The Last of Us is not a survival horror, according to developer Naughty Dog. But, to draw comparisons with the genre is not to discredit the studio’s impressive work on the title. For years, we’ve all been crying out for a game that offers the pacing and tone of classic Capcom thrillers of the 1990s. And the two demo levels I played gives the impression that this game is going to live up to that.
The first section, set in Lincoln, begins with Joel and Ellie exploring woodlands on the outskirts of an abandoned town (along with some very impressive graphical and lighting effects - more of which you can read about in the last preview
, along with other gameplay elements such as scavenging and tool creation). It’s a very serene scene at first, until you get to the town perimeter.
Boarded buildings and zoned off with barbed wire and electric fences, the majority of this level is spent solving simple traversal puzzles (like using planks of wood to cross roofs) and avoiding an array of deadly traps set up by a former colleague of Joel’s to keep the mushrooming ‘infected’ out of his safe house.
One of these infected enemies is called the Clicker, which Joel and Ellie encounter quite early on in the Lincoln demo. These guys are ultra-tough baddies that can’t see their surroundings. They compensate by having their other senses heightened - particularly their ability to hear things. The general strategy is to avoid them, if you can - they soak in way too many bullets to take down and they’re too powerful for Joel to knock back.
This one, as it happens, is pretty easy to sneak past, being tucked away in a shed opposite an easy-access building. I’m supposing that, as a result, this is a segment that takes place pretty early on in the game, where the player is being introduced to these deadly creatures.
As you progress down the dusty high street and through the back alleys to meet Joel’s long-time colleague - past abandoned record shops, car wreckages and bars that all offer some story background and dialogue between Joel and Ellie - you get the chance to encounter another kind of infected. Called the Runner, these nippy buggers are weaker than the Clickers, but attack in large numbers to overwhelm you.
This is put into practice towards the end of the Lincoln demo, when Joel gets caught in a snare trap and asks Ellie to cut the rope to the counterweight. While she’s doing this, a number of different kinds of infected rush towards you. Luckily, it seems that the game offers you unlimited ammo to fire at shuffling mushroomheads while swinging upside down. But that doesn’t make things any easier - your compromised position makes it more difficult to shoot the oncoming enemies, making for some really tense action.
You don’t just have to be aware of the infected on your travels, though. In the second demo stage, Pittsburgh, Joel and Ellie’s pickup truck is attacked by hunters - humans that have practically gone feral, working as pack of bandits that kill, skin and torture innocent survivors. The ambush crashes the truck into a warehouse, forcing the pair to abandon the vehicle and take out all the enemies in the surrounding area.
This is where your real survival skills are tested. You can tackle the situation in a number of ways - either by sneaking around and taking the hunters out one by one, by picking them off with any firearms you have to hand, or by simply avoiding combat and laying traps. In a panicky flurry, I managed to unload all of my ammo (scarce enough as it is) into just three of the oncoming enemies, which left me practically defenseless for the rest of the encounter.
I had to use resourcefulness to succeed, constantly moving and crawling around the rather large map in an attempt to surprise-kill my foes. As more bad guys arrived, I decided to sneak Joel out through a broken window at the side of the building, picking up a brick whilst outside and lobbing it by the truck to distract my pursuers.
As I attempted to cross the road to enter the office block opposite, a soft jingle began to ring. This noise tells you that you’re crossing an enemy’s sight line, and if you don’t move back out of the way in time your position will be revealed. Whilst this can be the difference between life and death in most cases, if you’re nimble enough you can move positions and leave your attackers confused, leading them back to a relaxed state of alert.
A lot of these enemies were armed, so it was difficult to tackle them all on at once. In fact, The Last of Us makes no bones about proverbially slapping your wrist if you put a foot wrong. After trying to rush the segment and getting spotted, my face was no match for an oncoming shotgun blast - and by the time I tried to beat the living snot out of my attacker, three more came running by, whittling my health down. I died several times in this particular section.
But it’s hardly unforgiving. Having said that, the stealth features of the game isn’t exactly traditional - alongside the warning jingle, your only assist when trying to sneak around is a ‘Listen’ function on the R2 trigger, which allows Joel to slowly creep around whilst identifying nearby threats through walls. Approaching the hunters for silent kills didn’t really work - I always got caught out.
In the end, I got past this section by knocking one guy out, taking his block of timber, hiding round a corner and sparking another baddie out, before picking him up and using him as a human shield. This allowed me to get close enough to the one remaining, pistol-wielding hunter so I could clock him. It’s a rather unorthodox and spotty stealth system, but one that encourages survival-based play and ups the ante on the tension. So, swings and roundabouts.
Ellie very useful in the game. Far from being an elaborate escort mission, she can hold her own in combat - and during the upside-down section in Lincoln, can look after herself pretty well (although you will need to shoot the infected off of her before you lose her). She can also help by finding nearby objects and chucking them at hunters to distract them, giving you ample time to run into hiding if you’re on the back foot.
Generally, The Last of Us
seems to have that gripping survival pacing nailed down. Quiet and unnerving one moment, full of fast-paced tension the next. But neither element feels shoehorned in - you feel invested in the characters and their stories, and most of all you become engrossed in the believable world and its interactivity.
While there are a few action-packed, tense moments, does an awful lot happen in the two demo levels in general? Not particularly. But that’s exactly what’s interesting about it. Arguably, not an awful lot happens in the original Resident Evil
either (besides the odd zombie/mutant attack) until the finale. The pacing of The Last of Us
is in step with those classic survival horror games of yesteryear.
That we’re all so used to Naughty Dog gunning for blockbuster hi-octane action sequences in Uncharted, says loads about the perception challenge that the studio has to overcome. If we’re all willing to accept that Joel isn’t Nathan Drake in disguise, we’ll probably be all the better for it.