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The Last of Us – Preview

About as close to Cormac McCarthy's The Road as games are ever likely to get.

Tantalisingly Naughty Dog have neither told, nor shown us much from their post-apocalyptic survivalist adventure, and yet already the gaming community has (quite rightly) exploded into joyous rapture at the first piece of gameplay footage to emerge.

We don’t know what caused the extinction-level event central to The Last of Us – perhaps we never will given the likelihood of an average Joe (or Joel in this case) having any idea of the whys and where fores once the brown stuff hits fan – and perhaps, in in a Cormac McCarthy’s The Road kind of way, “why” isn’t even important.

We do know that, aside from the rival human gangs picking through the remains of the abandoned cities of this empty world, there is another for assailant at work; a zombie or mutant type of ghoul which might well collectively known as “Clickers” – certainly one of the human raiders in the gameplay footage says they haven’t seen a ‘Clicker in a while’. The name conjuring images of a possibly insectoid type monster (which would tie in nicely with the The Last of Us’ teaser trailer which heavily featured insects).

More concrete than such insect-zombie-monster supposition is the scope of variety in approach demonstrated in the playthroughs of the game we’ve been privy too – one very much identical to the one released, and another shown only at Sony’s behind closed doors E3 briefing in which game director, Bruce Straley played through that same scenario but in an entirely different way.

The bone-crunching violence was there of course but in this longer cut of the same scene most striking of all was the father/daughter type relationship between Joel and his young sidekick Ellie – a fellow survivor who Joel has presumably taken under his wing. Quite why they are but two, and why they haven’t teamed up with their fellow survivors is again unexplained thus far, though perhaps echoes The Road’s tale of militarised opportunists and cannibals roaming the wilderness.

It was always the banter between Nathan Drake and his companions which went a long way to making Uncharted the game it was, and is, for me – that casual and easy flow of dialogue which seems effortless when be holding it but is far from easy in its manufacturing (hence why few games have dialogue so well written or perfectly delivered).

The Last of Us looks to carry this free and easy conversational style to new heights as Joel and Ellie swap stories based on what you decide to interact with – a series of film posters for example serving as catalysts for Joel to tell Ellie parts of his history. Fail to interact with the poster and you miss that particular moment of exposition – a recurring theme within a game which chooses to offer the player choice – or at least the illusion of choice – at every turn.

For example, take the one encounter so far demonstrated at which Joel and Ellie encounter a group of men whose motives are unclear (but it can be inferred that they aren’t the best intentioned lot given Joel’s first reaction is to hide). As mentioned, I’ve seen this encounter played out in an entirely different, one where Joel went for a more stealthy approach, throwing glass bottles to distract the enemy, and taking more use of cover, etc.

After a protracted game of hide-&-seek there followed a series of bare-knuckle encounters – where guns became meaningless and breaking out of half-nelson holds much more important. Once again Ellie became involved, hammering against those who’d got the drop on Joel, and once the numerical tables were turned the last hostile panicked, deciding to throw a Molotov cocktail at Joel which missed but shattered against a wall, so engulfing it in flames. Joel was then able to tackle the guy into the flames, so giving him a particularly painful end.

In fact in the brief time I had to discuss the demo afterwards Straley confirmed that the player need not have even engaged those particular hostiles at all, such encounters requiring a ‘cost versus benefit weigh-up’ on the behalf of the player.

Worth the wait? As I said at the top there’s a huge amount we still don’t know about The Last of Us. There are all those unanswered plot questions of course, but then there are more pressing gameplay unknowns too. How will encounters with the Clickers work; is Ellie ever controllable; how in depth is the briefly called up inventory screen; how much of game is linear versus open world?

I do know that Joel and Ellie won’t spend the whole adventure together though, as the longer playthrough I witnessed ended with Joel crashing down through an elevator shaft with Ellie stranded at the top – a less brutal end than the shotgun to the head abruptness of the shorter trailer’s ending at least.

For: PS3
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony
When? 2013