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The Last of Us hands-on: Humanity is a plague on the Earth

The grotesque fungus-infected of The Last of Us may be the monsters of Naughty Dog's post-apocalyptic adventure, but it's the surviving humans, the scavenging hunters surviving at all costs, that players should fear.

At a pre-E3 event hosted by Sony Computer Entertainment this week, we had our first encounter with the still-human survivors in The Last of Us. Unlike the infected, zombie-like creatures that we encountered in our first hands-on with the PlayStation 3 game, the game's hunters are cunning, overwhelming and challenging. And, as the game later showed us, they're capable of inhuman cruelty.

Before we had our first run in with The Last of Us' hunters, we got to play with protagonists Joel and Ellie in a more peaceful environment. Our demo opened in the small town of Lincoln, a Pennsylvania town southeast of Pittsburgh. Instead of the wasted urban blight of Boston, Lincoln opens with a lush forest area, lighted by a setting sun. Humanity may be at its end, but flora and fauna thrive. As Joel and Ellie make their way toward civilization in the distance, a crane struts through a nearby creek; a rabbit sprints into a bush.

It's not long before the duo encounter civilization in the form of a chain link fence — which cannot be surmounted, thanks to some razor wire — and a pair of small utility buildings. They're power facilities perhaps, the type of unoccupied building one might encounter in the woods. They present a platforming challenge, which Joel overcomes by hauling a plank toward the side of the building, heaving it up to the roof, then using it as a bridge between the structures.

It's a simple puzzle to overcome, but doesn't feel hackneyed. From the animation of Joel's movement while carrying that plank to the way it falls, just off-angle, it's one of many subtle illustrations of the careful detail Naughty Dog is adding to The Last of Us to help keep the game grounded in a sense of reality. You can see those touches in the way that Ellie yawns after waking up from a nap, for example, or how her eyes track the landscape when she rides as a passenger in Joel's truck.

Joel's use of the plank comes alongside what appears to be his first encounter with a makeshift melee weapon. On top of one of those roofs, Joel finds a pipe with a pair of scissor blades taped to its head. Crafting melee weapons, like shivs, and supplies is key to survival in The Last of Us. Players will assemble health kits and improvised explosives from materials scavenged throughout the game: blades, tape, alcohol, bandages, even sugar.

In the latest demo, we learned why sugar is an important supply item: It can be oxidized and used in the creation of smoke bombs. Those can serve as much needed cover when under fire from humans.

We also got to implement weapon upgrades for the first time. Collecting parts — scrap metal, gears, screws, bolts — and certain tools lets Joel improve handguns, rifles, shotguns and bows. At workbenches, he can increase their clip size, reload speed and range. Players will even be able to craft armor piercing rounds and an extra holster to hold a second pistol.

In Lincoln, Joel wasn't heavily armed. He had a rifle, and later found a bow and a few arrows — plucked from a corpse. Ammunition is incredibly scarce in The Last of Us. It was common to have 10 rounds or fewer in total for Joel's rifle and handgun. Feeling so underpowered provides a palpable sense of dread, not just in the game's high tension moments, when a quartet of infected is bearing down on Joel, but in the quieter stretches, when you're waiting for something to burst forth from the shadows.

Lincoln is front loaded with those quiet stretches. In one-on-one encounters, it seemed best to fall back on stealth-based tactics, hiding from infected rather than engaging them.

The action in the town doesn't really pick up until Joel and Ellie encounter explosive traps set by Bill, the acquaintance of Joel's revealed in one of the game's previous trailers. They're not tricky to avoid, but Bill's improvised explosives provide an unwelcome obstacle for our heroes. (Joel falls victim to another of Bill's traps, but that moment is better left experienced firsthand.) Eventually though, all hell breaks loose in Lincoln, the infected begin to swarm, and, with the help of Bill, Joel and Ellie escape and find transportation to Pittsburgh.

Joel and Ellie's entrance to that city, as detailed in the cinematic below, is not a pleasant one.

In Pittsburgh, we had our first encounter with human enemies, who ambush Joel and Ellie in a convenience store after their crash. Facing them is a challenge. They'll flank Joel and Ellie. They'll take advantage of cover. In my first encounters with them, the humans made short work of Joel. Continuing after each death showed how The Last of Us randomizes some of these encounters, equipping enemies with planks, handguns or shotguns. Sometimes, a few extra shotgun shells would spawn. Other times, an extra wooden plank would appear.

Naughty Dog's Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann said moments like those have a dash of randomness so that players don't feel like they're going through certain motions, fighting the same things in the same circumstance again and again.

The encounter in the convenience store also revealed just how gory, how graphically violent this game can be. Armed with a shotgun, a point blank blast will sever the arm of a human survivor, or cause his viscera to spill out. At the end of that fight, scattered pools of blood and mutilated bodies littered the store.

A later scene may have revealed just how awful those human survivors were, but it's potentially a prominent plot point. It also further emphasized how unrestrained the violence in The Last of Us will be.

Our hands-on time with The Last of Us' campaign was just as uncomfortable and dread-inducing as the last time we played it. Though it's filled with horrors, there are brilliant touches of humanity — mostly from Ellie, who exhibits real personality in the way she rambles nervously as she and Joel explore desolate towns, or the way she curses like a sailor when she's scared.

One aspect of The Last of Us we'd have liked to seen was the game's multiplayer mode. We haven't seen a second of it to date, despite the fact that the game is out in less than a month. Straley and Druckmann wouldn't explain why Naughty Dog was holding the reveal of the game's online multiplayer until the last minute, but both seemed excited to finally reveal it. The lack of exposure seemed more grounded in helping to guard an interesting secret, rather than apprehension about how it would be received, since Straley and Druckmann stressed that they wanted people to see more of the single-player campaign before they exposed the game's multiplayer component.

The two did say we'll hear more about The Last of Us multiplayer soon, before the game ships and before E3.

For more on The Last of Us, check out our interview with game designer Ricky Cambier.

Naughty Dog and Sony will release The Last of Us for PlayStation 3 on June 14 in North America.

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