Preview: The Last Of Us: Survival in the Wasteland
The Last of Us has turned heads ever since its reveal, taking the much overused zombie apocalypse genre and tweaking it with a deadly real-world parasite fungus called the Cordyceps. Couple that with the theme of survival (and to what extent some people will go to ensure it), and The Last of Us is a story that could take the best of Romero’s socio-political Dead movies and Fallout 3‘s horrible Wastelands, and package them into a new strong and powerful story. After trying out two levels of The Last of Us recently, it seems to me that the game feels very much like a zombie-infested Uncharted game, which continues the narrative quality Naughty Dog is known for, but only marginally reaches past the Nathan Drake formula.
The Last of Us plays very much like Uncharted. There are plenty of minor differences between the two, but the two games are very similar in design and presentation. Of course, this makes sense: Naughty Dog split their team to have some continue developing Uncharted 3, while the other half went on to create the The Last of Us. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Much like Uncharted, the story is strong, but focused less on a crazy adventure around the world, and centered more on the moment to moment danger its main characters Joel and Ellie get into. Where Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake and pals get into fast-paced shootouts that usually involve buildings crumbling and vehicles crashing, The Last of Us takes a much slower approach to action, drawing out the terror and suspense of encounters to emphasize the beauty and brutality of the world Joel and Ellie now live in.
It’s amazing how in Uncharted Nathan Drake can kill scores and scores of nameless thugs, and the violence never truly registers for what it is… and then Joel encounters a handful of enemies, beats them down with his bare fists, and it really hangs over your head just a little more. Of course, like Drake, there’s never any question of whether you’re the a monster or not. Joel is far from innocent: in fact, one short exchange of dialogue between Joel and Ellie just after surviving an ambush really drives this point in:
Ellie: How’d you know bout the ambush?
Joel: I’ve been on both sides.
But when you’re playing the game, it’s either you or it’s them. Hopefully, when the full game releases, there will be some moments where it makes you question who the real “bad guy” is, like some of the scenes found in Telltale’s The Walking Dead. With the story and setting being what it is, it’d be a perfect chance to leave something that resonates with the players a little more than the catchy one-liners and flashy sequences of most games.
Fights are generally personal and savage. Thankfully, Ellie is no slouch when it comes to combat situations. Don’t expect her to turn into God of War‘s Kratos or Heavenly Sword‘s Nariko in combat, or have the amazing powers of BioShock Infinite‘s Elizabeth. But for a game that could be a long, glorified escort mission, Ellie does her part to keep Joel alive just as much as he tries to keep her safe. During one particular moment when I ran out of bullets against a raider, Ellie knocked him off balance before he could get a shot at me, just long enough for me to either reload my gun or rush him. I chose the former, getting a headshot in just before he recovered and took my life.
But there’s a little bit of a problem with this, too.
For a game that encourages the player to keep Ellie’s safety in mind, there are moments where that thought goes completely out the window. There are “level three” Infected you’ll encounter called “Clickers,” foes that find their victims by sound, and then quickly chase them down and kill them. I quickly learned that they could charge and kill Joel with one attack if he didn’t shoot them fast, or attack them with a good melee weapon. Later, during a particular sequence where Joel gets caught and hung upside down in a trap that Ellie has to cut him out of, she can get attacked by the Infected if Joel doesn’t shoot them fast enough. Basic Infected she could conceivably held back until I took the shot and killed them; then a raging Clicker would come in, and my heart dropped, thinking I wouldn’t be able to kill it in time while swinging upside down from a rope.
It came to my surprise that she could hold them off for more than several seconds, which made sense for the sequence (unless Naughty Dog wanted to severely punish gamers) but also made me realize that Ellie is mechanically designed to endure more damage than Joel so that she’s not too helpless during fights. Joel, on the other hand, being played by the player, is meant to die quicker to really nail the “survival horror” part of the game.
I found this out again during a later sequence where Joel, Ellie, and an associate named Bill are running from the Infected, and I tried to cover everyone’s back by shooting our enemies. Taking but a split second to take a few shots got me swarmed and killed; but later, running for my own life, even past Ellie and Bill, allowed me to survive the chase. I knew that as long as Joel made it, Ellie would make it too. It’s a catch 22: make her too dependent on Joel, and the game could lose its fun; make her too powerful, and it subconsciously removes the idea that Joel is here to protect Ellie and get her to safety. Hopefully the full game will balance this out a little better.
As a character, I have to join in the conspiracy that Ellie must be based on actress Ellen Page. Besides the fact that the two looked nearly identical in earlier concept art, Ellie’s whole personality seems to be based on Page in Juno, just dropped into the apocalypse. Also, her name’s Ellie. She’s quirky, random, and curses like a sailor when in danger, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind when it seems like Joel is hiding something. If you were expecting a slightly older take on The Walking Dead‘s Clementine, then you’re bound for disappointment. But I can say that this snarky teenager with a foul mouth feels like a real, three dimensional character, and she plays well against the stiff, no-nonsense, world-weary Joel.
This is emphasized during little moments where a Triangle pops up over Ellie’s head, and Joel can choose to interact with her. The first time I got to see this in play was near an arcade game called “The Turning,” which starred a character named Angel Knives, who seemed to be a kid, female street ninja version of Wolverine. Ellie’s enthusiasm at the idea of video games versus Joel’s knowledge and indifference about them played off each other pretty well: it gave us a glimpse at the characters that didn’t include death or survival. Later, when coming across a Raider compound, Joel and Ellie find a pile of shoes, clothes, and other loot, which makes them realize how many people the Raiders have lured in and killed. Ellie’s reaction is horror; Joel’s not so much, showing the innocence and the experience of either character.
The levels I played included sequences from both the city of Lincoln and the city of Pittsburgh. The former gave us a look at the Infected, which so far seem like zombies with a different name, and the latter gave us a view on the humans that you’ll face in the game. Unfortunately, in either case, there wasn’t much of a chance to try anything radically different in terms of approach, like perhaps the freedom and versatility when engaging enemy compounds in Far Cry 3. Fighting the Raiders did allow me to try a few different tactics, like using sound to distract foes and sneak up on them, simple shootouts, and taking a human shield. In either case, the gameplay felt like the stealth encounters found in Uncharted, but with a slower and more methodical pace. I also tried out different difficulties, which–for these preview levels–didn’t change the enemy intelligence or health much, but this could very well change in the final game.
One of the biggest differences between The Last of Us and Uncharted is the crafting system, which takes the modding of Dead Island and allows Joel to use scavenged items to strengthen his weapons, make them more lethal, or make items to aid him on his journey, like medical packs, molotov cocktails, and even mines and smoke bombs. This is done not in the Start Menu, but on-the-go and straight out of Joel’s backpack. Meaning, if you do it in the wrong place, Joel could get attacked. Also, Joel doesn’t just wait and heal from damage like Nathan Drake does; instead, players have to hold down a button while selecting a medpack so that Joel can try and heal himself. This really drives in the point of survival, making encounters feel more tense, and encouraging players to approach situations cautiously.
There were a bunch of little things also found in the demo, like traps laid by others that could be used against enemies. Players can also upgrade Joel’s skills and stats during the course of the game. But the biggest problem for The Last of Us was the checkpoints. There were a few areas where Joel could collect a bunch of items and loot that were soon followed by enemy encounters or danger. If he were killed during those moments, he’d start over from before he collected his items, making you have to recollect everything you found, re-mod everything you modded, and encounter that same enemy all over again. This is a little frustrating and tedious, especially when some encounters are scripted exactly the same way. But again, this could be fixed in the final version of the game. I also missed the simple shoulder swap mechanic of Uncharted where a button click switched his shooting angle. In The Last of Us the player has to aim his weapon first, and then tap another button to switch sides. It makes a simple idea just a little bit more cumbersome, one that doesn’t make or break the game, but is still vitally important during tense situations against groups of enemies.
The Last of Us has a lot going for it: brutal gameplay, multi-faceted characters, and new mechanics that really make it feel like something new and unique, even when maintaining the scripted and linear nature of Uncharted. Still, there’s a lot more I’d like to see, which will hopefully be answered when the game releases in a few weeks to the PS3 on June 14th. Until then, check out the preview trailer and screenshots below and let us know what you think in the comments below.