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PREVIEW

THE LAST OF US

Zombies. Post-apocalypse. Two of the more popular themes for the industry in recent years.

  • Text: Rasmus Lund-Hansen | GR Denmark

The list of titles using at least one of these topics is long, and The Last of Us, the next game from Uncharted developer Naughty Dog takes cues from both fields. Arguably then, the game's starting point is not particularly original.

But if you ask the developers, that's not so important. What is is that no-one has yet managed to make a game that gets the heart of these topics right. In games, it's typical to see large explosions, several severed limbs and plentiful blood splatter. Yet what makes the stories, like those in 28 Days Later or The Road, so exciting is not zombie outbreak or deserted landscapes. They're just background, giving rise to the real drama - character-driven story about the protagonists' development.

And that's the real objective of The Last of Us, which promises to set a new standard for survival horror and character-driven drama in gaming.

The Last of Us
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The title was unveiled at Spike TV's Video Game Awards last week with a teaser trailer that introduces us to the two main characters, Joel and Ellie, and gave us a brief glimpse of their world.

Humanity is close to extinction. A monstrous fungus has infected most people and mutated them into cannibalistic monsters - inspired by reality, though the real fungal family currently only infects insects.

Exactly how long has passed since the epidemic is not stated, but Joel is old enough to remember the world before infection, while Ellie - 14 years old - has never known other than their day-to-day survival.

Growing up in such a hostile world has hardened Ellie, the girl unafraid to tackle infected with a blade when situation demands, while Joel favours blunt objects or firearms.

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Character models and concept art

It's that VGA teaser that remains in focus when we visit Naughty Dog's studio in Santa Monica, two days after the world premiere. Has the tease done its job; intrigued but offered nothing concrete about gameplay? According to creative director Neil Druckmann, the trailer actually suggests a few things.

Exploration of surroundings and environments is an important part of the game. Hunting for scarce resources is another factor, combat favouring blunt weapons over guns as ammunition is evidently a rare commodity. Sometimes its better to take flight rather than fight against infected.

That trailer? Entirely created with the in-game engine. The same models, textures, surroundings: all in the final game. Confirmed as Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells loads it onto a development PlayStation 3 and pauses along the way to pan the camera and flick the visuals to show (insanely detailed) wireframe models.

The Last of Us
Evan Wells of Naughty Dog shows part of the trailer running on a PS3 devkit.

The Last of Us then, builds on the technology that Naughty Dog has refined with the Uncharted series and makes excellent use of motion-capture technique and the vivid character animations that have been the developer's trademark.

However, for all our discussion with the studio, showings of concept art and clips from motion-capture sessions with Ellie played by Ashley Johnson and Joel by Troy Baker (co-president Evan Wells calls him the new Nolan North), all we see of the game is the sequence taken from the VGA teaser. There's plenty of unanswered questions, but we at least find out two facts: game director Bruce Straley confirms you'll play as Joel, and there's no plans for co-op as of yet.

The Last of Us has been in development for about two years - the project starting right after completion of Uncharted 2. It's a break from the company's traditional work ethic of one game, and one franchise, in development at any given time.

The shift, according to Wells, is that it's been necessary for the developer to expand. Virtually all of Naughty Dog had received calls from headhunters from other companies, just as there were many employees ready for more responsibility, but the studio lacked a new project to sink their teeth into. Therefore it was imperative to start gestating a new concept separate from Uncharted before the talent started trickling elsewhere.

The Last of Us
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Enviroment concept art and editing together trailers and cut-scenes.

That's not to say that The Last Of Us has been set in motion just to keep employees on the payroll. Talk to the two governors - Evan and Christophe Balestra, and its clear they've expanded on the concept because it was a great idea, and the perfect next step for the company.

The Last of Us has the studio convinced. For those of us outside, its more difficult to assess - from what little we saw its hard to judge what we're in for. But that's the way it is for brand new series. Information is shown in tight spurts, and drip fed slowly over the following months. There's not even a release date for the game yet; Wells promised it'd definitely not be before summer. Our gut feeling tells us 2013 - and given the studio's prestige, the reveals to come will be worth the wait.

The Last of Us
The Last of Us
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