Part 1 – The Story, Survival
Part 2 – Consequences, Clickers in the Fancy Hotel
Part 3 – Improving On The Uncharted Formula: Animation, Camera, Graphical Detail
Part 4 – Improving On The Uncharted Formula: Lighting, HUD, AI
Part 5 – Improving On The Uncharted Formula: Audio, Craftwork, Gameplay, Story
If there’s one thing that is obvious about what we know of The Last of Us so far, it’s that Naughty Dog are putting in a huge amount of thought and effort, striving for excellence in just about every aspect. Since the reveal back at the Spike VGA’s in 2011 it has received a lot of hype and press for good reason.
Coming largely from the team that developed Uncharted 2, using an improved version of the game engine used in Uncharted 3 and being a third-person, story driven action oriented game with a middle-aged male main character, some people have tried to play down the hype, labelling The Last of Us as Uncharted with zombies, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Aiming to improve upon and differentiate itself from the Uncharted series, the whole player experience is rooted around survival, physically and of character, and just about every aspect of presentation and gameplay has changed.
In this article we take a look at the many differences that The Last of Us brings from its Uncharted roots, revealing with evidence the vision that Naughty Dog is aiming for and seeing just how far they are pushing possibly their last PS3 centric title.
We’re a site focused on stereoscopic 3D gaming. If comments from the Community Strategist Eric Monacelli are true The Last of Us won’t support stereoscopic 3D, a huge shame in our opinion as Uncharted 3 is in our top 10 list but we couldn’t resist writing this piece given the amazing experience demonstrated so far.
SPOILER ALERT: If you want to avoid any spoilers you should stop reading now.
In 2011 in The Last of Us the Cordyceps fungus made the leap from insects to humans and triggered a pandemic that tore humanity apart. Set around the year 2030 the story features two main characters, Joel, a 40-something survivor, and Ellie, a 14-year old girl born after the outbreak in one of the quarantine zones. While manmade objects are fading and falling, nature is reclaiming the space and the dull greys and browns are being replaced with all the colors of nature.
Joel has seen all the highs and lows and crossed every moral boundary there is to cross, having lived for a time as a hunter, preying on other survivors for food and other supplies, and ferrying drugs and other contraband in and out of military quarantine zones as a black market delivery man. Ellie knows only of life within the confines of one of the zones, growing up in an environment with daily conflict and struggles, and is capable and mature beyond her years.
In the words of Jacob Minkoff, Lead Game Designer, The Last of Us is “a love story of loyalty and survival”. When Ellie’s quarantine zone in Boston falls apart Joel takes on the job of smuggling Ellie to another zone at the request of a dying friend, a task that takes them across the country over a period of a year, visiting cities, towns and outposts along the way. While most people have perished or fled, friendly and hostile groups are encountered. There are bands of hunters preying on others and communities uniting to re-build their lives and restore structure and order.
Bruce Straley, Game Director, describes the story saying “We’re going to see the best and worst of humanity. When the pressure is applied, how do we as humans react? If you don’t have food in your stomach and you know your neighbor has something in their kitchen, when do you knock on their door and when do you just break it down? When do you bond together and go out and hunt together and strategize together and when do you just kill them and take what they have? And these are the interesting choices that we’re putting into this world and into this game that hopefully make you feel an inner psychological conflict with this and more grounded with the situation.”
We have pieced together the trailers, demos and screenshots released to date and present them in our To The City video mashup. Set earlier in their journey they reveal that Joel and Ellie visit a small town, Redford or Bedford, to meet up with Bill, an old friend of Joel’s, to put together a car with the help of some gear they gather at the local high school. They then drive through countryside and through a city based on Pittsburgh. On their way through the city they are attacked in a roadside ambush, fight it out in an old store and flee on foot. Navigating through abandoned streets and around quarantine zone walls to get to the main city bridge they come across another band of hunters in an old hotel building and make their way up several floors. They squeeze through an elevator shaft and when the cable snaps Joel falls into water into darkness below, separating him from Ellie. In the last scene revealed so far, actually the debut trailer, Joel and Ellie are reunited and cross paths with a small pack of infected humans which they fend off before escaping the hotel.
One of the key hooks with Day-Z, a multi-player Arma II mod that features zombies, and survival shooters like it is the adrenaline pumping die at any moment tension, hiding, sneaking, using distraction, managing health, counting bullets and running. In Day-Z zombies are deadly at close proximity and best avoided and there is a constant threat of other players looking to increase their supply portfolio.
In terms of enemy the single player campaign in The Last of Us doesn’t have other players or zombies; it has hunters, AI driven survivors like Joel but intent on disposing of other survivors to claim their possessions, and clickers, fast running, blood sucking, flesh eating humans infected by the Cordyceps fungus, and if they behave like the real life insects they are based on, driven to spread the infection. Despite the grossly distorted inside-out growths on their heads it also seems likely the clickers have retained some of their former intelligence.
Gas masks have featured in poster shots and the Bill’s Safe-house trailer, hinting at an airborne threat of infection from clickers or other disease but bites are definitely the main way that the fungus is propagated to a new host.
Other than the short sequence in the base of the elevator shaft all of the action shown has been in daylight. Clickers and hunters at night? A band of hunters on your tail? Using a flashlight with a limited supply of batteries? Better get that medical before the game launches.
The Choice is Yours
After the E3 demo and Bill’s Safe-house trailer many people spoke out about their aversion to the violence and bad language that was present. What’s clear is that people view the violence and language in The Last of Us more personally than the sheer volume of killing for killing’s sake in the well known first person shooters and the gratuitous bad language from other players over voice chat. To get this reaction shows that the presentation in The Last of Us is hitting the right notes.
Naughty Dog has made it clear that a guns blazing approach like that shown in the E3 demo is just one play style and that stealth can be used to avoid bloodshed (and conserve bullets and supplies), demonstrated in the alternate play-through of that scene in the PAX demo but that the gravity of the conflicts that do occur is important to sell the story and characters.
From the initial conversation of the human enemy in the demo’s it is clear that they are hunters, bragging that they have disposed of 5 tourists just this week and enjoying it and therefore a real threat given you need to get past them somehow. How should you handle this situation? As Jacob Minkoff, Lead Game Designer, put it “If you had lost everyone that you loved, if every day you had to fight for survival, could you still be what we would consider a good person, or would you just start being like “I don’t care, I just need to eat, I’m going to do anything I need to survive”?” Neil Druckmann, Creative Director, says “The story’s about Joel and Ellie and the relationship that they have but for you to buy into that relationship the stakes have to be real. Very early on we said the combat is not going to be over the top and gratuitous, it’s all in service of the character, it’s all in service of the story. So we had to make the violence real and believable for you to buy how real the stakes are for these characters.”
So we ask would violence and bad language really be out of place? And what if you have a 14 year old girl to get out of the city and across the country and to do that you have to get past rogue bands of hunters? What would you do? Fight? Or avoid at all cost?