Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us was one of the most talked-about demos in the PAX exhibit hall; those who braved the epic wait times were treated to an exclusive twenty minutes of live gameplay footage from the forthcoming post-pandemic action/survival title. Emphasis on the survival.
Patient gamers were herded through a door and locked in a small, filthy, fake bathroom, complete with rotting corpse in a tub—a set piece from the game’s teaser trailer. Before the hands-off demo began, Naughty Dog reps introduced the main characters of The Last of Us, Joel and Ellie. Joel is a survivor of the plague that destroyed modern civilization two decades prior. He remembers life before the collapse. Ellie, a streetwise young girl, only knows the brutal environment of infected mutants and ruthless gangs of outlaws.
Brought to stunning life by the core crew of developers that made Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, The Last of Us is even more gorgeous than you’d expect. Modern cityscapes, long since looted and/or burned down, have been reclaimed by nature. The haunting environment provides plenty of cover for Joel and Ellie, who must utilize a dynamic stealth system to avoid conflict with enemies and conserve precious resources.
While many people assume The Last of Us is just another zombie game, other humans can be even more dangerous than the ravenous hordes. The footage premiered at PAX featured Joel and Ellie trying to sneak through the husk of a mansion that only appears to be abandoned. Players control Joel, Ellie follows his lead and helps when asked, as when he must boost her up to gain ground and access to a ladder. This type of platforming will be familiar to fans of Uncharted’s Nate Drake. What’s new to this world is that aforementioned dynamic stealth strategy that lets players decide how they want to navigate through the story. Will your Joel grab a brick and throw it down a hallway to misdirect a band of looters, or will he sneak up from behind and take them out one by one with a fatal choke hold?
The AI is smart. Enemies know when you’ve tried firing a gun with an empty chamber and will charge you accordingly. And gleefully. You can feel Joel getting his head bashed into a counter. You can feel what happens when bone meets brick. The violence is so visceral, it makes Joel that much more human. It makes the player worry about protecting Joel so that he, in turn, is there to protect Ellie, who is even more vulnerable.
Also new to The Last of Us are environmental hotspots that highlight when Ellie or Joel approach and trigger unique dialogue between the two survivors. It provides crucial insight into their characters and deepens their pseudo-father/daughter relationship. Think of Nate Drake and his mentor Sully: take their joking camaraderie and tinge it all with melancholy.
Drawing from a long tradition of post-apocalyptic fiction, Naughty Dog clearly wants their new game to stand up to the likes of The Road, 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead and Children of Men. While it’s too early to tell if this hope will become a reality, The Last of Us is at least showcasing a commitment to combining a heartbreaking story with cutting-edge, customizable gameplay—and early buzz indicates that it’s certainly one of the most anticipated titles of 2013.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com. She covers True Blood, Game of Thrones, and is also an avid gamer. She has also covered tech and TV for Geektress.com and Action Flick Chick. Follower her on Twitter @tdelucci