‘The Last of Us’ Preview

I cannot wait until June 14th. Not only is it a day before my birthday — aww thanks! — it’s the day Naughty Dog’s new cinematic adventure releases. The dime store pitch — “Uncharted” with fungal zombies — is pretty accurate but unjustly pigeonholes “The Last of Us” into a role that’s not the whole picture. The devil’s in the details and TLOU has a lot of details.

We already talked about what we learned but I thought it’d be worth it to take another look for the upcoming release.

The demo portion I played clocked slightly under an hour, as Joel and Ellie are hoofing around a small Pennsylvanian town. The two are searching for a man named Bill but, more importantly, Joel is hoping to cash in a favor to procure a vehicle. Before we get into the abandoned burg we start in a small wooded area. Much like the “Uncharted” series, the world is grounded in reality due in part with an experienced art and graphic team. I took special note of the foliage and light effects before jumping right into the action. Naughty Dog’s in-house engine is looking especially gorgeous here — delivering richly textured trees and realistic geographic models. The setting sun shots shafts of light through the dense foliage as birds flitted about the grove. Even your flashlight bounces hues and shades of colors in a natural way. TLoU is a vibrant game full of popping colors and fantastic detail that makes it seem almost hyper-real. It’s the extra effort put in to really polish the final the game.

While exploring the ghost town it became clear that this Bill character is a bit of an eccentric survivalist. You know the type — lives alone, booby traps his domain, constantly paranoid, and possibly a threat. Lincoln is a bit of a whistle-stop and the fungal zombie plague hasn’t done the town any favors. Shuttered, dilapidated buildings line the main street as nature has folded over and reclaimed the once populated houses. This “ruin-porn” — so to speak — defines the broken beauty of how humanity has fallen.

Exploration in “The Last of Us” can be a harrowing affair. Thankfully, Joel is an experienced smuggler and has learned to use his senses to sniff out danger. This presents itself as a game mechanic in which Joel will crouch in a sneaking fashion and can “see” through obstructions allowing you to best plan your next moves.

Additionally, Joel has adapted to this new kill or be killed world with an array of improvised weaponry and tools. You’ll want to roam around the environment, scavenging for anything you can use. Tools like rags, bottles, nails can be found and reconfigured into a variety of tools. For instance you can create shiv from tape and scissors which will help you take out enemies stealthily. Furthermore, the shiv can be used to bust broken locks destroying the shiv in the process.

Crafting all takes place in realtime by looking in your backpack. It’s also a simple process that just takes a bit of time so it’s best to dig around in your pouch from a hiding place. TLoU is all about risk/reward whether it be slinking by undetected or breaking tools hoping to find better stuff. And the game actively encourages exploration, with large environments to wonder around — just don’t expect it to be all sunshine and rainbows.

One thing I really appreciate is the design work for the enemies. This mission was mostly devoid of baddies save for the very end as I had to sprint away from a horde of zombies. Really, these creatures are basically zombies but at least they have a disturbing twist having formed from parasitic fungi. The blind Clickers are especially creepy as they sense through sound alone and are deadly at close range — which I found out the hard way a few times. Naughty Dog created some disgusting and violent beasts.

That end mission scenario I mentioned earlier showed how deadly these creatures are. After navigating through several traps, Joel was ensnared in a rope trap and left dangling from above while Ellie has to figure out a way to free him. Zombies were closing in and I had just a few shots to fend off the threat. Eventually, Ellie managed to free Joel and the two decided to kick rocks in a fast paced escape.

What I found impressive is the independence of Ellie — barring the set piece involving the trap. Ellie is a tough cookie if not a bit inquisitive. After all she is a young girl and has never been out of the relative safety off the militarized government. And your fears of TLoU being one long escort mission can rest. Ellie doesn’t need to be handheld through battles. In fact, she  holds her own quite well fending off zombies. She won’t be killing baddies by the dozens but she’s sharp enough to hide and even if she does get cornered, she’ll avoid danger long enough for you to react. She even has a gruff side that her young demeanor belies. When they encountered a distraught and panicked Bill threating Joel, she pulled herself away from a metal pipe (that Bill handcuffed her to) and begin swearing and swinging at her assailant.

On the other end, she comes off innocent as she bounces around a group of flowers and tries to grab butterflies and balances over a log. She’s a child in a scary world and seems to make a great foil to Joel. She’ll react to how you conduct yourself in fights and can even help in puzzles. She comes off demure innocent child full of wonder but placed in very real, very adult, and very scary situations — yet she’s not naive to the danger at every corner.

The little bit I got to play really wowed me. It seems Naughty Dog has another killer IP as they take a break from “Uncharted.” I can’t wait to see what else “The Last of Us” will show as it releases in a couple of weeks.

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