E3 2012 – Impressions of ‘The Last of Us’
It’s a pretty well-known fact that I’ve never been a fan of the Survival Horror genre, so I got a bit anxious when I saw the initial reveal of ‘The Last of Us’ from Naughty Dog. I said from the start though, that I would give them the benefit of the doubt because, quite frankly, they’ve never given me a reason to not trust them. Then we saw the 6-minute demo used to close-out the PlayStation press event at E3 2012, and as the demonstrator in the shadows held the Dual Shock 3 high in the air in the midst of thunderous applause, he dropped it to the ground in celebration of what is quickly becoming a genre-defining game.
Naughty Dog have always been the masters of showing only what they want you to see at events like this. With Uncharted 3, the demonstrations shown at E3 2011 worried many as being potential spoilers, only for everyone to find out that what was shown was actually changed in a big way in the full game. Knowing this only made our private demonstration of ‘The Last of Us’ even more poignant and interesting, as we were actually able to see essentially the same demo that was shown during the Press Event, but this time it wasn’t the build that guaranteed a 6-minute run time.
Starting in the same coffee shop as before, Joel and Ellie walk out into a ravaged city, which can quickly be recognized as what’s left of Pittsburgh (the iconic yellow Fort Pitt bridge standing off in the distance being a clear and immediate indication.) Unlike the earlier demo, Joel this time interacts with the movie poster that they walk by. A reference to something sounding like a Twilight movie elicits a response from Joel that it “wasn’t very good,” quickly making Ellie ask “why did you see that?” He diverts from the conversation quickly, but that quick exchange really got me thinking. I mentioned this in our E3 podcast, but this really makes me think that Joel has/had a daughter and at some point, possibly she was infected in the hinted Outbreak. Now think about it, this could be the very foundation of the relationship between Joel and Ellie. Was his daughter quarantined, or even worse, was Joel forced to kill her? Is Joel keeping Ellie under his wing a way for him to cope with happened to his daughter? As mentioned above though, Naughty Dog has become a master of deception when it comes to demonstrations like this. As with all of the games that we see at E3, you only get a tiny slice of what the game will actually be, so any speculation is really only based on the smallest amount of the full story.
As seen on the stream, they wander into what used to be a very fancy hotel, but the ladder that was originally there is missing. Joel sees one high up on a ledge, so he proposes boosting Ellie up for her to drop it down, but they need to find something to stand on so she can reach all the way up there. After taking care of that, Ellie drops the ladder down to Joel, who then carries it over to the correct spot and puts it into place. Again, as seen previously, they walk out onto a rooftop area and encounter a couple of guys looting the rooms of the hotel. Instead of walking all the way across though, they sneak-up to the window where the looters are, and Joel grabs an empty bottle and throws it into the connecting room. When they move into that room to investigate, Joel and Ellie climb through the window and sneak across the hall. They essentially try to bypass all of the enemies from the initial demo, but are spotted when they make it out to the other patio. There are 3 or 4 looters in the group, and this is where the advanced “Balance of Power AI” kicks-in.
The Dogs explain to us that the AI will react in different ways depending on the balance of power in each situation. If Joel and Ellie are outnumbered, or if they don’t have any apparent weapons, the AI will be aggressive and utilize tactics such as splitting-up and flanking. Since the game relies heavily on “survival” though, if an enemy is outnumbered or out-gunned, he or she (or it maybe?) will flee the scene in a attempt to survive. After an immensely brutal fight, which at one point made everyone in the room cringe at the weighty “thud” of metal meeting skull. The fights are brutal, but not in a gratuitous manner. The style used only heightens the tension and anxiety, and with the use of close-ups and moody lighting, that tension and anxiety transfer to the player very effectively.
After Joel takes two of the looters down, and a third knocked-out by a brick to the head thrown by Ellie, the fourth realizes that he’s alone and makes a run for it. Joel pursues through the hallways of the hotel, making his way up to the next floor and checking room-by-room. He turns around just in time to see the guy running into a room at the end of the hall. Cautiously, Joel draws his gun and slowly walks toward the room. There’s obviously no other way out, so eventually he’s going to encounter the guy, and it’s only a matter of time at this point. Suddenly, the guy pops-out of the doorway, bottle in-hand and flames spurting from the top. Before Joel can react, the bottle shatters on the wall just to the right of Joel, burning liquid falling away and on to the floor. Joel regains his composure just in time to react to the enemy running full-out straight at Joel, who aims the gun and fires just in the nick of time, felling the man where he stands. His body falls into the fire on the floor, catching his legs ablaze. Ellie runs to find out what’s happened, and they make their way to the elevators.
They both climb into the open elevator, which is stuck just above the floor. They make their way through the trapdoor in the ceiling, and find that the elevator next to theirs is also sitting high, but the door to the floor above is open, and they need to get through there. They make their way over, and Joel boosts Ellie up through the door, all the while eerie “creaking” sounds echo through the elevator shaft. As Joel grabs for the ledge, a huge crashing sound indicates that something bad is happening, and the view reverts to that from Joel’s eyes. Ellie and the door she’s in become smaller and fly farther away as Joel falls down above the elevator that has just failed to hold. All of a sudden, Joel is surrounded by water. As he makes a move to swim to the surface, he grimaces in pain as his left shoulder is visibly dislocated. He struggles to the surface after popping-it back into the socket, pain filling his facial expressions. Ellie yells down that she’ll come to him, but Joel tells her to stay-put, and that he’ll make his way back up to her. Fade to Black.
So what we saw leaned heavily to the survival side of “survival horror.” The mention of an outbreak was present, but as of yet, we haven’t seen nor even heard mention of any type off mutant or zombie. Even though I’m sure that we’ll see something like that later on, a part of me wishes that we wouldn’t. What we saw convinced me that convincing dialogue and the rest of the tools that they’re using are an amazing way to tell this story without being gruesome or cheesy. The tension and anxiety are still there, and are very palpable,. Some of the most convincing movies out there have never revealed the “monster”, and I think that it’s already working in ‘The Last of Us’.
Some people have compared this to the Uncharted series, but that couldn’t be further from what’s actually here. This isn’t a shooter, but instead it’s all about surviving using any means necessary. Ammunition is scarce, and during both demos, Joel usually only had 3 or 4 bullets to work with. Combat will be close-quarters, and much more personal. Joel and Ellie are a team, and even though (as far as we know so far) you will only be controlling Joel, Ellie is a convincing partner. They are very different characters, and they not only play-off of each other very well, the symbiotic relationship is the core of the game. Also, the fact that there isn’t a power source in the environment any more adds to the mood, as the new lighting system accentuates the natural light sources like sunlight and fire.
Not being a fan of traditional “Survival Horror,” I’m actually very excited to see where this game goes. It’s nice to see that Naughty Dog isn’t relying on cheap, over-the-top gruesome monsters and blood spilling everywhere, and instead are doing something that almost forces the player to actually care about these characters. You may even find yourself caring for their enemies in a small way, since in the grand scheme of things, they’re all just trying to survive.