Joe and Ellie are ambushed by a pack of Hunters and forced out of the truck, a firefight ensues. Again, I’m not sure if the shooting in The Last of Us just doesn’t feel satisfying, or if perhaps I want the game to rarely—if ever—devolve into excessive gun battles. The point is, I was considerably less interested fending off Hunters than I was avoiding detection by Infected. It’s not that it’s bad or incongruous to the atmosphere Naughty Dog is trying to cultivate in The Last of Us—it’s just rote and typical. Ammunition is far from plentiful, and once I ran out of bullets, I was left only with my bare hands to dispatch the remaining hunters. Dealing with intelligent, strategic human enemies definitely shakes things up from Infected encounters—as it should. But it’s certainly less satisfying.
Was I impressed by what I played? Certainly. The Last of Us is, expectedly, gorgeous. It has a lot going for it, but I’m not without reservations. I’m concerned there may be a disproportionate amount of bullet-swapping exchanges reminiscent of Uncharted, when the emphasis in The Last of Us should really be on balancing exploration with less-bombastic moments drenched in tension. There’s certainly a place for the Hunters and other still-human encounters, but they should take a backseat to Joel and Ellie’s efforts to survive. If The Last of Us proves two-thirds exploration and survival, relegating shootouts to only a third of the overall experience, then Naughty Dog will have—as far as I’m concerned—nailed it.