After the presentation Naughty Dog gave at Sony's E3 press conference, one developer - who shall remain unnamed - stated "I thought this was going to an original title, but it's just another Uncharted game". Fair enough, the presentation was action-packed and bore the hallmarks of Naughty Dog's hit franchise. But there is more to The Last of Us, and it was one of just a handful of games that truly blew us away during this year's show.
When we first caught wind of The Last of Us at the Video Game Awards on Spike TV last year it may have seemed as if Naughty Dog had taken the rather predictable zombie route, but The Last of Us isn't a game that just slots into a category and the infected seem to play only a minor role in what seems like a journey of personal exploration for main characters Joel and Ellie.
If Uncharted was Naughty Dog's take on the adventure matiné, then The Last of Us has the far more ambitious film genre as its inspiration. The game relies heavily on slower passages for story as Joel fills the gaps in Ellie's knowledge of the old world. The world that was before the devastating viral outbreak, the world some people hope to rebuild, while others have given up hope of a society and live day by day, scavenging what's left.
These scavengers, or hunters, were the focus on the recent Ambush trailer as well as the E3 presentation. Joel and Ellie have made their way into "Hunter City", where gangs of these conscience-free humans lure people into traps to kill them for their belongings in order to survive another day.
The presentation at the press conference was brief and violent. Action packed if you will. It showed one way of playing through the level, but behind closed doors at the show, game director Bruce Strahley presented us with something very different. A slower, stealthy playthrough where we saw new scenes, and where we were given a taste for the duality of the tension the narrative builds.
The Last of Us looks like it may be the best new take on the survival horror genre we've seen since Resident Evil 4, mostly because it only makes use of survival horror in moderate doses. But there is something deliberate and slightly nauseating about the level of violence on display. It's visceral and unlike most games the violence is difficult to just casually brush aside.
The violence here comes across as raw, brutal, and a necessary evil. The tension this creates, and the option the player has to either use stealth to avoid confrontation and not spend valuable resources versus the option of taking on your enemies head on and thus potentially gain more supplies, actually looks well balanced enough for it to become interesting.
In most cases a mix of stealth and kills to gain a tactical advantage is your best medicine in titles that allow for both methods, but here the objective of trying to survive with at least some of your humanity remaining is going to make these decisions all the more difficult.
Such as the hunter that calls a terrified "no!" as Joel points the shotgun at him and pulls the trigger. Or a particularly nasty beatdown with a pipe comes to mind. Melees end with a struggle that drags out too long to be comfortable, as if the game wants you to relish the moment life is snuffed out. What is the true cost of survival in The Last of Us? Our humanity?
Yet this violence and ruthlessness is balanced up with Ellie. Growing up in the quarantine zone she has never seen the world before the outbreak. In her world any crime is punished with death, but there is still a curiousity and innocence to her that seems to help Joel cling on to his last vestiges of his old self, of his soul.
The story is Joel and Ellie's journey, but it's also the story of the world they journey through. In one place early on in the demo Ellie points to a film poster, Dawn of the Wolf, and she asks with her new world innocence just how the wolfman mauled the young woman, and Joel explains it was just a stupid teen movie. There are other instances, such as when they come across a couple who had burnt themselves in the bathtub rather than turning into infected as the outbreak hit that helps paint the picture of what happened when mankind was hit with the cataclysmic disease.
Hunters aren't the only survivors Joel and Ellie will run across on their journey. There will be people who are clinging on to the old values and who try to rebuild society. Hunters are described as rather simple individuals with only one goal in mind: survival at any cost. Even if they are presented as an enemy to fear, there doesn't seem to be a hunter king or anything like that for Joel and Ellie to take on and kill.
The game just doesn't come across as a traditional video game, and I could probably go on about the atmosphere, the narrative, and the wonderful animations, without even mentioning gameplay mechanics. But there is a game here, and it's very advanced in its own right.
We saw simple environmental puzzles where Joel and Ellie work together, examples of the crafting system where Joel created a Molotov cocktail (the ingredients doubling as a health kit in the extended stealth playthrough), and the various ways in which to eliminate enemies using weapons, the environment, and deadly choke holds.
Building a game that is entirely reliant on a partner AI (Ellie) that works perfectly at all times is ambitious, but in this admittedly short demo it seemed to work flawlessly. Ellie is fairly dynamic and will make her own decisions on how to best aid you. Remember the moment in the demo where she jumps in and stabs her knife in the back of a hunter who is wrestling with Joel? Had she been further away, Joel would have still come out on top, but he would have taken more damage.
The way Joel and Ellie were crouching for cover to cover during the second stealthy playthrough of the level while the narrative flowed was something of a revelation, and should put an end to fears that this is "just Uncharted with a different coat of paint". Naughty Dog could be onto something truly special here, and if they allow the narrative to delve deeper than Joel telling Ellie about the old world, this could be one of those rare games that actually teaches us something about ourselves.
With no date for The Last of Us announced it may not be ready until next year, but when it hits Playstation 3 it may very well add yet another essential experience to the console's ever-growing library of exclusives.