Reviews & Articles

The Last of Us: 50 Changes and Improvements – Part 5

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

Audio

Quite simply put the audio in The Last of Us is astounding. There’s hardly a single second in all the footage shown to date where there isn’t a treat for the ears. Subtle environmental sound effects, breathing, grunts and groans and music fill the otherwise void between the more obvious sounds of gunshots, dialogue and general movement.

Frogs, insects, birds and wind are used to set the desolate, taken over by nature, feel of open spaces and individual insects and birds can be heard as they fly past. There are certainly many more sound effects compared to Uncharted 3. Great detail can be heard in routine actions like brushing against objects, carrying a ladder, the burning wick and sloshing contents of a Molotov cocktail, the creaks and groans of a broken staircase, the clink of bullets as you unload a discarded weapon and breathing and guttural sounds that create a more personal experience, particularly during combat sequences. In fact just about every audio improvement was made to make the game experience more immersive and more personal.

The voice work and characterization is top notch with convincing delivery, something that fell short in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune but was greatly improved in Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception. In The Last of Us Joel’s dialogue (and motion) is played by actor Troy Baker with some improvisation and grammatical errors left in to complement Joel’s unpolished character. Ellie’s character is played by Ashley Johnson, and while Ashley is quite a bit older than the 14 year old Ellie, the voice work is great. Recording multiple actors together on the mocap stage and in the sound booth has payed dividends.

A rules based situational branching dialogue system has been created to string together the vocal recordings from the library of each character in a natural way by examining what events have just occurred, who has the upper hand, and in the case of Joel and Ellie, how much ammo you have and what you’re looking at. One amazing scene in the PAX demo plays out the organic gameplay, though carefully demoed to show the full effect, like this:

Joel: Waits behind a cabinet in a dark hallway as a wandering lead hunter approaches
Lead hunter: Manages to get out “What the f*ck!” as Joel leaps out and strikes him down with three blows from a brick in a failed silent attack.
Hunter 1: Enters the hallway to investigate the noise and on seeing Joel standing over the body of one of his buddies yells “Oh, sh*t!” and squeezes off a nervous shot, missing.
Joel: Pulls out his revolver.
Hunter 1: Flees, yelling “He’s got a gun, he’s got a gun!”
Joel: Follows hunter 1, shoots, killing him.
Hunter 2: “F*ck!”
Hunter 3: Panicking, “How many are there!?”
Hunter 2: “I only saw one!”
Joel: Runs past the doorway of a room near the hunters.
Hunter 3: Shoots and misses, the shot ricocheting off the door as Joel ducks, yells “There! He’s right by the door!”
Joel: Aims at hunter 3 who ducks. Fires a shot, missing, as Ellie, now joining him on the other side of the doorway, ducks when the shot startles her. Joel enters the room and hides behind a cabinet.
Hunter 2: Peeks twice through the doorway then dashes across to join hunter 3.
Joel: Fires a shot at hunter 2, missing. Joel is now out of ammo but the hunters don’t know that.
Hunter 4: Sneaks up behind Joel, grabs his shooting arm, slams his head into a cabinet and holds him from behind. “I’ve got you now asshole.” Calling to hunter 3 who is now aiming at Joel, “Shoot him!”
Hunter 3: Trying to get a clear shot, “Hold him still!”
Joel:  Breaks free from hunter 4, picks him up and reverses the hold.
Hunter 3: Shoots, missing Joel. Shoots twice, striking his buddy as Joel uses him as a shield.
Joel: Dumps the body, flees into the next room with Ellie in tow.
Hunter 3: Nervously calls to hunter 2, “Hey! Go round!”
Joel: Without any ammo and crouching, sneaks toward the balcony where the hunters were seen, whispering to Ellie “Stay down.” Applies a bandage.
Hunter 2 and 3: Start quietly seeking out Joel. Hunter 3 whispers, “Split up!”
Joel: Tracks back to the earlier room and hides behind the cabinet.
Ellie: Follows then moves ahead to take cover. On seeing hunter 2 walk past a doorway whispers, “Joel! Over there!”
Joel: Picks up a bottle and surprises hunter 3 by throwing it at him then takes him down with a metal pipe and picks up four revolver bullets.
Hunter 2: Unarmed, walks in on the encounter, “Shit!” He stumbles and flees.
Joel: Whispering now. “Shit”. Loads revolver, pursues hunter, sees him jump through a window, “There you are”. Continues the pursuit to find an empty room, “Where the hell’d you go?” Hears a noise, finally corners the hunter in a hallway, “I got you now you son of a b*tch!”
Hunter 2: Leaps into the hall, throws a Molotov cocktail at Joel and lets out a long aggressive yell as he charges.
Joel: Reels from the flame, shoots the hunter who stumbles through the burning alcohol alighting his feet, shoots the hunter again, killing him. Calls out “Ellie!?”
Ellie: “I’m here, right here.” On discovering the body, “Oh, god!”
Joel: “I know. Let’s just get a move on.”

It’s this natural exchange of dialogue that really adds to the tension and natural turn of events. Other vocal sounds also improve the immersion greatly. The coughs, splutters and breathing of Joel, Ellie and the enemy really set the mood and makes the gameplay feel much more personal. For example, Joel sometimes gasps when there is a surprise enemy encounter and the extended heavy breathing during combat also adds tension.

Weapon sounds all carry weight, with deep gunshots, breaking planks and discarded pipes sounding just right and reverb is used in confined spaces. Subtle music plays in the background to help set the mood. Gustavo Santaolalla, an academy award winning composer and musician better known for the soundtracks of the movies Babel and Brokeback Mountain, was hired to score the music for The Last of Us, the main score a reductive piece on acoustic guitar over a tribal percussion that is very fitting of the story. In the ambush and Gamescom trailers the song Alone and Forsaken by Hank Williams played on the car stereo, and in the demos several short musical pieces are heard:

  • A light, uplifting ambient piece plays as you wander through the flooded hotel lobby
  • A short suspenseful piece plays when you first encounter the hunters
  • Rhythmic bass strings heighten the tension during the opening shootout of the E3 demo and again when the second group of hunters are heard approaching, gaining in pitch and tempo after the Molotov cocktail incident with added drums through the final encounter
  • A solo horn, sounding oddly familiar to that used in Red Dead Redemption, sounds briefly in the sections after encountering the bodies in the bathroom and at the end of the elevator shaft in the PAX demo

One can only imagine that at night, whether in a building or an open space, the sound of approaching clickers will be enough to induce panic and make our heart skip a few beats.

The only negative we’ve seen with audio so far, and it’s minor, is that the floating boards in the flooded hotel lobby use the same sound effects from Uncharted, triggering a bit of a flash-back and taking us briefly out of the new world in The Last of Us.

While Uncharted 3 included a rich audio experience with good dialog and sound effects, The Last of Us is a step forward in all areas – simply stunning sound design. You’ll need a good surround sound system or good headphones to get the most out of it. Time will tell if all musical scores live up to those in Uncharted.

Craftwork

Both Joel and Ellie carry backpacks that can be used to store various items scavenged throughout the game. A crafting system has been designed so that items can be combined and used for offensive and defensive purposes. Five components of each type can be carried: battery, binding, alcohol, blade, sugar, explosive, canister and everything has multiple uses. For example, a bandage and alcohol can be used to create a health kit or a Molotov cocktail.

One flashlight and bladed weapon can be carried with depleting batteries and breaking blades. The bladed weapon can be fashioned from items such as a stick and knife. One likely use of the sugar component is in fashioning the smoke bomb, which will obscure vision and have a concussive burst. Sugar could possibly also be used for attracting clickers (who from the first trailer seem to be attracted to fresh blood).

To create an item you select the components and hold the X button. Crafting and using inventory occur in real-time (see Gameplay).

Gameplay

The Last of Us is classified as an Action/Survival game and this fits perfectly with the information we know about it so far. We covered details about both the action and survival aspects earlier in this article. In summary you’ll be moving through the environment, walking, running, sneaking, climbing and falling, as well as shooting, grappling and bludgeoning opponents, scavenging for supplies, weapons and ammunition, and protecting Ellie. There is a lot of player choice and a few subtleties that we haven’t covered so far.

The gameplay doesn’t pause when you pick up, craft or use items. For example it takes about 5 seconds to apply a health kit and 10 seconds to craft and ready a Molotov cocktail, a long time during combat or while hiding from roaming hunters or pursuing clickers, so you need to carefully consider when and where to use them.

The following weapons are currently known:

  • 9mm pistol
  • Revolver (6 bullets)
  • Shotgun (6 shells)
  • Rifle (with scope)
  • Bow (arrows), a long range stealth weapon
  • Bladed weapon fashioned from components
  • Metal pipe, plank of wood and possibly other melee weapons
  • Bricks, bottles and possibly other missile weapons

Focus points, such as the exit from the lift well in the PAX demo, are hinted at with an eye icon and use the R2 button instead of the up button on the d-pad used in Uncharted.

Environmental puzzles will form part of the gameplay. These are likely to be quite a bit more mundane than the huge stone monolith creations found in the Uncharted series as Joel lacks the full Indiana Jones features of Nathan Drake. The ladder scene in the PAX trailer shows one example and a shift towards more natural puzzles that fit in with the story and journey in this game.

The three games in the Uncharted series are very linear. There is usually only a single clearly defined path to follow and, while being superbly presented, limits player choice. The Last of Us takes a slightly different approach. Being driven by a cinematic story there are “pitch points”, key story elements that every player will go through but ND are using the phrase “wide linear” to describe the movement and exploration options. What this means is that there are often multiple paths through a level, albeit likely in close proximity, with areas off the main path to use as an alternate route or places to explore and scavenge for items. Taking the E3 and PAX demos for example, the various windows and hallways provide alternate paths, the ladder puzzle and elevator trouble “pitch points” and the many rooms and other areas places to explore and scavenge. This will slow the pace, increasing play-through time, and increase the feeling of attachment to the reclaimed world.

Throughout the game Joel will be teaching Ellie new skills like how to use a variety of weapons. It isn’t yet clear if this will be done through gameplay or merely told in cut-scenes.

Although Naughty Dog have revealed that there will be some form of multiplayer in The Last of Us they have not revealed any specific information other than they are working on a variety of ideas and that it is unlikely to be co-op. We can imagine though, playing survivors vs. hunters, take the bridge and clicker horde mode.

It is not known if there will be collectible items to find throughout the game like the treasures in Uncharted.

Story

While we have only seen a glimpse of it so far we do know that The Last of Us is very heavily story focused as ND have commented in several interviews that story and character buy-in are key aspects of the game.

The entire game is set over the course of a year, with Joel and Ellie’s journey taking them from the East Coast to the West Coast, with several time skips and seasonal changes and contains some very emotional moments.

We don’t know the total length of the cut-scenes but it is likely to be up there with the two-odd hours of Uncharted 3. In the Uncharted series quite a bit of story is told through in-game commentary from the main characters and others that you overhear, and this is being increased in The Last of Us as well as the addition of interactive story elements, activated with the triangle button, that engage Joel and Ellie in a few lines of dialogue to provide more back-story and an insight into their character and motivations.

At New York Comic Con Naughty Dog revealed that Ellie’s story will be told through a 4-part prequel of digital comic books with the first issue released in conjunction with the launch of the game in Spring (March-June) 2013.

How well written the overall story is and how well it fits within the gameplay is yet to be seen.

Summary

It’s very good news so far. Individually the improvements are not revolutionary but the sheer volume of them and the overall polish is amazing. The entire The Last Of Us team should be highly commended for the attention to detail displayed so far and the direction that this title is taking.

Time will tell if the quality demonstrated is consistent throughout the game and if the overall story holds up but this is most definitely a game to add to your watch list. Expect it around Q2, 2013.

2 comments

  1. Michael D /

    Hey there! I’m just wondering if there is any news on if The Last of Us will have a menu store and/or tweaks similar to the first two Uncharted games. Thanks!

    • There have not been any concrete details about treasures or bonuses yet other than some comments that there will be plenty of things to scavange for (supplies, ammo etc) and a possible reference to collectibles.

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