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E3 2012: The Last of Us [Preview]

5 Jun 2012  by   John Robertson

Given their work on the Uncharted series, any new Naughty Dog IP comes with a set of expectations. The graphics are expected to be wonderful, the characters are expected to be vibrant, the production values are expected to be sky-high and the gameplay elements are expected to be as slick as they are entertaining.

The Last of Us, while clearly very different from Uncharted, is clearly looking to uphold those expectations, as well as take them in a different direction.

At its core, this is a game about survival – that much Naughty Dog at every oppurtunity. Following a pandemic that has ravaged the United States, The Last of Us is a story about the bond formed between protagonists Joel and Elly in the wake of the disaster.

The game’s world is one that has struggled with the effects of the fallout for some time, as opposed to freshly facing the new dangers and way of life they force. Set 20 years after the initial incident, towns are being reclaimed by nature – with vines, trees and water taking over the urban constructs – much of the population has been wiped out, leaving a strong sense of isolation behind, and supplies are in extremely short supply.

Things being in short supply is a key pillar of survival games, and survival in general, and forms a pivotal role in shaping the events that Joel and Elly experience. The E3 demo is from a section early in the game set in Pittsburgh, the home of the ‘Hunters’. Just one of The Last of Us’ groups, Hunters are happy to steal, kill and cheat their way to more food, weapons and shelter if it means they can help their ravaged community.

Naughty Dog promises that the narrative will force us to ask questions about what is actually right and wrong in the face of such hardship, and whether the ends (stealing and killing) justify the means (helping your friends survive).

No matter the moral backdrop, however, Joel and Elly present an opportunity for the Hunters to acquire useful items. It’s your job to outfight/outwit/outrun them, stay alive and get through the city.

Unlike the Uncharted series, encounters are not scripted and don’t have to be tackled in a specific way… or tackled at all, for that matter. The E3 demo includes a section in which Joel uses stealth to take down the first few Hunters standing in his way, before he steals one of their guns and uses that to blast his way through the rest.

However, it’s possible to go gun crazy right from the start (if you’ve got a gun and enough ammo) or to avoid the section altogether, but possibly miss out on some handy items. Exploration and choice is a big of the game, says Naughty Dog, and you’ll not be forced to walk a certain path if you don’t want to.

From what we’ve seen, if you go the action route, you’ll be privy to combat that is shocking because of its realism rather than its gratuity. There’s no overdose of blood, snapped bones or exploding heads, just quick, intense combat followed by death and the continuation of your journey.

Elly, the small girl that you’re escorting through this mess (not Joel’s daughter, as was originally thought), does a decent job of hiding when things get hectic and lending a hand if Joel is struggling. It’s possible for her to use a knife to stab enemies holding Joel down, for example, but all that is AI controlled and it’s not clear how scripted/unscripted it will be throughout the game.

However you decide to approach a situation, frugal use of resources will be key to giving yourself the best chance of survival down the line. Ammo, health and weapons are supposedly in short supply throughout the entire game, so spayin’ ‘n’ prayin’ is probably never your best option.

We also saw a brief glimpse of the ability to craft new items from things you find in the environment, such as health kits and molotov cocktails. Some of the ingredients used to create different items will cross-over and inter-connect, meaning you’ll need to determine how you want to play before crafting something new. For example, you may only have enough materials to create a molotov cocktail OR a health kit, but it’s up to you which you make – based on whether you want to play a defensive or aggressive game.

So, essentially, the fancy visuals aside, it doesn’t look anything like Uncharted. Yes, the key pillars of story, character and well-developed mechanics are in place but the outcome plays completely differently.

It’ll be interesting to see just how well Naughty Dog goes from the linear to the exploratory, and just how they keep the momentum and intrigue going throughout the entire game. Whatever the case, given the developer’s pedigree, if The Last of Us isn’t spectacular it’ll be disappointing.

No pressure then.

*Watch our The Last of Us gameplay video.

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