The Last of Us has finally appeared in playable form. What exactly is it? Is it any good? Phil Owen has pleasing answers both these questions.
For the first time last week, Naughty Dog gave us the chance to get our hands on The Last of Us and see exactly what kind of game we will be getting in May. We've seen hands-off demos before, but watching does not at all match the experience of playing it for ourselves. I can attest that seeing someone who is intimately familiar with how the game works play it will not adequately prepare you for facing the horrors of The Last of Us.
Before we played, creative director Neil Druckmann gave us some background on the section we would see, which takes place relatively early in the game. Hero Joel and his friend Tess live in a quarantine zone in Boston twenty years after a fungal infection ripped the United States apart. They are smugglers who bring things into and out of the zone, and they are tasked with taking a girl named Ellie out from this safe area to a group of men they will meet at the state capitol building some ways away.
The demo picked up as the three are making their way through the city, which is completely mucked up, as the military had dropped bombs on the city to try to contain the zombie-like infection. The early part of this journey involves a lot of climbing over and under things as rain falls on our protagonists' heads. Eventually, we enter a skyscraper that no long stands up straight, and the experience of exploring it is a bit disorienting.
But, of course, The Last of Us is about more than just walking around. After a while, Joel, Tess and Ellie encounter some of the infected denizens of the city, whom they must take down.
Combat in The Last of Us is stealth oriented, but Naughty Dog have created combat systems that are unique. There are three stages of the fungal infection, and in the demo we faced two of them, the Runners (stage one) and the Clickers (stage three). The important thing to remember about these enemies is that Runners can't see too well, and so their vision is based on movement, like a tyrannosaur, and the Clickers can't see at all and must use echolocation in order to get around.
If you try to approach The Last of Us the way you would any other stealth game, like I did, you will be beating your head against a wall.
So if you try to approach The Last of Us the way you would any other stealth game, like I did, you will be beating your head against a wall. In the first serious encounter with these enemies -- an area that contained five or six Runners and one Clicker, I died over and over again without making significant headway. I became immensely frustrated, and I started to worry that the game might be unbalanced and far too difficult.
Thankfully, though, a Naughty Dog staffer had been watching me play, and he pointed out to me that I can walk right up to a Clicker without him noticing me if he's not making noises. This was an important note, because Clickers are horrifying once they hear you -- when a Clicker detects you and gets within arm's reach, he will one-hit kill you. Meanwhile, you can brawl with the Runners, and so once the Clicker was dealt with I was able to take down the other enemies efficiently with my lead pipe.
I should note that the learning curve was high because I was playing a section in the middle of the game that takes place after the tutorial sections that we must assume exist, given Naughty Dog's development history this generation. Players coming into the full game will likely have a better grasp of how the stealth combat works at this point in the game than I did.
Indeed, there was another section later in the demo in which you must face off with an additional bunched collection of enemies, this one containing half a dozen Clickers and a couple Runners. Now that I had a handle on how to play the game, I was able to pass through that section without serious frustration. Yes, I still died a few times, but I felt like I was making progress with each attempt. It did not feel overwhelming.
By that point, too, I had learned the value of crafting, which is a necessity in surviving The Last of Us. As you explore, you'll collect a variety of seeming pointless items like scissors and tape and glass bottles. With the crafting system Naughty Dog has built, you will use those items to put together useful things like Molotov cocktails and shivs, and they also allow you to upgrade our weapons. A pipe is nice on its own, as it will allow you to take down a Runner twice as quickly as if you are just using your fists, but if you combine your pipe with blades from scissors, you can kill them with one hit. Upgrading will also allow your improvised weapons to last longer, as they can only stand a limited number of hits before breaking.
As a stealth game, The Last of Us is also unique in that the player character, Joel, is not alone in his adventures. Indeed, in the demo I played, he is accompanied by two other people. In the first major combat section, Tess and Ellie stayed back while I cleared the room, but in the next one they followed me around as I tried to quietly take down enemies. As I played, I could not tell if in those situations that stealth was broken if it was me or my companions who did it, but what I found most interesting is that they would notice that stealth was broken before I did. On those occasions, I would realize I had alerted more enemies when Tess opened fire. The AI seemes effective at helping out when this happens; Tess even took out a Clicker once all on her own.
Given that having companions follow you around in a stealth game is a new wrinkle for the genre, I couldn't help but ask Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells about why they chose to go that route and how it works from a technical standpoint.
"It's a struggle," he told me, "but it's so important for us to tell the story to have- well, the story is entirely around Joel and Ellie. When we set out to make this game, we knew that was a challenge that we had to tackle. The rewards are huge, because you can tell a much better story when you have other characters to play off of, so you're not just having an inner monologue or talking to yourself. To have that dynamic and build that bond between characters across the course of an entire game is really interesting to us."
In terms of building a game with a stealth system that needs to account for multiple protagonists presented Naughty Dog with serious obstacles that needed to be addressed, and Wells discussed those with me.
"Do you ever allow your companion to break stealth?" Wells commented.
"If you're staying hidden, will the player feel completely cheated if, for reasons they're not responsible for, stealth is broken? We thought yes, that is the case, and so now we have to make sure that somehow we keep the allied NPC out of the line of sight of our enemies. It took a huge AI challenge to-- it sort of works both ways: they have to be smart about where the enemies are, but the enemies have to be smart about where the allied NPC is, and we make sure that they will intentionally not look in their direction if they happen to be exposed at the right time. It's kind of a give and take."
So Wells put to rest my fear that Ellie or Tess could be a liability, and he also noted that they can be quite handy in a fight, as I mentioned above. Joel's lady friends are quite dangerous when they need to be.
"Although we had all those challenges in trying to figure out how to deal with the stealth game," Wells remarked, "now you reap all those rewards when you have an ally when combat opens up -- you all of a sudden think [Ellie is] the coolest person ever when she can rescue you."
Due to the stealthy nature of the game, you won't find the kind of epic set pieces we've come to expect from Naughty Dog thanks to what they've done with the Uncharted series. It's just not that kind of game, as you might have realized from my descriptions of the gameplay above. But they did design the game with a similar philosophy to their other current generation games in that they have had some idea of the type of sensory experience they wanted to craft before building the story.
"You develop the story, and that will bring to light some moments in the game that really create some awesome gameplay," Wells told me.
"Sometimes, it’s the story that drives us to say, ‘OK, we need to create this environment and this kind of gameplay,’ and other times it’s like, ‘OK, is is the experience we want to create — how do we get the story to pass rough that?’”
"You'll have an idea, for instance, we just thought it would be really cool to have an environment where you're going through a subway that's been flooded out, and you're in a building that is completely collapsed in on itself, and so you've got this familiar environment that people might go through on their daily commutes, but it's completely turned on its head and becomes unfamiliar because you've got these creatures dwelling in it and it's been neglected for twenty years and you can see what nature has done to it.
"That was just a moment we wanted to experience. We wanted to see what it would be like to go through a creepy environment like that in the dark, with this antagonism on you. So, then, you just feed that into the story -- well, how do you get them into that scenario?"
Wells summed up the whole design philosophy as so: "Sometimes, it's the story that drives us to say, 'OK, we need to create this environment and this kind of gameplay,' and other times it's like, 'OK, is is the experience we want to create -- how do we get the story to pass rough that?'"
From what I played of The Last of Us, I feel as if that philosophy is working, but only the full game will be able to tell us if that feeling is accurate. You'll be able to pick up Naughty Dog's latest and decide for yourself on May 7 in both North America and Europe.