Imma let you finish reading this preview of The Last of Us, based on an hour-long demo of the game that SGCafe got to check out at a media event here in Singapore.
But before that, I just need to get this one thing off my chest: Resident Evil 4 is (arguably) the best survival horror game of all time.
It’s been several years since I’ve played RE4, but I still remember the very first time I ran into a zombie in that game: the bugger was hiding in a toolshed which, as protagonist Leon S. Kennedy, I had just strolled nonchalantly into.
Moments later, I was fending for my life as the zombie sprung onto Leon and tried to eat his brains out. Good times.
But why am I bringing this up in a preview for The Last of Us?
Because in an odd spook of coincidence (or a really cool and clever homage), the very first zombie I encountered in the demo was also standing around, hiding in a toolshed.
Developed by Naughty Dog, The Last of Us takes a cinematic approach to storytelling that the games studio established with their Uncharted third-person shooter franchise, but trades away all the big, blockbuster action set pieces in favour of the sort of intense, almost claustrophobic moments (picture getting swamped by zombies) more akin to Resident Evil 4.
Save the 14-year-old, save the world
Set in a post-apocalyptic United States where a fungus epidemic has turned the majority of mankind into brain-eating zombies (referred to as the Infected), The Last of Us is the story of a pair of survivors – a gruff, middle-aged man Joel (character voice: Troy Baker) and 14-year-old orphan Ellie (CV: Ashley Johnson).
Together, they must trek across the US while defending themselves against two factions of enemies: the Infected, and other survivors from opposing camps who are out to kill them in a bid to better scavenge supplies for survival.
You take control of Joel at all times, while Ellie is an artificial intelligence (AI) partner who tags along for the ride. At its core, The Last of Us is a survival horror game structured like an escort mission.
And Ellie is perhaps one of the most charming 14-year-olds in a video game you will ever meet,and escort, in a video game.
“Woah, slow down, buddy,” she’ll say to you when you attempt to sprint ahead. If you do lose sight of her, Ellie will slowly make her way back to you – but she does not teleport discretely, when out of your sight, the way Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite does when she needs to catch up with your progress, selling the impression that Ellie is here in the game as a character who holds her own. Not just to facilitate a VIP escort game mechanic.
Stop to smell the flowers, take in all the sights around you (it’s a post-apocalyptic setting, but also one that’s overruled by nature, leading to fauna and flora sprouting all over the landscapes), Ellie will sometimes make observations about her surroundings. At one point she marvels at the sight of actual fireflies, which amuses her to no end as the camp of survivors Ellie and Joel belong in are nicknamed “The Fireflies”.
And, when Ellie succeeds with a task that Joel entrusts to her in order to proceed – such as giving her a boost over a fence, early on in the demo, so that she may cross over to the other side to unlock a a gate – you can tell she’s as pleased as a peacock. “Nah, nah nah, nah nah,” she hums to herself, a victory tune of sorts.
And when she gets pushed around, Ellie will cuss like a sailor, imitating the phrases she’s heard the adult survivors use. She’ll drop so many F-bombs you’ll want to wag your finger and send her to her room – if only she had one.
Back to the ‘zombie in a toolshed’ story
The demo we played at the media event consisted of two stages, one entitled “Lincoln”, while the other was called “Pittsburgh”.
The Lincoln stage was mostly about exploring the environments, solving puzzles involving the use of wooden planks to get across giant chasms between buildings, as Joel and Ellie head over to meet a paranoid survivor named Bill, who has booby-trapped his entire living quarters to protect himself from the zombies.
Halfway through the stage, I came across my first Infect. A zombie in the toolshed. Just like Resident Evil 4.
Except I had the advantage this time, thanks to The Last of Us’s “Listen Mode”.
A key feature of the game that functions like a visual Spidey Sense, Listen Mode is activated by holding down the R2 trigger and lets you detect the presence of nearby enemies, who appear as white ghastly outlines when they’re out of your line of sight. This time around, I wasn’t caught unaware.
What I did not expect, however, was how tough it could be to take down a regular Infected enemy as Joel, despite all the tools given to you – a pistol, a crow bar, bricks that you could pelt.
As Joel, I stood about 10 metres away from the zombie, and began to take pot shots at the zombie, who inched ever closer to Joel. Three shots and a reload later, the zombie had gotten close enough to lynch at our poor hero.
There was no struggling, no pushing the zombie away, or any kind of coping mechanism to help you escape from a zombie at point-blank range. If one gets close enough, you die right away.
I was brought back to an automatically-saved checkpoint that pretty much put me in the same position as I had been before I died. Immediately, I once again headed for the same toolshed, thinking that now I knew where the zombie would be, that I would not get ambushed and die as easily.
Less than 20 seconds after the checkpoint was reloaded, I died again.
This time the zombie had come from behind me, and grabbed Joel without me noticing, while I was navigating my way towards the toolshed.
I would later die four or five more times in the Lincoln stage. And it’s not because I wasn’t used to shooters on the PS3 (I am used to aiming with analog sticks), It wasn’t that I just suck at games either (actually, the jury’s still out on that one).
In The Last of Us, the Infected are a deadly force, and you are advised to run away from them and employ stealth, almost at all times.
Even when you take aim with a pistol or a shotgun, Joel is by no means a sharpshooter, and this much is conveyed to the player by a slight but constant swaying of the targeting reticle, making it difficult to go for headshots – I had to settle for body shots most of the time. Ammunition was also scarce.
Later on, when our protagonists are close to finding Bill, Joel gets caught by a boobie trap that has him hanging from the ceiling upside-down. He tells Ellie to climb on top of a fridge – the counter-weight for the boobie trap – in order to cut a rope loose so he may be freed.
As she makes her way there, an entire horde of the Infected makes their way towards Ellie and Joel, leading to an intense shooting gallery-esque segment where you have to aim for and take down the Infected before they get too close to Joel or Ellie.
The second stage of the demo, Pittsburgh, was considerably shorter and designed to give us a taste of what it would be like to face an entire squadron of human survivors.
Listen Mode works just as well here, against human enemies, as it did with the undead ones. And the enemies’ artificial intelligence was smart enough to have them split up in different directions in an attempt to flank you – at one point I was so focused on taking down the enemies I saw in front of me that one of them managed to sneak up behind me.
“Watch out, behind you!” Ellie yelled. Had not for her warning, I would have wounded up reloading yet another checkpoint.
Interestingly, after finishing the demo, when I chatted with another fellow member of the press to get a sense on his impressions of the demo, he told me that in the Pittsburgh level he did not encountered the same thing I did; that is, one of the enemies did not splinter off from the group to sneak up behind him.
Between this and getting caught offguard by The Zombie in the Toolshed (who was not in his toolshed the second time around), several of the game’s play scenarios do appear to be dynamic enough that your experience with The Last of Us could end up significantly different from that of a friend’s. That level of dynamic AI was talked about by the developers quite a bit when it was unveiled at E3 last year.
Things may even change after reloading a checkpoint, so you can’t cheat and memorise enemy patterns to get out of a tough spot. All the more the need to employ stealth tactics to run and hide from the Infected. No wonder I died so much in the demo.
Or maybe all of that is just more evidence suggesting that I really suck at this game.
The jury’s still out on that one.
The Last of Us (PS3) comes out in Singapore on June 14, 2013. Pricing and pre-order bonus details can be found at our previous story here.