'The Last of Us' Preview - Avoiding A Fate Worse Than Death In A Plague Zone

Last week, journalists were transported to Smashbox Studios in West Hollywood to get a hands-on preview with Naughty Dog's survival horror epic "The Last of Us." The latest peek at the plague-ravaged North America created by the “Uncharted” studio has me looking forward to their survival horror epic even more than I was when it was first announced.

Naughty Dog Creative Director Neil Druckman and Game Director Bruce Straley introduced us to some new gameplay footage, explaining that the game starts off in the Boston police state where Joel and his smuggling partner Tess have been tasked with transporting teen Ellie to a militia group called the Fireflies (during the demo footage we saw, the reason why Ellie was so special was cut cleanly out). The story would offer Ellie her first time outside of the massive quarantine zone which operates under martial law.

The sequence we saw (and would later play), was set in the Outskirts of Boston, follows the trio as they make their first steps on their journey, amid the fallen buildings and ruined cities outside of the quarantine.

Joel is, by this point, only a grudging participant in the journey, like Nathan Drake, something of a mercenary looking for a purpose or a cause to put his skills to use. For her part, Ellie doesn't seem to keen on her traveling companions, either.

According to Druckman and Straley, the Infected were born from nature programs and seeing ants being controlled by spores. The military has classified the infected according to stages, with victims falling into a mindless rage, charging at the player as first-stage runners. Blind infected can't see the player, but can definitely hear them, while Clickers (whose faces are fully collapsed and ruined by the infection) use echo location to find them. The Naughty Dog team wanted infection--which in the game looks like some kind of voracious spore sprouting over the bodies of the infected--as the proverbial fate worse than death.

Unwisely attract their attention, and the Infected be right on you, pounding on Joel with their fists or trying to rip his throat out with their bare teeth (I was unfortunate enough to see a couple of these death animations). You might be able to find a Clicker out and about alone, and on the occasion that you do, it's best to strike silently with your melee weapon or sneak up behind them and use your shiv. You can distract them by lobbing a brick or bottle, drawing them out of your path (or getting them alone so you can end them).

Weapons and supplies are, of course, hard to come by after a pandemic has decimated civilization. So it's up to Joel to get crafty with what he does find. Scattered ammo might give Joel an edge in a limited engagement, but you might want to play it quiet, modifying your bat with a pair of scissors to give you a more formidable melee weapon; similarly, find bandages and alcohol to craft a med kit.

My impression is that it's smarter to avoid combat altogether when you can. You're likely to get overwhelmed before you run out of your slim supply of bullets, so if you can run or sneak, then do so. It's how I attempted to make my way through the tilted, crumbling building that Joel, Tess, and Ellie attempted to make their way through in the demo build. In an early encounter with a Clicker, Tess taught me the value of flinging things for a distraction, tossing a bottle to get the solo Infected’s attention. The three of us went into a crouch and crept around the desks in what looked like a long disused office building. Near our exit, the Clicker started shambling back our way--would I throw a brick to distract it or creep over and put a shiv in its neck? Wanting to test out the stealth kills, I chose the latter, pressing triangle to close the gap between Joel and the distracted infected and slipping the hand-crafted blade into its neck (Runners, by contrast, allow you to both stab and strangle them).

A later encounter with a group of infected--Runners--made me test out Joel's hearing. Holding down R2, Joel is able to use what's apparently preternatural hearing to detect the location of enemies (displayed as grainy silhouettes through walls). I botched this encounter, honestly, attempting to draw one infected near, only to attract them all to my position. They rushed Joel, forcing me to run occasionally turning to try to land a head shot with my pistol (a terrible shot, I was amazed when a couple of bullets found their home in an Infected’s brain), but when I was out of bullets, it was down to my fist and bat to dispatch the last of the enemies.

I mentioned earlier how Joel might put you in the mind of Nathan Drake--how he navigates the foliage-rich environments isn't nearly as acrobatic as the "Uncharted" hero, but there's a fair amount of clambering up and over ledges and straining to push obstacles out of the way in order to allow Ellie and Tess passage. The decrepitude of the environment sometimes make it a challenge to identify the next point of interest or way point (no mini-maps here, apparently), but several yellow ledges and bordered pathways should provide enough guidance as to where to head next. At one point, when I was helplessly lost (I seriously thought I tried to interact with the thing I was supposed to interact with), the game prompted me to press L3 for a hint.

Playing this section, I couldn't help thinking about how the game would be impacted by the presence of uninfected raiders, or maybe a mix of raiders and infected. How will the stakes look for Joel and Ellie and how effective will simple distractions be then? True to the material, Joel isn't a limber action hero--his handling tends towards the heavy, giving the character a tangible sense of weight when he moves or when he's swinging a weapon in combat. How he'll engage enemy human NPCs is, for me, one of the big question marks about "The Last of Us."

An effective impression of "The Last of Us" feels impossible based on the constraints of a 30-minute or so demo. We only got a few minutes to wade into the world of the game, its characters and stakes. The evolution of the relationship between Joel and Ellie will be key here--moreover, I suspect than even the gameplay (at least, that's where I'm pinning my interests).

"The Last of Us" will be available on the PS3 May 7.

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