In The Last of Us, America is a postapocalyptic wasteland where humanity survives in small groups. The rest of the country is home to raiders or zombie-like creatures. The stars of the story are the mismatched pair of Joel and Ellie. He's taken on the role of Ellie's guardian and is trying to get her to safety, but there aren't many safe places in this doomed world, as we saw in a preview build.
The first part takes place in Lincoln, Pennsylvania, where we join Ellie and Joel as they trek through the woods. The pair has left the city and can't return. They're on their way to Joel's friend, Bob, who they hope has a car for them. The pair is always together. Ellie isn't playable, but much like Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite, she's a constant companion. She also seems to avoid most of the pitfalls of escort missions. She knows how to take care of herself and when to run and hide, so she's no Ashley Graham.
The interplay between the two characters is sure to bring to mind Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth, although both characters are more down to earth. Joel is a hardened survivor who looks and sounds like he's been through hell. He has killed and robbed innocent people, shows little remorse for the dead, and seems reluctant to discuss anything but survival. Ellie is an odd mix of innocent and deadened. She's used to the world as it is, but not to the point of giving up hope. She reacts with awe and wonder at the sight of fireflies or an arcade machine. It gives the duo an interesting contrast, and they get along surprisingly well in spite of it.
As far as the gameplay goes, The Last of Us is more realistic than Uncharted. You're not going to perform ridiculous climbing feats. The solutions that we saw in the preview build were straightforward and sensible. You're not solving age-old puzzles in an ancient tomb; you're simply trying to figure out how to navigate a postapocalyptic world.
Resources are an important part of The Last of Us. When I first ventured into town, I was greeted with a few small houses and shops to explore. All were empty, but a few had some valuable resources, such as: alcohol, binding, blades, explosives, rags and sugar. Each resource can be combined to create new items, such as improved melee weapons, Molotov cocktails, med kits and shivs, among other tools. I also discovered pills, which level up several skills, such as increased health or wider listening range.
Training manuals are basically upgrades to your crafting skills, allowing you to unlock new items or improve existing ones. For example, a smoke bomb and a training manual upgraded my med kit's healing ability by 33% by teaching me how to make splints.
It didn't take long before I encountered my first zombie — moments before it's blown to pieces by an explosive trap. You infer that zombies are infected with a fungus that sprouts from them, turning them into disgusting half-plant, half-human growths. Their bites transfer the fungus to victims and convert them into infected beings. Beyond that, they seem to favor beatings, like the undead in Left 4 Dead and "28 Days Later."
Zombies and the infected are not tough in close combat, and while they might not be dangerous in small numbers, they sure can swarm you quickly. Listen mode can help you get the drop on zombies and the infected. It's similar the Survivor Sense or Detective mode from other games. The screen turns gray, and the locations of noises are highlighted on your HUD. If an enemy is silent or stealthy, you're not going to see him in Listen mode. With loud zombies, though, it'll be like shooting fish in a barrel.
The second part of the preview build took us to Pittsburg. Joel and Ellie appear to have gotten a car, but they don't keep it for long. As they approach Pittsburg, they find the road is blocked by cars. There is only one route, but it turns into an ambush — by humans, no less! — and they must fight their way out.
The fight against humans really drives home that this isn't Uncharted. I was thrown into the fight with six bullets and a handful of supplies. My only advantage is that the enemy doesn't know my exact location. Stealth is essential when it comes to fighting humans, and running away from enemies decreases their accuracy. Breaking line of sight causes the enemy to hunt for you, but that also gives you the chance to sneak behind them and take them out.
Stealth kills are tricky. It's common that you must decide between quick, loud kills and slow, silent kills, but The Last of Us makes it more significant. Quietly strangling an enemy takes a long time, which means you can be spotted. A loud takedown instantly ends your foe's life, but it telegraphs your location to everyone else. There are some ways around this, such as crafting a shiv, which gives you the best of both worlds, or distract enemies while you're busy killing one of their compatriots.
Guns are different in The Last of Us than in Uncharted. Joel can survive a few shots, but he won't recover his health when behind cover. That means every bit of damage is significantly more important than in most games. On the positive side, guns are also rarer. Most of the enemies have heavy sticks or bare fists. A single enemy isn't difficult to take down, but it's an investment of time that a gun-wielding foe can use to get into position. Fights can go both ways, and even if you win a fistfight, the enemies can get in some blows. Generally speaking, it's not a good idea to fight enemies when you're unarmed.
Much like BioShock Infinite's Elizabeth, Ellie doesn't seem to be the primary target of enemies. Several zombies charged after her, but most of the human enemies are more concerned with the big fellow and his revolver. Enemies grab her, and a giant red cross and circular timer appear. If Joel doesn't knock her free before the timer runs out, she's dead. These moments only seem to occur at predetermined times because during an actual fight, she seems invincible. Regardless, in this situation, she saved Joel's bacon, and I was easily able to dispatch the enemy before he recovered. The rest of the fight went smoothly, and before long, I'd taken down the remaining enemies.
The Last of Us is shaping up remarkably well. Postapocalyptic stories and zombie tales are a dime a dozen these days, so it really says something that The Last of Us is managing to stand out from the crowd. Part of it has to do with the atmosphere. This game has zombies in it, but it isn't a game about zombies. The pace is slow and subdued, and the focus is on the decaying world and the duo who explores it. Despite this, the gameplay is frantic and interesting. Resources management plays a big part in the game, and nobody will mistake this for a knockoff of any of Naughty Dog's previous games. The Last of Us, which is exclusively available on the PlayStation 3, is shaping up to be an early contender for 2013 game of the year.
More articles about The Last of Us