The Last of Us Preview -- Witnessing the Horrors of SurvivalBy Eric Eckstein - Posted May 24, 2012
Ever since Naughty Dog first unveiled its PlayStation 3 exclusive, The Last of Us, it's been at the top of my must see list. Thankfully, after finally seeing it in action, it's still at the top.
My demo began with what's depicted in The Last of Us Hunter City trailer, with our heroes, Joel and Ellie ambushed by a bunch of survivors. After crashing into the convenience store, the game begins with Ellie dragged from the car as Joel is forced into a fight for his life; the player needs to pound a button to avoid being impaled on glass. He then is able to move about the environment, hunting down his hunters, but in a world where ammo is scarce, he's fiercly outnumbered and who knows what hides in the shadows.
As anticipated, The Last of Us is a third-person shooter, very similar to Naughty Dog's other cinematic adventure series, Uncharted. You'll hide behind cover, popping out to shoot or engage enemies via familiar mechanics and, as alluded to earlier, deal with quick-time events for lifting gates or avoiding injury. What makes the game different though are two key elements: atmosphere and personality.
The mood for The Last of Us is grim; it's 20 years after an outbreak that has killed off much of humanity and allowed nature to reclaim the Earth. Driving and walking through the remains of a long-dead Pittsburgh is chilling, and even if the vegetation attempts to evoke less-hostile emotions, you're still coming across dessicated corpses trapped in the husks of cars, and men who mean to rob and kill you (and possibly worse) lurk around every corner. It's this atmosphere that's pervasive in every aspect of the game, where even a cat and mouse gunfight takes on a harsher edge, as it feels like each person (AI or otherwise) is fighting for their life.
During the demo we saw, Joel only has a few bullets at his disposal, so he must pick his shots wisely or use stealth to take 'em out. He's outnumbered but not alone. Every so often, Ellie intervenes; in one instance, throwing a brick at an attacker to put him off-guard so that Joel can deal with him. It's not clear how much of that is scripted behavior or Ellie's AI reacting to the situation. After sneaking out of the store and across the street, the two watch as the hunters patrol the area, calling out to one another about their progress.
When Joel silently dispatches one more, the others know it when they don't hear back from him and see his body. The dynamic changes when the group of bad guys falls to one, as the lone AI enemy runs away, hiding in the store, eventually ambushing the player with a two-by-four in a last ditch effort to survive. It's tense and a clear indicator of the style of game The Last of Us is aiming for. If Uncharted was Die Hard meets Indiana Jones, The Last of Us is the offspring of The Road and Left 4 Dead.
And the comparison isn't due to the fungal zombies that were shown off in the debut trailer (there were none in the demo I witnessed), but more for the characters and the way they are presented in the game. Instead of cutscenes, the shining moments of personality come from bits and pieces of dialog between the two leads while they explore a ruined building. Even though I only "knew" Joel and Ellie for approximately 20 minutes of a hands-off demo, I can tell that Joel's the no-nonsense grizzled vet who clearly has done bad things in the wake of this apocalyptic event, while Ellie is young, more outspoken and, inquisitive.
We see that they don't know each other well at all and that they've banded together out of some sort of necessity. She inquires into his past, wondering how he knew they were about to be ambushed and whether he's killed innocent people before. Joel brushes her off, and while the scene is dire, the banter isn't always; at one point, as Ellie's speaking, Joel mutters gruffly, "Keep your voice down" to which Ellie replies in a mocking gruff voice, "Okay." Instantly, you can see how these two interact and rely on one another and, again, it demonstrates why the Naughty Dog team has become masters of the cinematic video game experience.
Our demo concluded with the duo reaching a military refuge, something that was in place for the quarantine and is now littered with cars and the dead. However, what seems like salvation turns again into terror as more hunters appear and the two are once again in danger. It's interesting how much scarier the scavenging humans are than what we've seen so far of the fungus-laden zombies from the debut trailer.
The real question will be how the game handles outside of a demo situation, or how much of the cinematic experience can translate onto the couch. So far, from the brief taste we got of The Last of Us, we're totally hooked. We're looking forward to seeing more at E3 2012.