Outside of a pair of appearances during the Spike TV VGAs and a brutal showing during Sony’s E3 press conference that left the crowd in attendance cheering, Naughty Dog has remained relatively quiet about The Last of Us. It’s taken over a year since the game’s announcement, and still the media and general public both have yet to get a glimpse of the infected. Until now.
The concept behind The Last of Us came from one particular segment from the documentary Planet Earth, where the Cordyceps fungal spores infected and took control of ordinary ants, turning them into mindless zombies with only one goal: Spread the fungal spores. Further digging into the subject lead them to discover that, like bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics through modern medicine, fungus, too, can mutate. This lead to a ‘what if?’ scenario: What if Cordyceps could mutate to infect humans, too?
Just as the Cordyceps infects the ants in various stages until it peaks, sprouts, and spreads its spores, the pandemic that has challenged human civilization has similar effects. Runners, as Naughty Dog calls them, are humans with stage one of the infection. They’re nimble, and are deadly on their own, but worse yet, they travel in packs.
As the fungus takes hold of the host human in stage two, behavior becomes erratic, and they begin to lose their sight. Stage two might be the most painful of the infection—there is a human left clinging on, aware of their actions, but unable to control them. Imagine the horror of attacking, dismembering, and infecting friends and family, the ones you love, knowingly, but without any way to stop it.
Stage three turns a human into a full-blown “Clicker”. You may recall a certain clicking sound when The Last of Us was first being teased. This is the “Clickers” using echo-location similar to a bat to locate their prey. Aside from the mutated appearance—which is more mushroom than human at this point of the infection—this clicking sound is bone-chilling, giving The Last of Us a feel like nothing else. And with sound design comparable to the Dead Space series, just knowing that one of these Clickers are in the vicinity will get the blood pumping.
But there isn’t just one Clicker, there are many. Although they are blind, they’re unpredictable, powerful and, like the Cordyceps-infected ants, have only one thing they’re after: to spread the spores into a new host—unlucky for Joel and Ellie, and the entire civilization (or what’s left of it).
The Last of Us may have a Survival Horror feel, but it’s also an action-adventure, a shooter and a game of stealth. Due to 20 years of pandemic, supplies, especially guns and ammo, are limited. This forces the player to approach all situations with caution and care. It’s a thinking man’s game, requiring patience, exploration, and a steady hand. If you do decide to go in guns blazing, you better be sure that you’re aim is on point. You can’t be wasting precious bullets, because you are going to need them.
Being a survivor is all Joel has done for the past two decades and Ellie, having been born during the pandemic, knows only that. Their desperation and savvy combined leads them to use what little supplies they can muster together. Joel carries with him a backpack full of supplies which he can use to combine and craft new items, weapons and more. Stocking up on bandages and rubbing alcohol means Joel has a way to heal himself after taking damage. The same rubbing alcohol can be used in a bottle to craft a Molotov cocktail. And that same bandage can be used to outfit a baseball bat with a pair of scissors to produce a melee weapon that just might keep Joel and Ellie alive another day.
Gameplay is slow moving, because you never know when or where an enemy is lurking. At times you can hear them, other times they may surprise you. Joel has the ability to “listen”, which brings up an Arkham City-style detective mode. It’s implemented well, so that you’re not over-powerful. If anything, it leaves Joel susceptible to attacks, because he must pause, get down on one knee and focus to really “listen” and it’s turned off the second you release the R2 button and start moving again. Even crafting or using items requires Joel to stop, so think first before you act. And since supplies are limited, exploring every inch of the battered, overgrown landscapes and structures is vital to successfully playing The Last of Us.
But beyond the gameplay, The Last of Us is about character development. By the end of Uncharted, you actually grow fond of Nathan Drake, Sully and others. Naughty Dog aims to again push character development, relationships between characters, and even the relationship between the characters and the player to new heights. Even after a short playthrough, you fall in love with the characters. You genuinely care about their outcome. You feel their pain, their fears. You experience it right alongside them. It’s a very special accomplishment that few games will ever achieve.
The odds that Joel and Ellie are up against certainly seem unbeatable. There are only pockets of civilization left, and the rest of humanity has been turned into monsters. What is left… is it really worth fighting for? That I cannot say for sure, until I get my hands on the full game this May. It’s going to be a long wait, but well worth it. I’m completely sold on The Last of Us.