Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
A lot of game critics think that being in this business means you'll never play a game fresh, without expectations or predispositions. The reality of writing about games day in and day out makes avoiding a key trailer or plot point impossible, whereas consumers have the benefit of entering a media blackout before a game's release, but that's how I enjoyedBioshock Infinite. I chose not to watch every trailer and we weren't invited to some early hands-on preview sessions, but I couldn't repeat that for The Last of Us, as much as I'd like.
Just weeks from Sony's worldwide June 14th release date, I flew to Southern California and had a chance to play lots of Sony games, but I anticipated The Last of Us above all else. Waiting for my turn with one of many demo stations at a beach-side event space Sony reserved for E3 Judges week, I felt a sharp pain of disappointment in ending my streak of ignoring hotly anticipated games with massive marketing budgets until they had already landed in my hands. Then my turn came and 40 minutes of gameplay flew by, leaving me hungrier than a Clicker for more.
Ignoring story elements in the demo was easy, probably because sequences available to me, Lincoln and Pittsburgh, seemed devoid of exposition. Following a cutscene kicking off Lincoln, I thought a lengthy dialogue between protagonists Joel and Ellie would ensue, but Joel simply dropped off a ledge and I gained control. A setting sun painted everything in sight with gold, and overgrowth caused by the killer fungus dominated the town's landscape. In order to progress, our heroes had to make it across a gap between two short buildings. If Nathan Drake has taught PlayStation gamers anything, it's that you press X to jump in these situations, so that's what I did.
Joel lumbered up to the edge of the roof, jumped less than a vertical foot, and came down on the ground hard with a grunt and a stuttering camera. The plank that would guide our dual protagonists across the gap lay within sight, but I've been wondering how Naughty Dog would differentiate their two PS3 experiences. Drake moved fast and shot faster, but Joel moved like a real person, creating tension on ground and in combat with limited resources and vicious enemies. I'm not saying Uncharted is without challenge, but The Last of Us feels like an entirely different sort of beast.
A short while later Joel and Ellie watched as bloody gibs of Clicker splattered the walls and cement after it triggered an explosive trap. Throwing a brick at another disabled the device, but crouching under wires and moving slowly didn't keep me from being guided into a counter-weight trap. With Ellie free to hack away at the rope suspending me, Joel turned to his trusty pistol for defense against the streaks of Clickers coming to turn him into fungus chow. Seconds before this sequence I had wasted any remaining revolver rounds in a panic, but as part of this set-piece, Joel had access to an unlimited stock of ammunition.
Naughty Dog will have to strike a balance between indulging their AAA, blockbuster attitude and maintaining the darkly limited world they've put so much work into. I don't mean to mislead anyone. This sequence was still very difficult and popping off six shots before reloading meant unlimited ammo still had its limitations, but conveniently mixing up the mechanics to support forced engagements like this can derail tension and gameplay. Uncharted 2 didn't continually revisit the train sequence, so I'm positive this game won't repeatedly string players up either.
Pittsburgh focused on an entirely different enemy, pitting Joel and Ellie against human antagonists as it did during last year's on-stage E3 demo (see above). Here I tried to pay attention to Ellie, more than anything else. Some have claimed that Joel's young ward will surpass Infinite's Elizabeth as a cooperative AI partner, but don't expect Ellie to offer coin and health as needed. She largely seemed to remain out of view and out of sight. I giggled as she meandered in the background while I crafted a molotov cocktail, but beating enemies to death with my bare hands or bringing a lead pipe strapped with scissors on the end kept Ellie free. Stabbing an attacker to help Joel during the E3 2012 demo immediately attracted gamers to the girl, but I didn't experience any of that assistance in my hands-on time.
Back in Lincoln, I had to defend Ellie from Clickers while she cut me down, but in Pittsburgh she never threatened my stealthy approach. I snuck up on one enemy and choked him out, then turned to another and hit him with a brick. Human enemies I encountered were just as keen on hiding from me as I was hiding from them. If I launched into an all-out attack with no ammo and only my trusty scissor-pipe, I got cut to ribbons by enemies with firearms. If I focused on sticking to cover and popping off headshots, a melee-focused enemy snuck up on me. Moving quickly and striking silently allowed me to dispose of baddies efficiently, but as soon as I had to stop and listen for an enemy's location, I felt threat of death tenfold.
Shooting an enemy in The Last of Us is tantamount to giving away your position with a loud fart. While Clickers announce their position and attack head-on, human opponents remain silent but deadly, forcing you to re-evaluate the field or retreat to a safe point altogether. Combat in The Last of Us pushes players to explore open levels, undoing the pitfalls Uncharted 3 suffered in the well sequence. After solving an underground puzzle in that game, players had to fend off a flood of enemies equipped with smoke grenades. I've never been more bored with a combat arena since Final Destination.
While Drake and company have frequently relied on interesting cover mechanics and explosive sets with dozens of armed enemies, the well was plain and one-dimensional, but I'm not sure it's possible to repeat that in The Last of Us. Combat in this new Naughty Dog game relies on arenas rife with opportunities to double back, flank, and outmaneuver. If a fight breaks out, you can't wait for a human to emerge from smoke to blast him with a shotgun. If Joel alerts a Clicker, he can't expect to fire a lucky headshot and walk away without a scratch. In fact, sometimes your only option is to run.
After the traps in Lincoln, Bill, Ellie, and Joel flee to an exit point and struggle to open a door, but so early in the demo I felt confident in my ability to fend off the pack. How stupid of me. Clickers ripped Joel's neck to shreds several times before a developer made it clear I needed to run above anything else. Waiting for the door to open, I realized I'd never felt so anxious playing a demo, much less a 10-hour experience. Chirps and unnatural clicks uttered from fungi-fied humans still hang in my ears and the brutal murderers and thieves left from the epidemic could pop up behind me as I write this.
However, it seems impossible to convey the full effect in words. If The Last of Us can deliver an engrossing world as they have with Uncharted and capitalize on the visceral and nerve-wracking gameplay I experienced first-hand, PlayStation fans likely won't need a next-generation any time soon.