The Last Of Us hands on & interview – “For us it’s important to show the brutality within context”

The Last Of Us Screens and art

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my first time playing The Last Us. Uncharted does zombies? Drake at the end of the world? The truth is far more interesting: while there are similarities – the animation and visual flair feel instantly familiar – there’s a far more mature feel here. Tonally this is a sombre tale rather than a jaunty adventure, with a palpable weight hanging over the characters and dialogue. It’s also, hands down, the most terrifying thing I’ve played this generation.

The Last Of Us hands on

The moment that almost gave me nightmares came exploring an abandoned underground mall full of clickers. In the dark. Clickers represent the final stage of the infection that’s brought humanity to its knees. With a face ruptured and split by the fruiting bodies of the cordyceps fungus that’s overrun them, these things are reduced to echolocation to find their prey. With several of them patrolling, the area was a thick cacophony of clicks and stuttered calls after a botched attempt to throw a bottle as a distraction drew in the masses.

The Last Of Us Screens and artHats off to the audio team here because there’s nothing that can really do the noise justice. It’s a chatter of clicks, pulses and small guttural barks. Thanks to my cack-handed stealth I’d drawn pretty much the entire level’s worth of enemies into one area, making the sound dense and overwhelming. With the headphones turned up just that bit too loud and the imminent threat of discovery bringing certain bloody insta-death there was a moment where I froze, ‘Shutupshutupshutup’ just looping in my head. As the crescendo of screeches reached a peak, I just blanked.

“One of the things we really wanted to focus on is the infected as antagonists,” explains Naughty Dog’s community strategist Arne Meyer. “While there are different classes and stuff, they really represent one dimension to the combat”. In the case of the clickers that combat is summed up best with the word ‘don’t’. You can sneak up and shiv them with a homemade knife (scissors and tape scavenged from shelves and drawers) but any attempt to take them on face to face ends in a short, bloody shot of teeth tearing strips out of Joel’s neck, followed by a black screen. It’s brutally abrupt. “We’re showing off the infected because we really want to show they’re such a terrible, difficult enemy to deal with,” Meyer told me. “It’s is why everyone is being pushed to these extremes.”

“We’re showing the infected because we want to show they’re such a terrible enemy to deal with”

For once it’s not just back of the box talk either. It is extreme – Joel’s death and the clicker shiving is offensively violent. The first time you swing a brick into the face of a runner, one of the less infected, more human classes, it’s impossible not to wince. This is not like normal videogame violence. It’s heavy and savage and probably a lot like what swinging a brick at someone actually is – crunchy, short and instantly regrettable. I can’t tell for sure because obviously I’ve not tried it in real life but this seems close enough to make the experience more traumatic than your usual virtual kill.

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The extreme nature of the violence combined with the grounded feel of the characters and setting (fungus zombies and apocalypse aside) make The Last Of Us one of the most violent things I’ve experienced on PS3. It never feels gratuitous though because it’s congruous with the situation – this is a personal fight for survival rather than a flag waving war. “The whole point is that it isn’t meant to be a pretty world,” confirms Meyer. “It’s supposed to have these very lethal and extreme consequences. What is is like as a human to be pushed to an extreme where the lines between good and bad, the moral lines are blurred? For us it’s so important to really show the brutality within the context but to make it very visceral”.

The Last Of Us Screens and artThe highlight of my time, and an almost unbearably scary peak, was spent hiding, terrified, behind a shop counter (shielded from probing echolocation) searching the shop for a brick, a bottle or oh God anything, to throw as a distraction and create a chance to escape. All the while the things outside continuing their nerve-sapping chatter. (‘Shutupshutupshutup!’) “The infected are there as a third party stressor to the survivors,” says Mayer. “What’s really interesting for us are the choices humans make. [That’s] why we’re focusing on the human drama in our narrative. They’re very conscious sentient and they’re making interesting choices”.

It’s an effective balance of stealth and combat. Avoiding the creatures is preferable because there’s a sense of vulnerability to fighting such dangerous foes armed with scissors taped to a stick. A one-on-one stealth kill isn’t a problem but the risk of alerting others is a constant, wearing fear. Against a group of any size means almost certain death with sparse bullets too rare to rely on and also likely to attracting more trouble thanks to the noise.

Avoiding foes is preferable because there’s a sense of vulnerability to fighting dangerous creatures armed with scissors taped to a stick.

The human drama through this is obvious: Joel and Ellie are the co-leads of The Last Of Us but at the stage I’m playing they’re joined by Tess, Joel’s black market business partner. It’s clearly an early point in the story because Joel is still very much in the ‘this is a bad idea’ camp. Tess on the other hand is leading the way and convincing him to help deliver their teen charge to a militia group called Fireflies.

The Last Of Us Screens and artThere’s a weary tone to the discussion here with Joel (prior to the eventual attacks described above) voicing his thoughts on their current route taking them through clicker territory (“it’s a bad idea”). As Meyer has alluded to, the infected are the cause of mankind’s downfall and the reason Joel and others survivors live away from cities. Their mission to deliver the girl is putting the three of them up against an enemy that decimated a civilisation. Ellie, having never seen life outside quarantined enclaves, is blissfully unaware of the danger and maybe just a little bit excited. “They’re so tall” she exclaims in wonder when she first sees skyscrapers.

It’s a very pedestrian apocalypse as the team initially negotiate a series of office buildings and crumbling concrete. Instead of scorched earth or bomb craters this looks like little more than a derelict building left to crumble, a mix of urban exploration and poor gardening. At this point I did have some issues with navigation. The more realistic feel seemed to lack any discernible signposting and several times I found myself trailing walls trying to find the gap/door/opening I needed to continue.

The Last Of Us Screens and art

Hopefully that’s more to do with being dropped in the demo cold and thus unfamiliar with the game’s visual language than anything else. It was certainly no more than a minor inconvenience, largely because running around areas looking for doors shattered the moment. In fact this is the first time I’ve played a game where basic and required gaming mechanics intrude on the atmosphere. Visual interference from HUDs, menus and other screen info is minimal but still seems garish in an experience so nuanced and self-contained  The usual item shimmer is sparse for example but it can still feel like a VIDEOGAME KLAXON going off when interactive items like door handles light up. Oddly, Joel’s listening ability – enabling him to see through walls by ‘hearing’ enemies move around – is far less obtrusive than I thought it would be, creating a minimalist visualisation of outlines to track threats. With enemies so lethal and unpleasant to face it’s as much a comfort as a tool. You’re not going to die yet.

It’s made a game where

game stuff gets in the way.

It says a lot about playing The Last Of Us that the very things it need to function – basics like weapon selection – actually seem to interrupt the experience. It suggests Naughty Dog on are on the verge of… something. It’s made a game where game stuff gets in the way. A piece of entertainment where the traditional visual language of menus and feedback feel like a constraint. The next generation could be an interesting place for the Dogs although Meyer’s saying little. “Obviously we’re still capable of pulling off some really awesome things with the current hardware generation” he says. “But, you know, there’s always the excitement with new tools and new toys to play with. I can’t really say what the road map is will be because it really depends how all of that works out”.