This post-apocalyptic thriller emphasises the quiet thunder of survivor brutality as you trek through destroyed cityscapes for supplies and shelter; there's no bombastic entertainment here. No blockbuster bullet counts, superhuman feats. Naughty Dog want you to realise the fragility of the human condition.
Think about it: when was the last time you spent a solid fifteen minutes in one room trying to take down just four foes? Or when your gameplay retries erred dangerously close to double figures? That your stomach cramped in fear as even a single zombified figure stumbled into view?
This was us in our first encounter with the game's nasties; two forms of infected that plague the darkened rooms of decaying buildings. The standard type, with its shuffling movements turned full charge upon spotting you, are bad enough. The Clickers, blind mutations that operate on echolocation are simply unsettling. Naughty Dog let the that clicking play out as the only ambient score to these scenes, heightening the horror. Make a noise, any noise, and whatever Clickers are nearby will charge. Be in their grabbing arc and your game will end on a lightning quick cut-scene as their teeth and your neck meet.
In any other game, these would be bullet sponges for our superhuman protagonist. But while our central character Joel may look like a more-weathered Nathan Drake, he's every inch the worn-out worried human being we'd be. Naughty Dog translate his weariness in every line of dialogue, and his lack of confidence in fighting with the control scheme.
There's tailored imprecision in aiming a gun that makes missing during any assault a certainty. The Last of Us isn't a game in which you can hide behind a volley of lead. Guns are a rarity, bullets more so. Besides, it takes a full pistol clip to down a Clicker. Stealth is better but no means a certainty for surviving.
Naughty Dog reduces down the soundtrack to the bare minimum, emphasises basic sounds instead. Moaning. Shuffling feet. Quickened breathing. There's an importance to what Joel can hear that has the studio imagining it as a gameplay mechanic: hold a button and the silhouettes of nearby attackers, whatever room they're in, will be outlined in white.
You can strangle infected if you sneak up behind them, but as neither type stick to specific routes when shuffling around, even this action is dangerous: any exposure to sight lines or sounds is. That you can be seen by one creature and heard by another leads to some of the worst fifteen minutes of our gaming lives as we try and ghost between roving patrols of both. The crouch and slow shuffle between cover becomes instinctive. Sweaty palms a constant companion.
Success, after our fifth attempt, leads us to believe the worst is over. It isn't. A tortuous crawl through a now-buried mall that's besieged with Clickers with our ward Ellie and fellow survivor Tess at our heels has us snapping the camera round continuously, eyes wide as we try and judge infected's field of vision, work out just how soft footfalls need to be to avoid detection.
You do have some aids. Fists only will barely keep a single attacker at bay, so discarded bottles or bricks can be tossed to distract Clickers, and items can be picked up and combined for makeshift melee weapons and first aids. A rather bland UI menu keep easy track of what percentage of items you have, and combinations - say a steel bar, some tape and scissors - break after being used. A great addition - and likely massive hinderance later on - is the fact that Molotov cocktails and first aids share the same ingredients. Likewise torch batteries have a finite lifespan, and we're informed lack of careful use can lead us having to trek through darker areas near-blind later on.
Everything is rendered in a cold, grainy visual style that lacks any gloss or cinematic panning come encountering impressive vistas. Sagging skyscrapers and wrecked streets aren't given any gloss; but it's the throwaway nature of vast wastelands that make it all the more effecting. Naughty Dog's historically made great use out of the power housed inside the PS3; as we come to the end of its dominance as graphical giant, the developer knows best what to emphasise and when: sprawling cityscapes aren't the wide-eyed marvel they were at the generation's start.
Naughty Dog rightly don't linger on those cinematic shots; the player's left to decide if they want to pan the camera or not. It's the right choice. The fixation is on the ground, the moment to moment survival in the dirt. Landscapes have been drained of any beauty; they're now only indicative of how many more miles there are left to walk. Building architecture now rated by how easy it is to climb, its value now weighed by what rewards and horrors could lie within.
We're somewhat adjusted to survivor's life come the demo's end. We toss a fiery cocktail into a darkened room full of silent infected while we stand outside in the street under the harsh sunlight. The fire consumes a few, and we unload a shotgun blast at the first runner out the door, before backing up and clubbing the last one with steel bar and cold calculation. Even with the plan mapped out beforehand, our heart rate's spiked.
This all barely a handful of encounters over the space of an hour. We've still to get a feel for the relationship between Joel and Ellie, and how much more there is to the game beyond these - admittedly frantic - stealth-driven moments. But Naughty Dog's earned our trust after a generation's worth of great adventures. Even if their last one isn't going to leave us smiling. Amazing that one of the most horrific experiences this gen comes from a company that was known for a deranged marsupial. How far we've come.