Posted on Saturday, April 20th, 2013 at 9:00 AM by Ed Prosser
The Last of Us is an upcoming survival horror/action adventure game from Naughty Dog, the developers of Uncharted and Jak and Daxter, which draws on comics like The Walking Dead and films like 28 Days Later. Similar to the Uncharted series, The Last of Us is exclusive to PlayStation. Whilst these are the clear salient facts about The Last of Us, they are by far the least important.
You might think that you would be able to guess exactly what a third-person survival horror game from the developer of Uncharted would be like, but in this case, you’re wrong. Naughty Dog have stated that they’re keeping the feel of The Last of Us as far as possible from Uncharted. Whilst we might not want them to stray too far from their hit series, it’s positive that Naughty Dog are investing heavily in giving The Last of Us it’s own feel.
The Last of Us has its own focus though. It’s built around the story of Joel and Ellie; Joel is a survivor of the fungal plague which has wiped out much of humankind, and Ellie is a fourteen year old girl, born after the collapse of worldwide government.
Joel is a grizzled veteran, who hints at the loss of a loved one to the fungus. This is my first point of concern with The Last of Us. I think the character of Joel runs the risk of being very cliched, and unless Naughty Dog have taken care with his character arc, it could take the game from a great one, to merely a good one.
I am reassured though, by the insistence of Naughty Dog that The Last of Us is really the story of Joel and Ellie. Not merely the experiencing of their actions. The Last of Us Director Bruce Straley describes it as ‘a game about contrasts’, contrasts between Joel and Ellie, the contrasts within their art style civilisation, and even humanity being overthrown and broken down by nature and the cordyceps fungus (which is, terrifyingly enough a real thing).
The initial premise of The Last of Us, is that Joel is asked to help Ellie escape from the military controlled quarantine zone and deliver her to a resistance group. You control Joel, whilst Ellie is controlled by an AI. This obviously has potential to immediately kill all pacing and turn the game into a huge escort quest. Even if it avoids that pitfall, there’s the unavoidable comparison (however obnoxious) to the other older man/younger girl game which has already come out this year, Bioshock Infinite. The comparison is especially obnoxious (or poignant, depending on your perspective) when you consider that Troy Baker plays the lead male in both games.
Whilst the AI could be a real stumbling block for The Last of Us, it could enhance the relationship between Joel and Ellie. And it’s this relationship which Naughty Dog have been working hard at perfecting. Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, Creative Director of The Last of Us, emphasised in a video blog on the game’s official site the importance of having the story communicate certain emotions to the player. The emotions the game is really about, love, loyalty and sacrifice, according to Druckmann ‘the only way we could really get into those kind of emotions is if you buy into what’s at stake for these characters’.
It’s for this reason that Naughty Dog engaged in such an extensive search for actors to play the lead roles, considering dozens of candidates before plumping for Troy Baker as Joel and Ashley Johnson as Ellie. Both actors provide the motion capture in their respective roles as well as voice the characters. Straley and Druckmann stressed that the chemistry between the two was key to making the characters believable.
From a technical standpoint, the gameplay of The Last of Us looks very interesting indeed. It appears Ellie can be used to scavenge nearby areas for useful items, which is a nice touch. Perhaps the most immediately impressive feature of the gameplay featured in the 15 minute E3 demo was the combat. It’s certainly the most exciting combat since the first time we saw Arkham Asylum. The combat is very cinematic, with Joel using items scavenged from the world around him to his advantage, anything from throwing glass bottles to distract enemies to beating them down with cinder blocks.
The combat uses what Naughty Dog call a ‘Balance of Power’ system, which causes the enemy AI to change how it interacts with Joel based on the situation at hand, running and hiding when it’s on the back foot, only to ambush Joel when it feels it has the element of surprise. This is, according to Druckmann and Straley, perhaps Naughty Dogs most systems based game, and judging from the gameplay footage, that is certainly believable. With Ellie’s scavenging mechanic, her AI, the ‘Balance of Power’ system, and the noise based detection mechanic of the Infected to contend with, there are a lot of systems for players to master. It will be how well these systems interact which decides if The Last of Us is a success.
Aesthetically, The Last of Us is a remarkably pretty game, as you would expect from the makers of Uncharted at the end of a console generations effective lifespan. The environments look suitably ruined after two decades of neglect and Ellie and Joel look nicely disheveled. Although I am surprised that for an industry which is full of creative people, we still haven’t thought of a better way of storing equipment than either TARDIS-like pockets, or invisible velcro to stick items to characters backs. The user interface is very clean, health bars and ammo counts disappearing unless needed, which makes for a more immersive playing experience.
In summary, The Last of Us has the potential to be great. Whether it can make all of its disparate elements and systems work together towards a common goal remains to be seen. The danger to the gameplay of The Last of Us is the AI of Ellie, if she’s hard to manage, or gets in the way, then any tensions the game tries to build will only contribute to frustration. The danger to the story is cliché. If Joel ends up being another stock protagonist then nobody playing will engage with either of the characters. Truly then, this game rests in the hands of Joel and Ellie.