E3 2012: Eyes-on - The Last of Us
- — 07 June, 2012 22:00
When I was coasting around the show floor on day one of E3, I ran into an employee of The Last of Us developer Naughty Dog, who I'd interviewed previously. We got chatting, and I mentioned to him that I noticed the similarities between The Last of Us and Uncharted in the trailer shown at Sony's press conference, he nodded in understanding and said something like this: "The reason they chose that tech demo was that they wanted to make it look similar to Uncharted, and then show that it wasn't."
The behind closed door session we managed to score with Naughty Dog illustrated that point. We saw the same level that had been shown at the conference, but played in an entirely different way. The main character, Joel, went to different places, used different methods to combat enemies, and said different things. After a while, I forgot that the beginning of the segment had been exactly the same.
Fans of Uncharted will be familiar with aspects of the combat system, which is third-person and cover-based. They'll also be familiar with Naughty Dog's tendency to create big, beautiful environments. But where Uncharted may have made you laugh, The Last of Us will make your jaw drop. Where you might have gleefully enjoyed taking down a bad guy, you'll feel a sinking in the pit of your stomach. The Last of Us is uncomfortable. The Last of Us is personal. Just watching gameplay made my chest tighten in a way that few other games have accomplished.
In The Last of Us, the world is a brutal, uncompromising place. An infection has turned most into zombie-like monsters, some with heads like mushroom clouds. Survivors are living in quarantine zones, where any transgression can get you executed. Outside of the quarantine zone are bandits, people who are just trying to survive and will kill anyone for a handful of bullets and a carton of cigarettes. Joel is a man with a task - navigate this outside world and get fourteen-year-old Ellie out of the city alive.
The people are as scary as the zombies. In the demo level we saw, there aren't any infected at all, just a group of bandits with questionable morals, searching a building. But in order to get Ellie out of the city, Joel has to get through that building.
The killing is the worst part, and the best part. It's the worst, because it doesn't feel right. No one gets a quick, easy death. When Joel creeps up behind someone and begins to choke them, they struggle. They claw at Joel's arms. When he picks up a brick to melee attack someone, he doesn't go down right away. You hear every sickening crack in the guy's skull as Joel takes him down, and feel a little unwell. It takes three solid hits to thoroughly brain the guy, and even watching it feels bad.
But either he dies, or Joel does. And the fact that it makes you feel awkward, uncomfortable, like something's not right - that's the best part. And aside from the different setting, the different music and sound, the different characters, that feeling is what really sets The Last of Us apart.
Graphically, The Last of Us is amazing. Even if it were a PC game it would look incredible, but it's not. It's all gameplay footage from the PS3, a device released six years ago now. With every game they release, Naughty Dog manages to squeeze out that little bit of extra power to make everything even more visually impressive.
The sound in The Last of Us is phenomenal, too, and seems like it will be greatly enhanced by a surround sound setup. At the beginning of the demo, the screen was black and you could hear Joel and Ellie running, knocking things over all around you. Then, later on in the demo, you could hear something behind you and know that Joel needed to swivel around to face an enemy.
Naughty Dog is known for its character development and for its environments, but it's not really known for brutal, emotionally draining experiences. From what I've seen, that's what The Last of Us is, and it's heartening to see it all executed so well thus far. As always, it's hard to pass judgment on such a small piece of a bigger game, but I like what I've seen so far.