Naughty Dog’s evolution continues to sprout excellent results.
Let me begin this with a silly story.
Two days before posting this, I went to the local chippy for a bite. One of the chippy ladies, who knew I wrote about games, told me about how her son played games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. She then laughed and followed up with the remark that GTA was, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, “too violent”. My first thought upon hearing that was he hasn’t played The Last of Us yet. Let me explain.
There’s a bit in the Pittsburgh demo of the two level preview code I played where I realised, ‘this isn’t the Naughty Dog I know’. Joel and Ellie are ambushed by Hunters, the human enemies of the game alongside the Infected. Joel is pulled out of the subsequently crashed car by one hunter and shoved into an empty fridge before shoved down on a broken shard of glass. He fights out of it and manages to push his captive down onto the broken glass and slash his throat.
Upon seeing it, my first thought was how brutal it was, though do remember this is in a world that is dog eat dog after a human outbreak of the Cordyceps virus. My second thought was, because of said brutality, that this isn’t the Naughty Dog I’ve come to know. This isn’t the Naughty Dog that did the cutesy yet fun platformers Crash Bandicoot or the Jak & Daxter series. Nor is it the studio that made a wisecracking, yet more mature Indy Jones angle with Uncharted. Uncharted may have proven it can do more than just the welcoming Crash or Jak & Daxter, but The Last of Us takes Naughty Dog to a whole new ball game.
The first level in Lincoln sees the pair try to reach a confidant of Joel’s named Bill, but along the way, you have to pass infected as well as booby traps that has been set up all over town as you attempt to make it to Bill’s safehouse. The Lincoln level is the more action based of the two levels I got to play with the opening segment of Pittsburgh the only kind of action seen in that level. The gunplay does take cues from Uncharted, but otherwise, don’t expect Joel to be as energetic as Nathan Drake.
The one thing that Joel does have over his Uncharted compatriot is the ability to craft items. In a world where every little resource is precious, Joel is able to craft shanks, molotovs and first aid kits, to name a few. But only if he’s able to collect resources like alcohol, rags and the like to build said assets. You’ll also collect tools and collectables to help your weapons like faster reloading time or bigger ammo capacity in your gun. Every resource is important, so best to explore every possible inch when possible (which is why the remainder of the Pittsburgh level in the preview code is pretty much devoted to collecting them).
You’ll also be able to get off the beaten trail to explore other aspects of the broken down world which may lead to additional resources. One example when we approach Bill’s safehouse, in Lincoln where a door is banging. It’s investigated and it turns out it’s an Infected who attempts to ambush you. Thankfully as it’s a Runner, the human side of the infected who otherwise have lost all rational human behaviour, it’s easy to take out with a custom-made pipe that’s taped with scissors that I picked up early in the level. The same won’t be said of Clickers. Clickers are unable to see, but they make up for it with a heightened sense of sound. Make too much noise and they’ll come for you, so best to sneak around with as little noise. And if they do come for you, best to stay as far away as possible for the kill because if they get anywhere near you, you’re dead with no chance of escape right there (protip: *DON’T* go for the headshot with them).
But while the Infected don’t exactly have the smarts besides just charging straight for you, the human enemies in the Hunters makes up the numbers in terms of tactical fights. They will flank you and approach from most angles if you find yourself in a tight corner, like in the beginning of the Pittsburgh demo. It’s there I saw just how brutal The Last of Us can be. And more in particular, its melee combat. When in combat with an enemy, Joel can use the environment to help finish his opponent off and can also grab enemies to use as human shields. That won’t last forever, though. But if an enemy does seemingly have the best of you, don’t panic then and there. Ellie will back you up if in a tough spot, throwing obstacles like glass bottles or bricks at enemies. And if an enemy does get to you, Ellie will stab him in the back with a shank.
So what to say on Ellie, the girl who is essentially the lynchpin behind this entire game. After all, Joel is risking life and limb to sneak her out of a military-run quarantine zone to get her to an unknown destination. One thing I can say is she’s a really curious character. Though she can swear like a sailor (she yells “let go of me, you chicken shit” in the Pittsburgh level), there’s still a sort of innocence in her, evidenced at one point early in the Lincoln level when she finds herself surrounded by fireflies (“sorry…I lost myself there for a second”). It’s actually quite charming.
Joel, however, is a different beast altogether as a black market smuggler. A former Hunter who, when asked by Ellie in the Pittsburgh level, doesn’t deny he’s killed civilians in his ‘evil’ days (though doesn’t exactly confirm it neither). Brooding, mysterious but very protective. A mixture of two different personalities, performed quite fantastically it must be said by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, it makes me think of the relationship Nathan Drake had with Tenzen in Uncharted 2 in a way, mentioned by Naughty Dog as an inspiration for how Joel and Ellie were created.
But if Uncharted 2 was the start of Naughty Dog’s journey to telling more mature stories in its games, The Last of Us looks set to be the pinnacle of it so far. A different take on the whole zombies in games thing with the human version of the Cordyceps fungal that’s heavily inspired by things like No Country for Old Men, The Road or The Walking Dead; a deeply engaging narrative and two fascinating main characters. This really shouldn’t be a surprise considering its two leads, creative director Neil Druckmann and game director Bruce Straley, were behind the incredible Uncharted 2. If The Last of Us represents Naughty Dog’s future roadmap for future titles, I really am interested in seeing what it has lined up its sleeve.
Which now has me even more curious as to just what the Uncharted team – and in turn, Amy Hennig – is working on there.
Disclosure: This opinion is based on a two-level digital preview code of The Last of Us on PlayStation 3, provided by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. The Last of Us releases worldwide on June 14 for PlayStation 3.