It's a fact that games aren't as scary as they used to be. It's not like game developers forgot how to make scary games—franchises like ZombiU and Amnesia are proof of that. All you have to do is make important resources scarce and make my enemies more powerful than I am, and every decision—what items to use, which corridor to choose, when to shoot—becomes a tense one. And tension breeds fright.
Naughty Dog understands this, and thankfully, Sony has allowed them experiment with elements of fright in The Last of Us. They're not afraid of turning off some easily spooked casual audience, either; if they were, they'd have shown us a very different portion of the game at a preview event last week.
The game begins. Bearded Joel, his gruff Southern drawl surprising me, as someone who maybe hasn't seen every bit of footage since The Last of Us was announced, stands at the outskirts of a massive urban jungle of tilted skyscrapers and freeways cracked in half. He explains that the city was bombed to try to quell the infection. With him are Tess, another survivor, and Ellie, his young companion, who still looks and sounds exactly like Ellen Page to me.
She's got a potty mouth; he's got a rational mind. Their chemistry was evident even over the short amount of time I got to play. But coming into the game without seeing the beginning, the story was muddled. There's been an apocalyptic disaster (duh) and monsters rule the streets. The three survivors have to make their way through what used to be the downtown area to reach some undisclosed goal. As they crept forward, Ellie was still asking questions about the infected that they encountered—she seemed unfamiliar with them, indicating this was still probably early in the game.
I'm not sure if I was expecting something more or less like Uncharted, but that was definitely not what I got. Where Uncharted is straightforward—duck, shoot, climb, repeat—The Last of Us is anything but. True, much of the game is still spent navigating the environment, but in this level at least, that's no longer the puzzle it was in Uncharted. And judging by my lack of ammo (not to mention the impotence of bullets against what these survivors faced), shooting won't be as big a focus.
Ducking, yes; the monsters in The Last of Us are deadly, fast and perceptive—even the ones that can't see—and on this level I spent the majority of combat sneaking around trying to avoid detection.
Shimmying, crawling and climbing their way through decimated office buildings that looked like they got hit by nukes, the trio encounters the first enemy of the level. Luckily, it's dead, but the "infection" that caused this person to mutate into an eyeless "Clicker" with a face that looks like a sea anemone has spread beyond its ruined corpse, into the crack between a wall and a door. There's a brief quick-time event (jam on the triangle button!) and a nauseating squelching sound as Joel separates the corpse from the door and the door from the wall.
The next time the survivors encounter the infected, they aren't so lucky; the next batch are alive. There were two types in this demo: Clickers, which hunt by echolocation, audibly clicking, on account of their faces having been replaced by a seafood-like fungus; and Runners, which behave much more like normal zombies, albeit more Left 4 Dead than Resident Evil. They're partially blind, and they can't see the light of your flashlight, but they can sense quick movements, and they'll rush toward you if you aren't careful.
Telling the girls to stay behind, Joel drops down into an area crawling with both types of enemy. He's got several tools at his disposal here: a pistol with seven bullets, plus a revolver with two that he just found; a shiv, made from scissors, that he can used to quickly finish off enemies he grabs from behind; bottles and bricks found lying around the environment, which he can throw to distract the sound- and movement-sensitive monsters; and his fists, a last resort that will usually get him killed.
Holding down R2 enters into a slow-motion "listen mode" where Joel holds his breath and listens hard, allowing you to see enemies' locations and position through walls. It doesn't make a ton of sense, but it's a welcome ability, since sneaking up on these fuckers is hard enough as it is. If you grab a Runner from behind, you can shiv it quickly or strangle it. If you fail at a stealthy approach, you can punch them to death, but if there's more than one around you'll quickly be overwhelmed.
Clickers are a different story; approaching them head-on (or allowing them to shamble up to you from the front) means instant death. Literally, there's no way to get out of it. They just kill you. You have to shoot them or sneak up on them, and even then you can't strangle them; the only option is the shiv. To top it off, you don't have unlimited shivs—far from it, in fact. You'll be constantly scavenging around the environment for scissors and other blades to use as make-shifts knives.
This is where the resources come in. You'll find materials everywhere that range from blades, bindings and rags to alcohol, explosives and sugar. These can be crafted into a variety of objects, like molotov cocktails and first aid kits. If you find a melee weapon like a two-by-four or a pipe, you can even duct tape a pair of scissors to the end, though either way you'll only get a few hits out of the weapon before it breaks.
What creates tension is the fact that resources aren't just scarce—they're also important. I would have been hard-pressed to make it through the demo's final section, an underground area filled with Runners and Clickers with only small barriers for you to hide behind, if I hadn't been scrounging around for blades and other materials the whole time I'd been playing.
Getting through this encounter went something like this: wait for the first Clicker to pass by, then walk slowly—painfully slowly, or it'll see you—up behind it and use your shiv. That leaves two uses left before it breaks. Use "listen mode" to find the next nearest monster and sneak up behind it, too. It's a Runner, so you can strangle it without using a shiv. There are about a half-dozen more enemies, including both types, so you pick up a bottle and throw it in a corner. That attracts several of them, and you throw a molotov cocktail in their midst. Tess opens fire to pick them off while they're distracted and weak, though she's a terrible shot. You pick up the slack with your own pistol, then switch to the shotgun you just found on the ground (with only two rounds, damn it) and blast the final Clicker, now charging toward you, directly in the chest. It crumples to the ground and you emerge onto the street.
It's tense, it's scary, and it's difficult. But who's averse to a little challenge? It took a fair bit of trial and error for me to get through these encounters, though for now I'll chalk that up to my inexperience with the game's language and mechanics. Now that I know how it plays, though, I can't wait to see more of the city—including what other horrors it has to throw my way.