The Last of Us Preview: Dangers Seen and Unseen

Game Front got a chance to check out a new hands-on demo of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us on Playstation 3 this week, but we feel that understanding the demo of the game we played in February is key context to what’s on offer in this new part. Check out Looting, Crafting and Stealth-Kills: Hands on with The Last of Us and Everything We’ve Learned About The Last of Us for all the background you need.

On the Emptiness of the Apocalypse
On the Character of Joel
On Getting Killed in Lincoln
On Arriving in Philadelphia
On New Progression Details
On the Quality of the Demo

While much has been made about The Last of Us‘ emotional bond between its two protagonists, at its heart, the game is about a road trip across the U.S. and the effects it has on its characters.

Granted, it’s a road trip through the hostile territory of a zombie-plagued United States, with the player taking on the role of Joel, a smuggler of questionable morality who’s escorting Ellie, a teenage girl hunted by the last vestiges of authority. Last time we at Game Front got a chance to play The Last of Us, our time was spent just outside the walled quarantine zone of Boston. In a new hands-on demo from Naughty Dog and Sony, the trip has been expanded somewhat to include two new cities and several new gameplay scenarios.

It’s the first time we’ve really started to get a sense of the “road trip” part of The Last of Us’ cross-country journey and the different-but-similar locales that’s going to entail. In Lincoln, Penn., where this demo begins, the pair stops to try to find a man Joel knows named Bill, who they think can set them up with a car. Joel and Ellie seem to have left any main roads and crossed through woods, approaching a fenced entrance to the town of Lincoln by way of wilderness.

Lincoln’s a small town, one that saw advanced evacuation before the full threat of the game’s fungal pandemic hit its residents. If you remember, The Last of Us’ “zombies” aren’t really zombies — they’re humans infected with a kind of Cordyceps fungus that invades victims’ craniums, takes over brain function and turns them into blinded, vicious killers bent on furthering the infestation. There are two brands of these creatures that we’ve seen so far: the Runners, which are newly infected, mostly sighted and capable of sprinting toward Joel and Ellie; and the Clickers, a much more dangerous group of blinded infected who use sound to locate their prey and can kill Joel instantly if they take hold of him.

Finding a way through Lincoln in the waning daylight takes Joel and Ellie through interior and exterior environments in equal measure, and in fact, each demo level runs without a single load screen. The early going finds me running up against fences with barbed wire and barricades I can’t surmount on my own. Getting into the town takes some scaling of low buildings to reach a rooftop, and the use of a long wooden plank as a bridge to reach another roof, representing some of the light environmental puzzle-solving that is sometimes required to get around in The Last of Us. Once inside, there’s creeping and exploring to be done.

A Profound Emptiness

Lincoln carries a small-town feel, and it’s nice to be operating in the daylight and the open, as opposed to the many dark and dangerous interiors of Boston’s rainy, nighttime approach. That doesn’t mean there are no dangers, though. After entering a small apartment building on the second floor and scouring it for resources — much of what’s to be found in The Last of Us needs to be grabbed and saved for later use in making shivs, molotovs, health packs and more — I crept out a lower door and found myself face to face with an unaware Clicker.

Just like last time, each encounter with enemies is different from the last, and how you face it is extremely important. This Clicker is in a sort of carport, around a corner with a wall between me and it. I can sneak in close in stealth mode, moving slowly and quietly, and then plant a shiv in its neck by executing a quick unaware stealth kill. Two button pushes and it’s all over without attracting any additional attention — but I’m out my shiv, which is expended in the process. That means in my next fight, I’ll have to go loud with the lead-pipe-and-scissors combo melee weapon I’m carrying.

It’s remarkable just how empty the town is, though, and by extension, how empty the world of The Last of Us seems. As Ellie and Joel cross the wooded area just before they enter Lincoln, a rabbit hops by, and it’s a moment that’s poignant but subtle. With so much rampant death and desolation, life persists, but hidden and fearful. That rabbit crossing the characters’ path is a rarity, a remarkable moment, but indicative also of life’s existence below the surface level of what can be seen.

The same is true of the lives and feelings of the protagonists. A few second later, Ellie is enchanted as fireflies dance around in the tall grass. It’s an experience she’s never had before, growing up in the post-pandemic world, and it elicits little more than gruff acknowledgment from Joel. This is a world where simple moments of beauty are few, and in which steeling oneself against those moments may well be key to survival.

A Clicker and a few buildings later and we’re into Lincoln proper, walking along its main street. Barricades are everywhere, the work of Bill, Joel says, and there’s ample room to do some exploring. Two or three open storefronts yield new crafting gear and a few notes that hint at things that happened to people in the early days of the pandemic. Some of them offer you clues to finding stuff like ammo: upon discovering a safe that has fallen off a flatbed pickup, I find its combination on a note nearby. Others offer Ellie and Joel a few moments of conversation about life and people left behind, in which Joel is usually, at least this early in the game, kind of a d–k.

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