Generation 7 Ends On A High Note: The Last Of Us Hands-On
Check out the rest of our The Last of Us preview coverage: Phil Hornshaw’s Looting, Crafting and Stealth-Kills: Hands on with The Last of Us, and our interview with Lead Designer Jacob Minkoff about players’ relationship with the character of Ellie.
The Last of Us had me the second that first trailer was shown at the Spike TV Video Game Awards more than a year ago. The team that brought us Uncharted doing the apocalypse? Sold. Since that trailer we’ve seen previous little, aside from highly managed, hands-off demonstrations at 2012′s major conventions. While what was shown hinted at something potentially great, it was, truth be told, more marketing than anything else.
I like apocalypses, and even with Uncharted 3‘s unevenness, Naughty Dog has earned a lot of leeway. But when you announce something and then spend more than a year hyping it, the wise person — some might say the cynic — is forced to assume that there’s a big risk that talking the talk won’t result in any walking of the walk. As it turns out, Naughty Dog can walk the walk. I can honestly say that even roughly half an hour’s worth of The Last of Us was one of the best things I’ve played in the last year.
Before you accuse me of hyperbole, please do note that I’ve accounted for the fact that as we near the end of the current generation, publishers and developers have been increasingly risk-averse. No surprise there; you assume they don’t want to take chances on anything that might become unsellable the second new consoles come out. Hence a huge emphasis on sequels, with attempts to really make something new generally relegated, with mixed results, to Kickstarter.
Not so The Last of Us, which feels like the kind of game you get once a generation has really settled in. Think 2007-2010 for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. It isn’t that it’s the newest and most original thing on earth — it’s the utter lack of that awful synthesis that’s crept into AAA gaming, with most big releases feeling as much as possible like every other successful game to come out within a couple of years of it.
That’s probably why, even though I knew going in what it was, I was still surprised by how The Last of Us really is a survival-horror game. Lately, the genre has looked in genuine danger of dying out in AAA, with Dead Space 3‘s survival-horror elements being completely neutered, and genre-grandfather Resident Evil just pretty much abandoning it entirely with Resident Evil 6. Given that is uses the same engine, I expected TLOU to be Uncharted in the apocalypse. Instead, it’s a genuinely creepy experience that managed to actually piss me off, thanks to its challenging (to me, anyway) difficulty.
Before talking about that, I want to first note what might be the strongest thing about The Last of Us — the world in which the game takes places has a rare, high degree of verisimilitude. The wreckage of London in Mass Effect 3, for instance, was appropriately apocalyptic for an earth ravaged by alien invasion, but the streets felt very much mapped out for exciting battles. There was little, aside from landmarks in the background, that distinguished it from the bombed out cities common in equally mapped-out games like the Modern Warfare series.
Boston of The Last of Us feels like it was once a real place. This is where the Uncharted engine really comes into play. Everything that makes big set pieces work in that series is brought to bear here. In fact, in my case, I spent a lot of time taking everything in, a habit that, as it turns out, really helps later during strategizing your way in and out of tight spots. The sight of Boston’s skyline in ruins was particularly well done. Building look old, but familiar, and the city itself feels like something that hadn’t been planned, but had been built up over centuries before being destroyed. (See the Massachusetts State house in real life, then compare to the game, for a sense of how it feels.)
Another nice touch, and something else from Uncharted used to perfection, is the way environments reflect the game’s “reality.” The buildings of Boston are in a protracted state of decay, collapsing, sliding off their foundations, or just gradually falling apart from erosion. In-game physics and the placement of the camera ram home the fact that you’re on sloped or just unsteady ground. Lighting is naturalistic. Sounds feel authentic too, with dank, wet echos, hollow acoustics or just the eerie quiet of an abandoned metropolis. It’s stirring stuff.