Call it Gaia’s revenge.

The Last of Us could be an environmentalism parable: sick of our polluting ways, mother nature goes on the offensive, deploying a fungus that kills most of humankind and turns the survivors against one another. Curiously, the result is equal parts terrifying and tranquil, with our extinction coming at the pace of starvation rather than decapitation.

The bulk of this demo is from the game’s “Lincoln” stage, with Joel and Ellie seeking Bill, an acquaintance of the former who might have access to a functioning car. Bill owes Joel a big favour for reasons that remain a mystery, but since the two last met Bill has become paranoid, isolating himself behind a series of traps.

The Last of Us hands-on screenshots

Lincoln itself is being swallowed by nature, and it’s a thing of beauty. Boarded-up houses are being slowly suffocated by moss and vines while deer and squirrels roam confidently under the late afternoon sun, as if they have already shaken off memories of man as apex predator. Without the clatter of urban living and the chatter of her populace, Lincoln is shockingly quiet.

That forces Joel and Ellie to communicate in whispers lest they betray their position to whatever is out there, and it also encourages the quiet dispatch of any assailants. This isn’t always possible – Bill has the town rigged with improvised explosive devices whose booming reports echo through its cracked streets, and a firearm is the only reliable way to drop an aggravated Clicker, but almost all of the few enemy encounters here may be avoided altogether with some careful sneaking.

Indeed, this whole section has a scavenging, stealth, and puzzle focus before a frantic upside-down shooting section near its conclusion. This allows us to get to grips with the game’s other systems, such as scavenging. Objects that may be examined or searched are now marked with a small, white circle which morphs into the appropriate icon once Joel is near. Scissors, tape, cloth, and alcohol are all useful for crafting items such as health kits, as well as Molotov cocktails, shivs (which double as lockpicks), and other weapons.

As is the case when healing, crafting takes a few seconds and does not pause the game; it instead obscures the player’s view, which adds nicely to the tension. Joel can carry a fair amount of stuff, but only a gun, a brick or bottle, one first aid kit, and a Molotov are accessible without diving into his backpack.

Upgrades of non-improvised weapons require a bit more effort. Generic parts that work across the board must be collected along with single-use tools, before a work bench is located and the appropriate modifications are completed. We only saw one bench in about an hour of play.

Along with crafting, The Last of Us also features a skills mechanic. Skill points appear to be accumulated in the form of pills, each of which grants the ability to upgrade any particular talent – from Joel’s listening radius to his ability to aim a particular weapon.

The demo also makes it clear that along with the infected and some stroppy survivors, some light puzzles will also challenge players. Those encountered in Lincoln were fairly simple but rooted in plausible problems: one involved improvising a ladder, while another had us using boards to create a bridge between the roofs of adjacent buildings.

Things ramp up with a battle nearer the conclusion of Lincoln that involves shooting infected to protect Ellie, all while dangling upside-down from a rope thanks to one of Bill’s traps. A fraught sequence, it is unfortunately undermined by an exploit that gives Joel a free headshot should he be grabbed by one of the infected but then successfully fight it off (which is done with ease). That said, such tactics do not work with clickers, as their grasp means instant death.

The second area of this demo is “Pittsburgh”, and as a counterpoint to “Lincoln” it begins with the car ambush footage shown at last year’s E3. What’s really noticeable here is how well directed and “acted” the cut scenes are, with complex emotions sold effectively by the animators and voice actors. In particular, the mix of horror, resignation, and resolve on Joel’s face when he realises the apparently injured man blocking his ute’s path means to injure or kill him and Ellie is fantastic.

The pair escape the wrecked ute and a not especially bloody but extraordinarily violent battle ensues. Set upon by survivors wielding bats and firearms, Joel desperately smashes faces into walls and glass into throats while Ellie cowers around a corner. The combat here is satisfying if grim, but even on the highest difficulty it’s too easy to outwit the AI by breaking line of sight for the shortest of moments, before circling around for the easy stealth kill. It’s also disappointing that the guns used by these men magically disappear the moment they are incapacitated or killed.

Despite these gripes, The Last of Us is looking spectacular. What it has in spades is atmosphere and character. There is little in the way of a soundtrack or onscreen indicators, encounters are well-spaced and tense, and all prompts, auto-aim, and even listen mode can be disabled for higher immersion and challenge. Naughty Dog is obviously happy to give the player space and let the game breathe, and the game is a revelation to play for that alone. Exposition flows naturally, and both Joel and Ellie appear to be concealing hidden depths.

Zombies were passé a long time ago and survival horror appears to have been abandoned in favour of all-out shootfests, but The Last of Us might just be the game to resurrect both while not strictly following the conventions of either.

We'll know in less than a month.