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The Last of Us: An Attempt at True Storytelling

This is the story of a relationship. Beyond anything else, it seems that the division of Naughty Dog behind The Last of Us wants to create two characters that we, as players, will come to enjoy, understand, and find fascinating. Everything else is just a means to develop the relationship between Joel and Ellie, and therefore the player who will be guiding them.

the last of us joel ellie

In a developer session held at a press event for The Last of Us this past week, Game Director Bruce Stanley noted that the inspiration for the game came from the brilliant No Country For Old Men. Obviously the film doesn't involve diseased humans or post-apocalyptic worlds, but rather the inspiration came from the emotions Stanley and Neil Druckmann (Creative Director) felt as a result of the relationship between the hunter Anton Chigurh and the hunted Llewelyn Moss. It's a film that delves deep into what makes these men tick and therefore psychological as much as it is physical. Although Joel and Ellie represent a unified front as opposed to direct enemies, the influence is clear to see. Here are two survivors; not heroes or villains, just survivors that will do anything to get through the next day.

Their relationship is certainly interesting, even just from the small segments we've played so far. The somewhat forced narrative found in most other games has been replaced by natural dialogue brought to life by Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker; two performances that Neil Druckmann noted as "two of the best in gaming history", so there's clearly been a lot of time spent on getting the characters just right.

The key here is to understand that this story isn't really about the dystopian world or the "not-zombies", but rather how these two people react to their situation and how this affects the way they interact with one another. As ever with a video game, there's a risk of losing this message amongst the violence and puzzles and all the nameless other gaming must-haves. Far Cry 3 is a brilliant recent example of a story being betrayed by the world in which it is set. It's hard to follow the writers' comments on violence in games when you're spending half your time letting tigers loose on other humans. So the real challenge for Naughty Dog is how to develop the relationship even whilst the player is controlling the characters.

the last of us joel

We've had a chance to play on two levels of the game and from what we've seen Naughty Dog have done a great job of creating realistic and emotionally intriguing characters. Joel's sceptical attitude contrasts Ellie's optimism and intrigue, a reflection of their age gap. As a child of the new age Ellie has no experience of life before the Cordyceps disease took hold and so every shred of the life that used to be is exciting and unusual. Joel by comparison is only haunted by the shades of the past, causing a friction between the two that's obvious from the start. Joel's protector role, however, means that he's never cruel to Ellie and it's clear that the game is playing with a father-daughter relationship between the two.

Of course, this relationship forms the backbone of the game; but without fun and engaging gameplay, it would fall flat in an instant. Thankfully, Naughty Dog's time with 'that other franchise' has gifted them with an incredible ability to handle the action adventure genre. Moving around the game world feels a lot more free than in most games of the same nature; there is a sense that you're still being funnelled towards the right location, but there's plenty to see and discover along the way.

the last of us ellie

Puzzles are subtly placed within the gameplay, simple things that will probably actually catch people out. For instance, we saw a lot of people stunted by the simplest of gaming puzzles, a barricade that needed to be passed. In reality all you needed to do was lift a ladder from the floor and lay it on the barricade to pass over it, but the fact that environmental things like this aren't often used in games left many baffled. It's a nice touch that actually takes some getting used to, despite its obvious real world logic. One thing that caught me out was the fact that Joel isn't Nathan Drake; he's not a gymnast with incredible leaping ability and as such more mundane obstacles, like the said barricade, can prove to be opportunities for some quick thinking.

It's all well-balanced and fun to play but there's no doubt that everything turns up a notch once you get into combat. In The Last of Us stealth is just as useful, and arguably just as fun, as guns blazing battles. The Arkham City-esque 'see through walls' ability, while a bit out of place, increases the strategic element of sneaking around and proves to be very useful on harder difficulty settings. The fact that NPCs don't just walk around in pre-determined paths is another one of those 'tricky because it's realistic' situations that again takes some getting used to. In fact, the AI were brilliant throughout our play time; their ability to flank is unlike anything I've ever seen in a game, using sight and sound to properly move to your vulnerable sides. The number of times I got caught from behind was quite embarrassing, but it's a testament to the designers that the AI move so intuitively around the combat areas. There were some examples of typical AI stupidity, like staring straight at you but not raising the alarm, but these were few and far between.

the last of us screen

If stealth doesn't work out for you then combat itself is a fun option that takes a lot of inspiration from Uncharted. Gunplay is fast and furious and you need to be attentive to your enemies' locations at all times. Melee fighting is satisfying, and a brilliant mechanic, with which you can pick up and craft various swingable objects, means that clubbing an enemy with scissors taped to a pole is not just possible but recommended. In one key departure from Drake's games, it doesn't take a lot of bullets (usually two or three) to take an enemy down. Something that plays nicely with the survivalist theme of the game.

So far I've only briefly mentioned the diseased humans that populate The Last of Us, but there's no escaping their lingering presence within the game. The developer session we attended included a fascinating talk by Dr David Hughes, an expert on the real life Cordyceps virus (which in-game has transferred over to humans) who gave us a great background to the virus and how it could translate into the game world. The fungal infection is unlike anything you've ever seen from a zombie game before and while Hughes and the developers were encouraging the idea that these aren't zombies, it's tricky to see them as anything else; they're just presented a little differently. The sprouting mushroom-like growths on the faces of the infamous "Clicker" creatures are as terrifying to fight as they are to look at. They take several shots to put down and can kill with one attack, making them extremely intimidating from a gameplay perspective. The standard "Runner" creatures are a lot easier to deal with and only present an issue when grouped together. I do like the individuality each creature has and I can't wait to see what other forms of Cordyceps-zombies Naughty Dog comes up with.

the last of us screen

All of this, from the wonderfully developed story to the zombie clubbing, takes place within a very well designed dystopian world in which nature has taken control. The Last of Us is set 20 years after Cordyceps killed off most of humanity, so the ruined world is both dangerous and beautiful. There is a slight niggle in that it all looks almost exactly the same as Uncharted (which was made with the same engine) which is never good for immersion. It's easily forgivable though as Uncharted, and therefore The Last of Us, is a very good looking game. This gives the game a terrific sense of atmosphere that only helps the player understand the relationship between Joel and Ellie and become enthralled by their story.

We only played about an hour and a half of gameplay, but this time demonstrated a lot of what The Last of Us has to offer. The gameplay looks to be a great mix of tense and action packed, mixed in with the typical Naughty Dog sense of drama and love of set pieces. The whole game world has been brilliantly realised, something that stems back to the original ant teaser trailers from last year. There's also a daunting sense of realism in The Last of Us and I hope that Naughty Dog are able to maintain this throughout the game. In the end, though, it all comes back to Joel and Ellie, the two key elements, whose story will mould the player's experience with the game and in the end decide just how good The Last of Us will be.

RGDfleet | 26th May, 2013
Platinum's picture
Really looking forward to this

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