Set to be one of the most acclaimed games of E3, Naughty Dog finally shows The Last of Us to a bigger audience. Jem Alexander comes away impressed of a tale of companionship and survival.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the Sony E3 press conference, the brief demo of The Last of Us showed only a small portion of the presentation shown behind closed doors. Without time constraints the developers were free to take their time to explore the environments and reveal new ways of playing through the level.
If you didn't see the demonstration on the Sony stage, you missed a tense, atmospheric journey through a dilapidated hotel. While its lobby has been reclaimed by nature, other survivors of the apocalyptic virus outbreak have been taking ownership of the rooms. Once alerted to Joel and Ellie's presence they violently defend their hovels in a shoot-out that ends with quite a bang.
The full length demonstration was less action packed during this particular battle, but no less awesome, with the developers taking a stealthier approach. A combination of silent takedowns and distracting the enemies with a well timed glass bottle throw. It's reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid - stealth and a guns-blazing approach seem equally valid.
The demo extended beyond this, with Joel and Ellie sneaking past and making their way further into the hotel. As Joel heals up with a bandage found in a bathroom drawer, Ellie stumbles across a pair of bodies in a blood soaked bath. They've been there a while, with visible signs of decay.
It's moments like these that really stood out during the demonstration. Pieces of the environment which spark dialogue between the two protagonists, revealing backstory on the world and insight into the characters and their relationship. "Took the easy way out, huh?" Ellie asks. Joel's response that "it ain't easy, trust me it ain't easy" betrays just enough to give us a glimpse of his past. Suddenly he's a little more interesting and we're eager to discover more about him. If only to satisfy the many questions this single line of dialogue has spawned.
There's another great example of this near the start of the twenty-minute presentation. Ellie asks about a movie poster for 'Dawn of the Wolf' and Joel says that he's seen it, that it's a "stupid teen movie".
"Who dragged you to see it, though?" Joel sighs. "I dunno".
It's a tiny glimpse into Joel's romantic history. One that may never be expanded upon, but that's okay because it all helps flesh him out as a real, human character. We can also gain a vague time scale of when the viral outbreak took place; Ellie is clearly a product of this new, zombie-filled world.
She's tough and relatively unfazed by the horrors she's experiencing, but ignorant to how things worked before the apocalypse, indicating that things have been this way for a number of years. Meanwhile, Joel's memory of the world that came before seems to make him a weaker character, emotionally. It's an interesting dichotomy with a lot of potential and we're excited to see how their relationship evolves.
Naughty Dog intentionally announced The Last of Us last December without showing gameplay, stating that its focus was on showcasing the characters and story. It's ironic then that it's actually through this gameplay demonstration that we truly get a glimpse of what they're hoping to achieve in this area.
It's something that actually seems to feed into the brutal combat system. It's a fight for survival in a way that seems much more credible than in Uncharted. Whereas Nathan Drake is a loveable mass murderer, his actions above the law because he's just so damn charming, Joel and Ellie are fighting for survival in a bleak, lawless world.
As a result, combat seems much more desperate, but no less morally ambiguous. With a distinct lack of zombies in the demonstration, the "enemies" shown are simply other survivors trying to stay alive. In the next combat section, the developers switched back to a full action shoot out strategy. Glass bottles, previously used to distract and misdirect, are thrown into the enemies' faces. Bricks are used to bash in their heads. There's a lot of hardcore face violence going on.
The camera becomes more cinematic, pulling closer to Joel and shaking during moments of impact. The incredible animations all appear bespoke and have a great sense of physicality to them. It's hard not to wince when an enemy's head is caved in on the edge of a table.
There was a high level of tension during the demonstration, with the threat of zombies coming from behind and unfriendly survivors ahead. As the developers explored the hotel, sounds of struggle could be heard through the wall. Muffled female screams and loud bangs and scrapes. It's unclear whether this is foreshadowing an upcoming encounter, or simply adding flavour and reinforcing the idea that in the world of The Last Of Us, everyone is suffering.
The demonstration ended with Joel and Ellie climbing away from danger into a lift shaft. Things get even more tense as the lift shudders and creaks under their weight and eventually plummets into the flooded basement below, but not before Ellie manages to climb away to safety. Joel falls to the water below, leaving the pair separated, but he seems more concerned about Ellie than his three storey tumble. "You okay?", he yells up to her. "No! You scared the shit out of me!".
The incredible graphics and animation along with the brutal combat are enough to make us want to play The Last of Us. However, it's the mysteries of the main characters, their relationship and the backstory of the viral outbreak that elevate this to one of our most anticipated games of the next year.
The Last of Us launches next year for PlayStation 3.