There is no game I’ve seen at E3 that is more impressive in it’s fluidity, realism, and story-driven oomph than The Last of Us. The Sony press conference gave viewers a taste of what to expect from the game, and the later preview given to press took a wildly different spin on the exact same level to see just how deep the experience is. And one thing is abundantly clear: you don’t want to miss it.
The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic adventure title from Naughty Dog Studios, the makers of the Uncharted franchise, and it really shows. The world is overrun with disease, but so far it’s unclear whether this is a zombie survivor horror or whether our protagonist Joel and Ellie are just trying to make it through the worst chemical terrorist attack in history. All gameplay from the Santa Monica-based game developer shows the unlikely team avoiding or fighting regular people, doing exactly what everyone is trying to do: survive.
So much remains intentionally unclear about The Last of Us that it isn’t even safe to assume that Joel and Ellie are father and daughter; they may very well be completely unrelated. Joel, in his mid-30’s, remembers the world pre-infection, while Ellie, 14, has only ever lived in a quarantined zone, under martial law, until the events of the game. This gives the two wildly different perspectives on the world outside of the quarantined area, where the majority of the game takes place. Joel is the playable character while Ellie acts as an AI support, one who rarely gets involved in direct conflicts. The E3 trailer showed Joel in dire straits and Ellie came to the rescue, but there are hundreds of different ways that same section of gameplay could have unfolded without Ellie involving herself.
What makes The Last of Us different from other adventure titles is the level of dynamic character action that is scripted while players are still in command. These actions include everything from Joel and Ellie whispering to each other to signal enemies nearby to Joel getting shot and Ellie asking, mid-firefight, if he’s alright, and him responding. These are the sort of interactions expected in a real-world scenario, not from a videogame, and it’s both astonishing to see in real time and to see occur so differently depending on the situation.
The preview demoed a section of the game where Joel and Ellie traverse an old 5-star hotel being ransacked by a group of men looking for supplies. As Naughty Dog explains it, the world is a shoot first, ask questions later kind of place, where killing someone for a few bullets and some booze is considered reasonable, so Joel and Ellie take no chances. During the press conference the gameplay used distraction and direct combat to clear out the floor, which in turn nearly got both Joel and Ellie killed. Our later demo revealed how stealth can be used to completely circumvent all conflict, and the consequences of doing so.
Stealth is a very important part of The Last of Us, though Naughty Dog has brilliantly managed to turn the crouch button into a stealth button as well. Whenever crouched, Joel will interact with nearby objects, from walls to ledges to standing under an open window, to do a number of different things. Hopping over silently, crawling under, peeking in for a better view. But the interesting bit is that Joel’s character doesn’t just hang onto the wall, he fluidly interacts with it. If it’s a tense situation, his respiration visibly speeds up, he moves a little more around the area he’s standing, and his head can bob up and down under the weight of stress or breathing. The same for Ellie. This dynamic stealth system enables players to better immerse themselves in the gameplay while simultaneously giving the game a much more fluid, cinematic feel.
Traversing through the hotel without killing anyone has its pros and cons. Stealth can be much easier or harder to achieve depending on the ground and physical layout of the area, as well as the type of enemies and the number of them. It’s not like any situation will be identical, though it remains to be seen just how intelligent enemy AI is. Every confrontation has the chance of players either expending or gaining some of their resources, and of course may also result in injury or death. Then again, it’s possible to not enter any conflicts in the game, at least out in the non-quarantined zones.
The beauty of this system isn’t the open-world sandbox and player choice for how to play through The Last of Us, but character interaction and reaction to those player choices made. It brings a level of personalization normally reserved for creation-type games like LittleBigPlanet, not for daring adventure titles, and that is exciting. That, combined with the deep relationship between Joel and Ellie and their struggle to survive makes The Last of Us one game to really look forward to.
We predict that The Last of Us will be released exclusively for the Playstation 3 sometime in 2013.