The Last of Us Redefines the Survival Genre - Preview

By Nick Pantazis, June 7, 2012
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When Sony showed The Last of Us at their E3 press conference they ignited the interest of millions of gamers. The game, while interesting, was previously a big unknown. Most were unsure whether it was more Resident Evil or Uncharted with zombies. The press conference showed something dynamic and visceral, and while it solved the problem of making sure the game was unique, it raised a new question: would this sort of situation happen organically or was this just the result of a highly scripted presentation. I can put your fears to rest: The Last of Us is everything you hoped it would be. 

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Naughty Dog took us through the same portion of the game we saw in the media conference, but with the specific goal of playing through it in a totally different manner to show us how different the game can play out from different approaches. Because this wasn't limited to a 6 minute session, they also took the time to examine the environment in detail. Ellie and Joel examined a movie poster for a werewolf romance (a not-so-subtle jab at Twilight), which showed Ellie's ignorance of the "old world" in which she never lived. Ellie, having grown up in the quarantine zone in this post-apocalyptic world, couldn't understand why anyone would waste their time on a silly romantic comedy. 

This sort of behavior was prevalent throughout the demo. Ellie is a competent and confident girl, and Joel is a hardened and pretty dark and cynical man, having been old enough to live through the outbreak. The two characters treat one-another with respect, and their different personalities create a good rapport and an interesting dynamic. This also happens organically as the characters interact with the environment and other humans in the world. Ellie is an independent character. While she obviously looks for ways to help the two of them progress, she’s not Joel’s servant and you won’t be commanding her to go places.

The darker and more serious characters are indicative of the gameplay as well. The Last of Us is not an Uncharted game. More realistic movement and capabilities change how the player interacts with the environment. Ellie and Joel aren’t going to leap and climb like Drake. Ellie’s independence shows through here as well. She won’t put herself in stupid situations. She’s aware of when the player is sneaking, and she knows when enemies have guns or other threatening weapons. Naughty Dog was clear that they were careful to avoid making this a babysitting game.

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When the demo got to the point in which our protagonists saw the survivors in the abandoned hotel, Naughty Dog chose a completely different path of progression. The developer chose stealth here, approaching the window and picking up a bottle on the ground. He tossed this through the window, causing it to shatter and distract one of the characters. While the enemy went to check on it, Joel and Ellie advanced through the building. They only killed one enemy on the way out this time, choosing a much stealthier approach. Joel grabbed the enemy from behind, using the gun to threaten him into silence and then choke him to death without a sound.

When Joel and Ellie advanced to the next floor, however, they found enemies waiting for them. Joel grabbed a brick off the ground and took cover. The enemies split up to search for him, and when one passed he bashed the man’s head in. This was of course incredibly loud, and resulted in the other enemies being alerted to their presence. A very short gunfight broke out between Joel and another enemy, who immediately alerted the other AI that he had a gun, which caused them to scatter and take cover. As Joel chased down one enemy he was grabbed and held for another to shoot him, but he fought the enemy off of him, and instead pulled the foe in front, using him as a temporary bullet shield before diving into the next room.

At this point the AI gave chase, and Joel was forced to duck into cover, where he found another bottle. Instead of using this one as a distraction, he tossed it straight at the enemy, momentarily disorienting him while he charged in for a brutal melee kill with a pipe (also picked up off the ground). The final enemy decided it was time to run, as Joel had a gun and he had no backup. Joel gave chase, but the enemy was smart, hiding just as Joel had done only moments before. As Joel searched he sprung a trap, tossing a Molotov and then running at him full tilt, but was taken down by Joel’s gun. At this point Ellie re-emerged, shaken by the brutality of the battle, but quickly recovering as they moved on.

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Our demonstration wound down with Joel and Ellie traveling further into the hotel. They found the bodies of two residents in the bathtub, greatly decayed and having slit their own wrists. Ellie called it the easy way out, while Joel said there was nothing easy about what they did. Again the relationship between the characters took the forefront. The demo wrapped up with Joel crashing down into the basement of the building while trying to cross a rickety elevator, showing the sort of dynamic tension-creating set-pieces that we’ve come to expect from Naughty Dog.

I was absolutely stunned by how dynamic and desperate The Last of Us was. This isn’t an action game, it’s a survival game. Everything is heavy and violent. Joel is human, and not particularly powerful. Even entering a melee situation is a fight for your life. Guns are heavy and have weight, and don’t unload easily. Bullets are incredibly scarce. Every resource is valuable, and scavenging is key. How you use those resources is up to you. A bottle, cloth, and some alcohol could make a Molotov, but you could also use those same materials to create a health kit. You can try to beat your way through enemies, or stealth through. Either way this isn’t a shooter, and the desperate and impactful feel of every action changes the dynamic entirely.

Survival-horror has been a common genre in gaming for many years, but no game has ever shown such an intense and powerful focus of that first word. Survival is our first instinct, and watching The Last of Us immediately pulled me into a desperate, edge-of-my-seat disposition. This is a game I hadn’t seen before, and between the gorgeous graphics, dynamic AI, visceral, heavy combat, and powerful storytelling the feel of the game is wholly unique. If you’re looking for the biggest surprise of the show, look no further. This isn’t just another zombie game, or another Uncharted game. The Last of Us is the survival game I never knew I wanted, but now can hardly wait for. 

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