I was lucky enough to attend a special E3 presentation hosted by Naughty Dog to witness their upcoming action thriller, The Last of Us. Already stunned into awe from gameplay footage of the game at Sony’s press conference, the group in attendance were eager to see more. Naughty Dog’s Game Director Bruce Straley was on hand to deliver just that.
The Last of Us is set in a post-apocalyptic urban setting sometime after a devastating plague has decimated the population of our planet. What’s left of the human race must all fend for themselves, turning feral and desperate in a ravaged wasteland of limited resources. Imagine a Mad Max, or Book of Eli type scenario.
Survivors are ruthlessly killing each other in order to obtain food, weapons, or shelter and desperate gang-controlled territories have been crudely carved into the city landscape amidst the chaos. Caught in the middle of all of this is our hero Joel, a hardened survivor with a heart, and Ellie, a 14 year old girl with a kick-ass attitude.
Naughty Dog have put their usual attention to detail to full effect in creating a believable and compelling environment in The Last of Us. They looked to a wide range of influences to create an unique and immersive setting. For example, they were heavily influenced by episodes of the BBC nature documentary Planet Earth, which documented an ant infected with a brain-controlling fungus and its inability to function. Considering ants and humans both rely on a societal network, they considered that the effect of a similar infection in homosapiens could be equally devastating.
They also pulled references from movies like No Country for Old Men and The Road, the brilliant comic The Walking Dead, and Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend. Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells described The Last of Us as “a genre-defining experience that blends survival and action elements to tell a character driven tale about a modern plague decimating mankind.”
Watching the gameplay footage, the new, disease-ridden world in The Last of Us is surprisingly beautiful. However this is because mother nature has had time to encroach upon civilisation; vines and plants grow wild throughout the concrete surrounds of the city, creating an almost alien-like world that is both peaceful, and perilous at the same time. With the power grid down, there are no artificial light sources and every environment seems to blend an inviting urge to explore, but also a distinct sense of caution and fear, with odd shadows distorting man-made structures.
With Naughty Dog at the helm, The Last of Us already looks set to deliver incredible production values. They have worked extensively on animations and it shows; watching Joel and Ellie move around their hostile world is a joy to behold. Every character also features carefully modeled facial animations, neatly demonstrated on screen via a man being choked to death, complete with a painfully contorted face with eyes rolling back in his crimson head. On top of the visuals, the game also relies heavily on a solid script to cement a human connection between the two stranded survivors.
After my short time with the game, I already had a strong bond with the characters. Even the non-playable Ellie featured some remarkable AI that made her a living, breathing side-kick. Despite her young age, Ellie is no handicap either. She’s quick-thinking, agile, and even willing to fight her way out of a situation to help you if need be. Joel and Ellie will constantly work together to overcome obstacles, solve puzzles, and simply survive all the dangers thrown at them from every direction. I can just tell that Naughty Dog are planning some heartbreaking plot developments that will trigger some watery eyeballs later in the game.
Our gameplay demo took place in exactly the same area as what was on show at the earlier Sony press conference. However this time around, our survivors played through in a completely different way. Rather than use brute force, we instead watched Joel and Ellie sneak around their enemies, creating distractions and surprise attacks to get past them. We watched in awe as the game changed completely, with the AI adapting to suit our behaviour. For example, pulling a gun on the enemy will result in a bloody firefight. But approaching enemies with a plank of wood will result in a more careful, ammo-conserving fist-fight which can go either way.
The strong writing effort leading the game revolves around a constant high-level of tension, with players always checking their backs and needing to be wary of what lies ahead. It felt like a thinking-man’s Uncharted, where players must scope out areas, salvage any objects lying around them, and use their wits to survive the daunting odds (for yourself and Ellie’s sake).
The Last of Us was one of the highlights of this year’s E3 and, although it was slightly disappointing to see that Naughty Dog haven’t strayed too far from the beaten track laid down by Uncharted, this game looks like a must-buy for PS3 owners next year.
NZGamer.com appears at E3 2012 thanks to Orcon Broadband.
The Good: A compelling, well-scripted story
The Bad: Too similar to Uncharted?
The Ugly: Corroding bodies in a bathtub