Was a year ago, but it was brief, just to prove that it was a real game so I could vote for it for a pre-release E3 game critic's award...
The second time I played the game was last night. And, as you can see above and below, it really does look that damn good.
If you don't know, this is the next game from Naughty Dog, creators of Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and Uncharted. This game is survival-action, so to speak. Ellie, the girl above, and Joel, the guy throwing the brick here...
Joel and Elli are a desperate odd couple. He seems a little shady but confident in his ability to survive. A little weary of all this and soft-spoken. It's been 20 years since things got bad. Ellie doesn't know a different world. She's used to this. She's not exactly plucky, but she seems mature beyond her years and a bit foul-mouthed. However they met, these two are trying their best to survive in a world where humans have been infected and turned into monsters of sorts. Cities have been all but abandoned and hope is fleeting.
The game plays a little bit like a classic Resident Evil with ammo and resources perpetually scarce. I played two 10-minute chunks of the game and never had more than six bullets, except in this crazy sequence -- the Last of Us's turning of a classic shooter turret sequence on its head...
The thing is, this is no dark, spooky horror game. This is sadness and survival in the most bright and beautiful places, which I think helps make the violence all the uglier.
In The Last of Us' case, that ugliness of violence is a virtue. In the parts of the game I played, in Lincoln and Pittsburgh, even the violence is scarce. I controlled Joel. Ellie is controlled by the computer. Most of the time, we were just walking, sneaking or trying to find supplies. When other humans or the infected show up, it's usually better to hide than to hit them with a quickly-splintering 2x4. You don't really want to fight the infected people or your fellow desperate humans. None of you can survive many encounters, so avoiding combat is the wiser move.
It's better to crouch and listen for the bad guys. Better to stay away.
But you just sometimes can't avoid it. It finds you.
The camera is often really close to the action. The sounds of struggle, of pipes hitting bones, of bullets cracking, of punches to the gut, all resonate as discomfiting smashes and smacks and cracks.
You can get better at fighting. You can craft a molotov cocktail or scavenge some gear to upgrade a gun. Or make a health pack. Probably best to do that...
The thing I can't shake from my memory, though, is just how beautiful the scenery in the game is and just how interesting the two leads are. I champion the interactive elements of games. I don't value voice-acting that much, but the performances in the game are powerful. As I play -- as you will play -- Joel and Elli converse. Their relationship builds through small talk and through meaningful exchanges.
I was reminded of the ongoing conversations between the Prince of Persia and Farah in the magnificent Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
Except, this game isn't a romance. Far from it. It is, however, lovely.
The Last of Us, which has made a better pre-release impression than most other games I've seen this generation, will be out for PlayStation 3 on June 14.
By the way, it also has multiplayer. They're not saying what that's about. And, yes, the game is less than a month away.
This preview included a hands-on session with the game. We played about 30 minutes' worth from two parts of the game.