The Last of Us is one of the most highly anticipated games of the year - a great feat for an entirely new series that no one has played yet, at the end of a lengthy console cycle. Part of the excitement is due to developer Naughty Dog's existing street cred, as they're the brains behind the massively popular Uncharted series, and before that Crash Bandicoot. But there's also something a little bit unique about The Last of Us.
Fourteen-year old Ellie is in trouble. You don't know what kind of trouble, or why, but she's been living in a settlement in a destroyed city, under martial law, and she has to get out. Problem is, to get out of the city she'll have to face 'zombies' - although in this case they're people transformed by a fungal infection - and bandits who'll kill her for a muesli bar. The main character, Joel, is tasked with getting her out of the city. It's been implied that Joel has a shady past of his own, and he runs the settlement's black market. What are his motivations for fighting through a city with Ellie? No idea.
But I'm sad to say that the section of The Last of Us we played was not story-focused. It's a bummer, because Naughty Dog has great writers on staff, and character development has always been a strength of the company. In the pre-alpha preview segment, you take Joel, Ellie, and a third character called Tess, through a halfway-destroyed building. There are no human enemies here, just zombies - and boy, were some of them scary.
The Last of Us is tense. You make your way through darkened hallways, picking over every table and filing cabinet you can find. But supplies are scarce - you routinely have a handful of bullets, a shiv that you've crafted from scissors, and a couple of batteries for your torch. Missing an item may be the difference between life and death. The game floats in and out of the survival horror genre, but when it's in, you're always on-edge. It's very quiet, which makes it all the more frightening when you hear a loud noise, or a creepy whirring. Had I not been sitting in a well-lit room with two other people, I might have needed new underwear at one point.
It's also hard. There are different types of zombies, and taking them on requires different strategies. With the ordinary, everyday variety of zombie, you ideally want to sneak up behind and quietly strangle them to avoid attracted the attention of the others. Taking them on one at a time, rather than in a group, is key. And never use your gun unless you have to.
Why? Two reasons. We've already been over the first - your ammo is limited - but the second is that there's another, much deadlier variety of zombie that hangs around with the others. It's called a clicker because it uses echolocation to find its targets. If you're at close range and it turns toward you, you're already dead. You may have seen pictures of the clicker already - the infection has made its head virtually burst in half, like a mini explosion of fungus on its face.
Clickers are fast, furious, and have fantastic hearing. If you shoot another zombie while there's a clicker around, it's going to come running. Other, less noisy methods also trigger it, too - punching zombies in the face drew the ire of the clicker. And the clicker is really, really hard to kill. Even if you dispatch all the other zombies, you'll have to shoot the clicker in the head twice at very close range before it'll go down. Normally that wouldn't be so bad, but clickers move in a very unpredictable way, so trying to get a headshot is not easy.
There is one other way around a clicker, but it's even more difficult. If you're really stealthy and stay out of sight, you can throw a bottle as a distraction, sneak up behind one, and stab it with a shiv. That is, of course, if you've managed to pick up the necessary materials to make one. The problem is that clickers are turn around extremely fast, and they check behind themselves regularly. Sneaking up on one isn't easy, and despite numerous attempts, we never managed to pull off this kind of kill.
There is one other gameplay mechanic that can help. You can crouch down and go into 'listening' mode, which will show you whereabouts all the zombies around you are, even if there's a wall separating you. You can figure out what way the clicker is facing, and go after it when it turns away from you (but you'll have to be very quick).
The Last of Us may also look a lot like Uncharted in some ways. To be sure, it's in third person, with a relatively linear path and cover-based shooting, but the way you approach combat is completely and utterly different.
In news that will surprise no one who's seen a trailer, The Last of Us looks great. Even the code we played was polished, and the limited outdoor environments we got to see looked especially beautiful. When you're in an outside environment, the trees are all overgrown, and there's colour everywhere, which is not unusual for Naughty Dog, but is unusual for a zombie game.
The Last of Us is still a while off - it's scheduled for June after being pushed back from May - but what we've seen so far was great. We can't wait for the chance to take on humans - and to have Ellie join in on the action, too.