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Preview: The Last of Us

As the pillars of the survival horror genre continue move toward shooter status, critically acclaimed developer Naughty Dog has decided to fill the void. Best known for the Uncharted series, the Santa Monica-based developer is now flexing its immense story-telling muscle on its upcoming title The Last of Us.

At a recent event in Los Angeles, GameCore got a glimpse of the Sony PlayStation 3 exclusive during the game's first hands-on demo. Co-president of Naughty Dog, Evan Wells, spoke with GameCore about The Last of Us and provided insight on what makes this game stand out from the pack.

The Last of Us takes place in the United States after a dangerous fungal virus has spread. The fungal spores enter the human body and begin to grow as it turns the host into a blind, mutated creature, barely recognizable as human. Beginning in Boston, which has become a military-controlled quarantine zone, we're introduced to the main character Joel and his partner Tess. As black market dealers, Joel and Tess have taken on a new assignment from the resistance group known as the Fireflies to get a 14-year-old girl named Ellie out of Boston and deliver her to one of their strongholds.

With Boston and other military quarantine zones under martial law, the Fireflies are searching for another solution for dealing with the infection that doesn't involve the heavy oppression in these areas.

"They're armed and they're trained and they have their own symbol and uniforms to communicate that they have a presence and try to attract a larger contingent to join them," Wells explained.

And though the Fireflies have hired Joel to get Ellie out of the city, they aren't necessarily his allies.

"They don't owe allegiance to anyone," Wells said. "They're just out for themselves, but they do cross each other's paths quite a bit because they do have to deal the same kind of contraband when smuggling weapons and supplies."

The locations and the lives of the characters in The Last of Us are very much shaped by the devastating virus and the infected. There are several stages of the mysterious infection. In the first stage, the infected are called "runners". The fungus begins to impair the host's ability for rational thought and reasoning, leaving them in a state of confusion and rage. Runners are fast and particularly dangerous when in groups.

Further development of the virus leads to a third stage; the infected is transformed into a "clicker". By this stage, the fungus has produced large formations that completely destroy the host's eyes and nearly encompasses the entire skull. Blind by this stage, clickers navigate using a kind of echolocation by emitting clicking sounds (hence their nickname) and have developed hypersensitive hearing and will charge toward any loud noise in an attempt to find and kill uninfected humans.

Joel must rely on stealth, strategy, his survival skills, and in some cases, teamwork to survive. One special skill at Joel's disposal is Listen Mode. When entering Listen Mode, Joel crouches and can hear the sounds the infected or other foes make nearby, revealing their locations and even helping him determine which type of enemy is in the area. However, Joel is vulnerable while in Listen Mode since he can't attack or defend, so players will need to consider their surroundings before using it.

In one section of the presentation, Joel, Ellie and Tess make their way through an underground metro station. Infected are everywhere in this location, requiring the player to search for possible weapons in the environment and take out enemies one at a time where possible. Joel is able to sneak slowly by crouching, minimizing the amount of noise he's making and preventing the infected from being aware of his location and movements. Because ammo and weapons are so scarce, the player will have to rely often on objects like bottles and bricks picked up from the environment. When equipped, Joel is able to sneak up on enemies and perform stealth kills.

In the hands-on demo, we began with Joel, Tess and Ellie in the ruins of the city. Crumbling buildings and overgrown vegetation make up the area surrounding them and we learn that when the infection became widespread, the military bombed major areas hoping to stop the spread of the virus. Of course, it didn't kill off all infected in the zone as we learn in the following scene. We made our way into the damaged building to find a pathway through it and move on with our journey out of Boston when we came across a small group of infected. The game then proceeds with a tutorial level with hints appearing on screen.

As we moved further into the derelict structure, we reached an impassable section. The only option being to jump down through a hole in the floor to a lower level and search for an alternate pathway while Tess waits with Ellie. In this section, we were faced with a larger pack of infected: several runners and a clicker. Using Listen Mode, we were able to see how many there were and where they were in the nearby area. Dispatching these enemies this early in the game when Joel's inventory is limited made this section challenging and tense.

Crouching and moving as silently as possible, using cover and throwing objects to distract enemies is vital in this type of scenario as is not allowing Joel to get surrounded by enemies. The runners are fast and combined with the noise a gun will make, Joel can easily become overwhelmed. If you're quick enough, you can sprint from clusters of attacking enemies, giving you a few seconds to regroup and plan your next move. Clickers are the toughest enemy we encountered in the demo and should be avoided at all costs. Once they grab Joel, it's essentially game over.

From our time with the game, it's very apparent that stealth and strategy are key in The Last of Us. Though handguns, revolvers and shotguns become available in the game, ammo for these weapons is scarce. Picking off enemies one at a time or bypassing clusters of infected all together is wise when the opportunity presents itself.

"We have lots of debris around the environment with bricks, bottles, and 2x4's that you can always use to try to get the upper hand on your opponent; either by using them to distract the opponent, by throwing them to another part of the environment and drawing their attention that way so you can then take them out stealthily," Wells said. "Or using them just as a blunt implement to hit them directly, to throw them at your opponent to stun them so you can go up and open up a fist combo or get a good headshot in with a ranged weapon."

Collecting items plays into another main feature of The Last of Us, the crafting system, which allows Joel to create weapons and health items like med kits. By searching locations and collecting various items such as batteries, duct tape, scissors and more, Joel can also combine items with melee weapons to upgrade them. As you progress through the game, more crafting recipes will be unlocked.

Although we didn't get to see the full extent of what the game's ally and enemy AI could do during the demo, Wells gave us some additional details on what players could expect in the full game. As seen in this and previous presentations, Joel will have Ellie as an ally and she will develop survival skills over the course of the game. Because we played through a beginning portion of the game in the demo, Ellie wasn't able to team up with Joel to defeat the infected, but Wells explains that further into the game, Ellie will be able to take a more active role. "We have the ability for our allies to help Joel if he gets pinned by the infected or another human the ally can step in and rescue him."

Wells also confirmed that although the player would not be able to give direct commands to Ellie or other allies, the AI system would be able to react to each situation based on a number of factors. "They're constantly analyzing the situation," Wells said. "They're looking at how many bullets you have. They're looking at the odds you're up against. And how much they're going to help out depends on sort of the situation that you're in."

As useful as allies can be in The Last of Us, Joel must also look out for his partners since they can become overwhelmed by enemies too. "[It's] a balancing act," Wells said. "We don't want that to become a chore, so you're constantly feeling that you're having to rescue them, but at the same time you feel like they're really in this environment and facing every bit of the threat that you're in."

Previously released gameplay footage has shown that the infected are not the only opponents Joel and Ellie will face. The protagonists will also have to contend with human enemies in The Last of Us, adding another component to combat.

"It's going to be different with the infected and the human antagonists," Wells explained. "The infected are not as strategic as the humans so if they hear a sound, they are going to swarm you. And the clickers, who navigate by sound, are particularly attracted to loud noises."

However, the human enemy AI will be very different from that of the infected, as they will act with more intelligence and pack logic. Wells stated that not only will human opponents be able to communicate with each other, they will also try to distract you as others will try to sneak up on the main characters, and even have the ability to adjust their attacks based on the weapons Joel and his allies have at their disposal.

"If you have no weapon in your hand and they have a 2x4 they will act more aggressively towards you," he explained. "If you have a gun and they have a 2x4, now they're going to stay back and they're going to try to sneak around and get you from behind. If you run out of bullets and they realize, 'Ok, well he's got a gun, but it's empty and I still got my 2x4,' now they can go back to being aggressive."

As dangerous as the clickers are in The Last of Us, they won't be the final stage for the deadly infection. "The fungus takes years to grow to its full life cycle," Wells said. "In the demo, one of the clickers was lying against the door and the fungus is starting to grow into the wall. So that was a dead clicker that didn't make it past Stage 3 but still continues the life cycle of the fungus to where it's going to become part of the environment, consuming the human body completely, and then will release spores to infect another human."

This evolution of the fungus will become another danger for our protagonists. Wells informed us that in some areas of the game, the fungus will have grown so large and release so many spores into the surrounding air, that it would be impossible to travel through that location without a gas mask, adding another gameplay element to this immersive game.

Dark yet visually stunning with visceral and intense action, The Last of Us is shaping up to be an exciting direction in the survival horror genre that will keep gamers on the edge of their seats. The gameplay is smooth yet challenging overall and from the glimpses we've gotten of the narrative and characters so far, Naughty Dog is primed to deliver an engaging and suspenseful gaming experience. The Last of Us is set to release on May 7.

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