The Last of Us is my most anticipated game of the year, so when I saw that Sony had a thirty minute demo playable at PAX East, I was ecstatic. I was actually a little hesitant at first, wanting my first experience with the game to be when I finally get my hands on the final copy, but I ultimately succumbed to my hype for the game and decided to play it at PAX. Now before I get into my impressions, I want to make it clear that the show floor is not a very ideal place to play a game. It’s loud, there is usually lots of glare on the screen, you’re only playing a small (usually out of context) portion of the game, and you have to play standing up just inches away from the screen. The impressions I had of several games I played at PAX last year wound being way off once I was able to play the final games under normal circumstances, so keep that mind.
With all that said, after playing thirty minutes of The Last of Us, I remain just as excited for the final release as I was before playing. The biggest thing that stood out for me in the demo was the degree of challenge; the game is difficult. The thing that makes the difficulty so great is that it still feels fair. The demo starts off with Joel, Ellie, and Tess making their way through downtown Boston on their way to the Capital Building. It felt like this was very early in the game, likely the first time the three of them had been out together, and it didn’t seem like they had encountered the infected yet, but I could be wrong. You get a look at look at environments and do some light exploration and platforming before coming up to your first enemy encounter.
The game immediately makes it clear that often avoiding combat is just as valid as diving in headlong and gives you plenty of tools to facilitate this approach. The combat in the demo is limited to infected enemies, with two distinct types being present. The more advanced form of infected, called clickers, are completely blind, using sound to hunt you down. You can distract clickers by tossing bricks or bottles away from you to get them to investigate the sound. If you make too much noise they’ll be on you in no time, and the only way to kill them is either by stealth or with guns; your melee attacks are ineffective against clickers. Some of the most tense moments I experienced in the demo were having a clicker come charging at me with only one or two shots left in my gun. Once you miss, you are done for since there is no way to kill clickers in a head on encounter. I often died in these instances, but it felt fair because the reason for my death was my missed shots, not because the enemies were bullet sponges (one or two shots will take down every enemy in the demo).
The other enemy type, runners, are in an earlier stage of infection and are more common (at least in this demo). They still have limited sight and rely more on that than sound to seek you out. Runners are faster than clickers and tended to be in larger groups, but are a bit easier to handle. You can dispatch runners much more easily, having the option of stealth take downs, guns, or melee attacks. With just your fists, it takes several hits to kill a runner (leaving you open to attacks by other runners or clickers), but if you have melee weapons such as a 2×4 or a brick, you can take them out much quicker. The combat in the demo felt really satisfying. It definitely felt like planning ahead and remaining undetected for as long possible was key to survival, and this game requires an element of strategy most modern action simply don’t, which is really refreshing.
As for the other aspects of the game, Naughty Dog’s production quality shines through in every second of the demo. The motion capture and voice work are unsurprisingly excellent, and the environments look fantastic. There was some weirdness with the image quality, but it seemed to me to be an issue with the TVs and not the game itself, though I can’t say for sure (though the fact that no gameplay footage shown thus far has had that issue, I lean toward it being the TV). My expectations for The Last of Us are as high as ever, and we only have to wait a few months. You can expect a review of the game from me when it hits stores this June.