Hands on: The Last of Us

At a recent press preview, I got to play through about 20 minutes of the upcoming PS3 game The Last of Us. It’s a survival-horror type game, set in a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by a plague that creates don’t-call-them-zombies. Ok, they’re not zombies, but that’s the idea here. You’re alive, they’re not(really) and you don’t want to get eaten. Seems rational.

Game on, then.

My demo started in a partially destroyed Boston. As a former native, I appreciated this criminally underused locale, and the overall feel Naughty Dog studios had been able to create. It looks like Boston, not just for many of the landmarks, but also the look of the streets. This isn’t Grand Theft notZombie: Boston. You’re not going to be navigating Tremont to get to Boylston or anything. This is fine, as they got the feel of it right, which far more important.

The plot, as revealed to us before the demo, is you play as Joel, a survivor and smuggler. You’re tasked with escorting a young girl Ellie out of Boston, for reasons left unexplained (to us, at the event). The voice acting was great. Prolific voice actor Troy Baker plays Joel. Ellie is played by Ashley Johnson, who you may remember as the little girl in Growing Pains and as the waitress you sort-of-recognized in Avengers but couldn’t figure out why.

Traipsing though the city was great. Part of the level takes place in a ruined building, which was a cool and clever environment. There are some interesting play mechanics too, like certain Infected can see and run at you, while others can only hear you, and use a clicking sound to echo-locate you. In the level I played, Naughty Dog had done an excellent job limiting the available ammo. Few things in any game can generate anxiety better than not having enough ammo.

I have a few concerns, and it’s too early to tell if this is game design or just the level I played. First off, it seems pretty linear. This isn’t overly a bad thing, as the scenery is nice, but a few times I definitely felt herded.

My other main issue isn’t strictly a TLOU problem, but more a oft-noted complaint about console games in general. There’s a lot of “video-game pathfinding.” As in, the game is trying to depict a real world, yet I know that if I was in that game’s world, I could jump that/climb on something the game says I can’t. It’s a little jarring. Near the end of the demo, for example, you need to climb over jackknifed tractor-trailer that blocks your path. In real life, I could have stepped onto the bumper, onto the fender, up the cab and onto the roof. Instead, I needed to figure out that a nearby file cabinet (that’s what it looked like, it might have been a dumpster), had wheels and needed to be dragged in next to the trailer. Sorry? The cabinet/dumpster was higher than the bumper of the truck.

But, this is still pre-release, and I’m not judging, just voicing my concern. I’m looking forward to playing The Last of Us, as the world looks cool, the story seems interesting, and they got the suspense/lack of ammo just right. As long as it doesn’t turn into some boring shoot fest at the end, this could be a great console game.

The Last of Us will be out May 7th. Until then, enjoy this extremely well-done trailer.