If you’ve been paying attention to The Last of Us, you might remember this particularly graphic scene from last year’s E3 demo. In the initial press event, people cheered after the guy got a barrel full of buckshot in the face. It was particularly jarring given how the game had previously been touted as taking violence seriously and making encounters like that weigh on the player. The good news is that seems to have just been a bit of E3 marketing fluff, the excitement of the crowd mentality and all that. The demo I got to play at PAX East displayed a game full of tension and violence with real weight.
The demo started with the protagonists, Joel, Ellie, and Tess, making their way through what’s left of downtown Boston. The Sony reps at the booth were tight-lipped on story elements so I didn’t catch a reason why they were there at this particular moment. The disrepair of the city, 25-years after the fungus’ outbreak I was told, forces the gang to make their way through a collapsed building that turned out to be filled with the fungus-infected outbreak victims.
On the way, I was encouraged to check every cabinet and container I could. Within I found blades, alcohol, duct tape, bandages, and batteries. The rep informed me that these were the kinds of components I could use within the game’s crafting system. He showed me a few of the different items I could make which included med-kits, Molotov cocktails, and more. The most important thing I was able to make was a shiv, which can be used to stealth take-down enemies which are otherwise immune. Later in the demo, when I found a lead pipe, I was able to use the duct tape and scissor blades to make it even deadlier. A crafting system wasn’t really something I was expecting from this game, but I really enjoyed what little I saw of it. It didn’t feel tacked on, and made sense and felt useful in the circumstances of the game’s post-apocalyptic setting.
Climbing through the building showcased how The Last of Us treats one of my favorite features of Naughty Dog games, adaptive animations. In Uncharted, Nathan Drake would slink underneath a fallen log, maybe put his hand up on it to steady himself, things like that, all without the player’s input. It’s a small touch, but something I felt really helps bring the world to life, and is certainly on point in The Last of Us. It’s most evident when taking cover; which is to say you really don’t. There’s no cover button like you’d find in Gears of War, Joel just slides into cover the way he moves around everything else. It’s fast, it feels great, and it always looks really slick.
Deeper into the building I encountered my first infected, dubbed a ‘clicker.’ This type of infected has been blinded by the outgrowth of fungus on its face, and detects its environment through echolocation like a bat. I thought this would make it easy to sneak up on them, but it turned out to be anything but. The area was littered with empty glass bottles which I, along with the surprisingly helpful AI companions, would throw along its path to distract it. I tried to sneak up on the creature, but I wasn’t quiet enough and it lurched out to grab me.
Coincidentally, this was when the game itself really grabbed me as well. In that moment, when the infected grabbed me, I was terrified. Even in the middle of the brightly-lit, obnoxiously noisy PAX East show floor, I jumped and nearly dropped my controller. It wasn’t just the shock of being grabbed, it was the mini-cutscene that followed. The infected lunged at Joel, grabbed him by the shoulders and ripped out his throat with its teeth, all while blood sprayed over both of them. I was unnerved to say the least. I was also quite pleasantly surprised after that E3 showing that the violence felt shocking and awful.
After I recovered, and then died a few more times, I decided I should try something different. This time, with the help of Tess and Ellie, I just avoided the monster completely, something I am normally reluctant to do in most games. We progressed further onward, and here was when things got really interesting.
I encountered a group of infected that numbered probably five or six. Two of them were clickers, which meant they couldn’t see me but I couldn’t go against them without a brick in hand. The other three were said to be less further along in their infection and were fully capable of seeing me, but in turn were vulnerable to Joel’s bare fists.
I started towards the group, hoping to stealthily take them out one-by-one. Unfortunately, as I turned the corner, one the infected spotted me, but I still managed to strangle him to the ground. I didn’t have any shivs with me though, so I wasn’t quick enough to not be noticed by the others. They started howling and running towards me, I landed a few shots, but the infected are tough and true to the game’s theme I had precious few bullets. I panicked, not just in the game but the real world too, I started sweating and breathing hard, I made Joel run around the corner and down the hall. I bent down behind a filing cabinet and managed to take out one more of the monsters before I had to run again. One guy was faster and scrambled right up to me, I grabbed a brick and, because he wasn’t a clicker, was able to bash his brains in. Heart pumping, I hid behind a pillar in the former office building and waited. Using “Listening Mode”, where the screen fades to black and white, placing enemies in a bright white outline and enhancing the sound of footsteps, I could tell it was just the last clicker left, and he had lost where I was. As he stumbled towards where I was, clicking like the most fucked up dolphin you’ve ever heard, I snuck up behind him and….he ate me again.
That was when my demo, and at the rate my heart was pounding, I was kind of glad to take a break! It was an intense and exhilarating demo that really restored my faith in a game I was already ecstatic about. The demo only included infected enemies, no human vs. human violence, so I can’t really say if the game will treat that kind of violence as it did at E3 or as seriously as I hope it does. I can say though, that what it depicted against the infected and Joel was jarring and engaging. Thankfully, there are mercifully few months left before The Last of Us release and I can put that to the test!