The Last of Us publisher Sony recently sent VG247's Dave Cook a demo build. He genuinely didn't enjoy it, but could see greatness forming. Was it just a bad demo, or is there cause for concern?
Right now I feel like a kid who wanted some LEGO for his birthday, only to discover that his parents had bought him Mega Blocks instead.
I think I was expecting one thing in my mind, thanks to being excited for the game for so long, that what I eventually got felt almost entirely out of sync. It was a rookie error on my part.
Recently I had the good fortune of playing Naughty Dog's beta build of The Last of Us, and although I've been seriously excited for the game for many months, I came away disappointed.
I'm not even remotely convinced that The Last of Us is a bad game, but I do think that the studio has come down with a case of the 's**t-demos'. To me, it didn't feel like an effective showcase of the title's potential
There's no doubt that this is an emotional game. The strained father-daughter relationship between Joel and Ellie made that abundantly clear from day one of the marketing campaign.
If I were a betting man I'd predict that the plot is going to pull the rug out from beneath you many times across its span, making you think that the pair are going to get separated for good, fall out irreparably or get themselves killed. It's going to be a heart-breaker that's for sure.
The opening scene takes place in a forest by the abandoned town of Lincoln, and the eerie calm, coupled with a hazy sunset, the sound of a lazily plucked guitar and Naughty Dog's trademark lush visuals made the apocalypse look almost beautiful.
You forget for a second that you're playing a game about the remnants of humankind, but then the reality starts to flood back to you once you enter Lincoln. It's a fairly open area, and as Joel you're free to scavenge for crafting ingredients, ammo and food at your own pace.
There are two sections that see you faced with an impasse, so off you trot in search of a big plank of wood to bridge the gap. There's a slight puzzle vibe to these sections, but I use the description loosely as they really were monotonous in their simplicity. The same goes for giving Ellie a boost over fences - something I'm utterly sick of doing in games.
Where things get interesting is when the infected enemies show up. You usually hear them before you see them thanks to the creepy clicking sound they make, and in most cases you can skirt around them without triggering a fight, or distract them with hurled debris.
I tested their ferocity by firing my gun randomly at a wall. Within seconds a pair of infected spawned in nearby and ran towards the sound. Panicking I fired off my remaining bullet and barely dented one of them, which then killed me instantly with one bite.
There's potential for these insta-deaths becoming a real issue for some players, especially once the enemy count rises. I'm guessing that there's a bit of Dark Souls mentality at play here, in that you must pick and choose your fights. If true, then it's something I could really get in to, but I just didn't get enough evidence during this section.
One neat scene saw Joel snared in one of his friend Bill's traps. Hanging upside down you have to shoot advancing infected while keeping them off Ellie. I'm not a fan of escort missions, so there's another potential problem right away. It raised the tension of the scene at any rate.
Ellie doesn't die instantly either, so you do have time to protect her once cornered. This really became important in part two of the beta build, which sees Joel and Ellie ambushed by a gang of raiders in Pittsburgh. You have to fight your way out of a derelict shop swarming with them.
I just found the encounter to be really scrappy in parts. When creeping up behind enemies you can break stealth unexpectedly, while you can murder a man right behind one of his mates without alerting him. The rules felt inconsistent throughout.
As an immense fan of the stealth genre, I'm all for being sneaky instead of going in guns blazing, but this felt weak compared to the likes of Mark of the Ninja or even Tenchu. Stealth is dependent on Joel slinking around cover in a low stoop and hurling bricks and bottles to confuse enemies, similarly to Rockstar's Manhunt games.
But ultimately, it felt like I was playing a cover shooter with only four bullets. Joel can also enter a focus state that lets him hear his attackers and visualise where they are, which is essentially Instinct Mode from Hitman: Absolution, letting you see through walls. I'm expecting many a debate about this at release.
People will likely say that The Last of Us is not a stealth game. But if that's true then what is it? It's certainly not a shooter, and it's not an action game in the same way Uncharted was. Perhaps Naughty Dog wanted to make it unique and beyond pigeon-holing, but I genuinely felt the demo was spread thin across all areas.
Where the Pittsburg stage succeeded was in Ellie. She's a great companion even if I loathe escort games, thanks to her contextual chatter flagging up enemy positions, or for her ability to batter enemies with any debris she finds lying around.
She's helpful like BioShock: Infinite's Elizabeth, and occasionally an encumbrance like Resident Evil 4's Ashley, but ultimately she's a brilliant character whose tough exterior melts away as she becomes enamoured by the wider world. Chances are you'll want to save her throughout the plot, instead of simply feeling obliged.
Both sections of the demo weren't that long but they give a baseline understanding of what The Last of Us is all about. Superb visuals, plot, acting and cut-scenes aside, I'm now cautious that Naughty Dog has cobbled together mechanics and several genres without making sure they fit first.
We'll know more about how well the formula has worked out once The Last of Us launches on PS3 worldwide from June 14.