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Infectious sounds of terror in Naughty Dog's 'The Last of Us'

Xav de Matos, @Xav

In Naughty Dog's upcoming PS3 exclusive, The Last of Us, the narrative inspiration for the parasitic plague wreaking havoc on civilization is ripped from a segment in the BBC-produced documentary series, Planet Earth. The segment delves into the natural actions of a fungus known as "cordyceps." The fungus takes over an insect before it bursts from the host's body in an effort to spread its spores to other insects, wiping out colonies.

Though first assumed to be an undead army, the infected in The Last of Us are living humans. Each stage of the infection modifies their physical and mental capacity. People in the first stage of infection – referred to as Runners – know in their hearts and minds that their instinct to attack uninfected survivors is wrong, but they cannot control the impulse to harm life around them. Later stages of the infection offer encounters with more ghastly creatures. At stage three, the infection blinds hosts and turns them into 'Clickers,' agressors with faces bloomed in blood and gore. These enemies rely on echolocation to sniff out survivors, bellowing a haunting sound that serves as warning for survivors to remain completely still.

With these rules and languages, The Last of Us establishes a terrifying new universe to explore.

Gallery: The Last of Us (02/04/13) | 16 Photos

The tense thirty-minute demo I played of The Last of Us featured the early stages of the game. Beyond the border of a quarantined zone in a bomb-riddled Boston, two allies argue over a piece of information they've learned from a young girl. Joel and Tess, surviving as best they can as smugglers, have been hired by a group known as the Fireflies to escort a fourteen-year-old Ellie through the dangerous outskirts of the city and to their headquarters. It quickly becomes clear that Ellie's importance is as mysterious to us, the players, as it is to Joel and Tess, who seem reluctant to continue on their quest.

The demo takes Joel and his A.I.-controlled allies through a series of buildings ravaged by the government and bombed in an attempt to contain the infection. Joel, Tess, and Ellie scavenge supplies as they progress through the slanted, decimated office buildings. Pieces are collected, collated, and combined in a continued effort to survive, Joel stuffing his backpack with anything that could be of use. Alcohol, scissors, blades, batteries, binding and consumables are littered throughout the world. Joel can reach into his backpack and combine elements to create new tools or medpacks for survival: the blade of a knife and tape creates a shiv; a bottle of alcohol and a rag creates a Molotov cocktail; blade fastened to a pipe or wooden plank gives it the strength for more killing blows. Everything breaks over time; resources are finite and surviving seems like just another road to an early grave in this world.

Despite the company, it's easy to fall into a feeling of isolation in the world developed by Naughty Dog. Eerie silence masks the entire world, with the slightest of sounds piercing through the facade to remind players of the dangers that await them. To help players focus on the importance of listening for possible danger, players can activate Joel's "Listen Mode." Pressing R2, Joel puts his head down and focuses his undivided attention on the sounds around him. On screen this translates to a shift to black-and-white, outlining enemies in the immediate area (even through walls) to help players strategize.

Death comes quickly to Joel if precautions are not taken. In one area a lone clicker investigates a room as the trio enters from an opened door, the monstrous being's disturbing sound piercing the air every few seconds in search of a new victim. Picking up a brick or bottle and hurling it to another section of the room sends the infected fleeing in search of a bite. If the player makes too much noise near a hunting clicker, it's as good as signing Joel's death warrant. The infected's powerful jaws rip through Joel's throat in an instant. Reset to last checkpoint, try to shut up this time.

Later Joel offers to clear an area crawling with infected while Tess and Ellie hide. Here, multiple runners and clickers prowl. On their own, runners can be quite easy to take down; however, their quick speed and typical formation in packs can quickly overwhelm Joel. Inching in to shiv out each infected one by one is a difficult task (and it wastes resources), resulting in multiple moments where I was forced to pound on the dedicated sprint trigger to put space between the enemies and Joel. A few thrown bricks, a wooden plank combined with a blade as an improvised melee weapon, and what few bullets I was able to scrounge from fallen enemies later and the trio were on their way. Sounds easy, but it took me a few tries.

Infectious sounds of terror in The Last of Us
The Last of Us quickly trains you to its established rules, and sounds pierce silence with shocking effect. Outside of the building where runners and clickers roam, the sound of a frog had me in a panic as its hushed, distant croak sounded frighteningly similar to a clicker's echo. Joel – and by extension, myself – was frozen in fear. Then I realized it was just a frog and, well ... embarrassing.

Naughty Dog's first demo for The Last of Us offers only a small slice of what's to come. Despite sharing the performance capture, pacing and character bonding, The Last of Us and Uncharted feel like different beasts. The Last of Us only had thirty minutes to sink its teeth into me, and I think I'm already showing the first stages of its infection.

The Last of Us will be released exclusively for the PlayStation 3 on May 7, 2013.

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