A Dying World
The Last of Us originally showed up on our radar with a series of enigmatic videos, teasing us with imagery of riots, chaos, and ants. Yes, ants. Soon after, though, we got a peek at the game via a full-blown trailer at the SPIKE TV VGAs. Ever since, there’s been a slow stream of details coming out about this post-apocalyptic survival game, and we’ve been obsessing over each and every one.
In case you haven’t heard of it yet, The Last of Us tells the story of a man named Joel and a girl named Ellie who traverse a dying world that’s been plagued by an infection similar to that of the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus. This infection turns people into zombie-like creatures with swollen meaty sprouts coming out of their heads. It’s fairly gruesome.
But, as thrice proven by the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog is a studio that’s able to bring new depth to the video game as a storytelling medium. We’ve been told that zombies aren’t going to take center stage in this title as they would in, say, a Resident Evil game. Instead, The Last of Us chooses to focus on the human element; what are human beings capable of when their very existence is threatened? Well, it’s certainly not pretty, and the world you’ll explore is a much more dangerous place as a result. But even so, it is also a world of human contact and connections.
Joel and Ellie leave the “safety” of the military quarantine zone in which they live, venturing out into a decaying urban landscape. As they travel, they encounter fellow survivors who may or may not have ulterior motives. Determining when to shoot and when to run will be a big part of the fun. It’s very intriguing, even if it does sound a bit too close to the concept behind I Am Alive. (And we all know how that turned out.) Still, if anyone can pull this off, it’s Naughty Dog.
Also, with Naughty Dog at the helm, we shouldn’t have to worry about any potential Half-Life 3 situation, as the creative team is determined to see this thing to the end. Neil Druckmann, Creative Director on the project, told Game Informer that the project “has to be all-encompassing,” and that the story will come to a satisfying conclusion rather than leaving fans with a cliffhanger or any such nonsense. Of course, that means they’re not ready to start thinking about a sequel, but at least we won’t be left waiting around for the end of the story. The Last of Us will have a definitive ending.
Another thing we’ve been told to not worry about is the A.I. Yes, Ellie will exist throughout the campaign as an A.I. companion, and we’re guessing the game might feel at times like an escort mission. However, Naughty Dog promises the A.I. is going to be competent, and players shouldn’t feel encumbered by Ellie. She will hide when there is danger, presumably without having to be stuffed into a trash can à la Ashley Graham in Resident Evil 4.
Speaking of Resident Evil, Naughty Dog has decided to revive some elements of the old survival horror genre. Health will not regenerate in The Last of Us, forcing players to play it a lot safer and more strategic than they would in, say, an Uncharted game or a Call of Duty campaign. Also, ammo will be fairly scarce, and you’ll want to be careful about who you use it on. Sometimes it’s just going to be smarter to run away than to open fire.
One thing that has our attention is that, in that same interview we mentioned earlier, Druckmann cited the set pieces of Uncharted 2 and 3 as an element that we’ll see evolving in The Last of Us. However, he threw out the phrase “intimate set pieces.” We don’t know what it means exactly, but judging by how well the Uncharted series has used its own set pieces, this could be a very cool thing indeed. Personally, what comes to my mind is the museum scene with young Drake in Uncharted 3—the type of moment that is both fully playable and gives us unique insight into the history of a particular character and/or relationship.
Several more tidbits have been teased, including the possibility of online multiplayer, but we’re holding our breath for what we get to see at E3 this year. So far, though, call us piqued. We sincerely hope we’ll have plenty more to share with you next month when the expo is in full swing.
The First Of Our Speculations
The Last of Us is something of an enigma at this point. Three teaser trailers, a mere four minutes in length combined, is all we’ve unwrapped, but the game, the developer, and the resulting speculation are enough to make any gamer salivate profusely. The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic survival adventure that’s being sculpted by Uncharted developer Naughty Dog. With only shreds of initial information, there’s still a whole heap of goodness waiting to surface. However, the bread crumbs we’ve been given are enough for us to get a flavor, and even guess at what’s baking in the oven.
What we know about the game’s backdrop is that this apocalypse was not brought about by a zombie uprising, global war, or alien invasion. (Well, it doesn’t seem like an alien invasion so far.) Instead, it starts with the unfortunate discovery of a parasitic fungus that attaches and breeds through humans, giving them enhanced strength and speed but mutating them (rather grotesquely in the head), and reducing their intelligence to a primal and instinctive level. One trailer starts with a clip of an ant on a leaf, which then climbs a branch. Many have taken this as a clue that the fungus could be an altered form of Cordyceps unilateralis, a parasite that attacks ants, using them as hosts and quickly killing them after a few days.
This epidemic seems to have affected the entire globe, with riots and complete anarchy ensuing as the infected rate continually rises. Quarantine areas have been formed, but seem to have had little effect in stopping the spread of the fungus.
The most recent trailer introduces us to the protagonists of the story, Joel, a brutal survivor, and Ellie, a teenage girl with a wisdom beyond her age. They are struggling to stay alive against both the infected and uninfected in a metropolis long since fallen and now overgrown by the florae. Ellie doesn’t seem to remember life before the epidemic, suggesting the game’s timeline is most likely a dozen years or so after the turmoil began. Scrounging for any useful supplies, the two seem to simply live one day at a time, working to help each other survive.
There’s no gameplay footage yet to give us any clues as to how Joel and Ellie control or how players will navigate the environment, or even how combat functions. However, the cinematics are similar in quality to that of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, so it’s plausible for us to believe that many of the gameplay elements will mirror Nathan Drake’s treasure hunting exploits.
I’ve formulated my own speculations about future revelations on the story, which may or may not come to fruition when the final product arrives. My guess is that the parasite is actually a mutated form of Cordyceps unilateralis, but weaponized for warfare. However the strain was somehow not contained properly, and a small outside exposure caused the global calamity. It has been suggested that Joel and Ellie are somehow related, but my guess is that Joel was a lone wolf from the outset, discovering Ellie as an infant. Yet it could be that Joel and Ellie are but a fraction of the population immune to the parasite. Maybe Joel raised her for his own scrupulous purposes, as a decoy or distraction to give him the advantage in combat, and perhaps she has won him over by showing her own growing tenacity with each passing year.
Even the story’s conclusion is turning the wheels of our imaginations. Will the morose atmosphere permeate from start to finish, with Joel and Ellie only managing to continue surviving, and maybe even failing at that? Perhaps scientists were on the brink of a cure using the antibodies of those few humans immune to the disease, which Joel and Ellie will discover and somehow cure civilization.
I’m even thinking beyond the game at Sony taking this one all the way to the big screen. Movies of this genre typically have a strong showing, and I’ve already speculated about casting. Ellen Page is a shoe-in for Ellie; not only do they share derivations of the same name, but the character model is strikingly similar in physical features. As for Joel, I envision Jim Caviezel taking the role, looking as disheveled as he did during his prison stay in The Count of Monte Cristo . Whether I’m looking too far ahead or not, the duo could do a great job with the game’s voice acting and give another boost to the production quality.
With so many possibilities, The Last of Us has several paths open to it. But under the capable hands of Naughty Dog, there seems to be a general sense of comfort among the masses that this will evolve into something truly special. Of course, it will only be special for those owning a PS3, as this is a Sony-exclusive title.
She’s No Ashley Graham
When I first played the original Resident Evil back in the 1990s, I found myself completely caught up in its world of “survival horror.” What fascinated me the most about that game was the emphasis on survival, low ammo counts making every encounter a battle of wits. “Should I shoot or should I run?” This was a question I had to ask myself every time I opened the door to a new room with a new group of undead foes to either mow down or cleverly circumvent.
It’s no surprise, then, that I was a bit saddened by Resident Evil 4’s steering the series away from that. But there was a part of me that held onto the hope that we would eventually see something that took that idea and modernized it, while focusing on well-defined characters and the psychology of survival in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s a tall order, to be sure, but one that I was confident would be fulfilled someday. Well, the game I have been secretly waiting a decade and a half for is finally a real thing, and it’s being made by Naughty Dog. That’s right, The Last of Us is here to scratch an itch I’ve had since I first heard the term “survival horror.”
Naughty Dog has been careful with the details of this project, as they tend to be with their games these days (remember the way Uncharted 3 details slowly leaked into the media last year?), but we got to see about seven minutes of gameplay during E3. And it was hard to walk away unimpressed; Naughty Dog is truly onto something here, a fact evident in even some of the smaller details of the footage we saw.
The gameplay begins with protagonist Joel and his companion Ellie walking through a crumbling city. The sense of decay is truly impressive, especially considering how many post-apocalyptic games eschew bright colors for a boring wash of grays and browns. The Last of Us, though, doesn’t shy away from color, being especially fond of green, from the foliage that’s managed to spring up everywhere to the fading wallpaper of the building interiors.
As Joel and Ellie enter an abandoned hotel, a quick snippet of dialogue occurs between the two. Ellie says, “It’s fancy. Ever stay in a place like this?” To this, Joel responds: “Nah, this is too rich for my blood.”
It’s a simple exchange, one that a lot of people would see as merely a throwaway piece of ambient dialogue. But there is insight to be gleaned from this: Joel was a working class man before this catastrophe befell mankind, and perhaps this is one of the many factors that ultimately contribute to his hardened demeanor. These characters have only been on screen for a couple minutes at this point, and we’re already given some hints at Joel’s past. This serves as just another example of Naughty Dog’s mastery over storytelling, which we can be confident will be fully on display in the Last of Us.
Later, we were shown a bit of combat, and worth pointing out is the fact that Joel has a green health bar. While health bars are certainly nothing new in video games, they’ve been falling out of favor, replaced by more dynamic methods of displaying player heath. (The screen being tinted red as the player takes damage, for example.)
Additionally, Joel’s health doesn’t regenerate, which is a pretty strong indication that Naughty Dog truly understands survival horror. With regenerating health, players can play a bit loose, using run-and-gun tactics before taking cover and waiting for their health bar to refill. That’s not the case in The Last of Us. You will have a set amount of health, and once that’s gone, your character is dead. Of course, we can be sure there will be some sort of healing items to replenish lost health. But, judging from the scarce amount of ammo Joel has throughout the gameplay footage, we’re willing to bet that we won’t be finding exorbitant stockpiles of it.
Speaking of scarce ammo, when the combat segment begins, Joel has a revolver with only four bullets in it. Over the course of combat, he is tasked with bringing down far more than four people. It’s the classic survival horror situation. So how does Joel manage to bring down his foes? He uses whatever he can find, at one point strangling a man from behind (Joel managed to salvage only two bullets from the body) and at another scaring off a would-be attacker with an empty pistol. Yes, enemies react to having a gun pointed them, an impressive A.I. feature that’s sure to add strategic depth to this wasteland world.
Another neat feature we saw in action was the way Joel’s backpack functions. He carries around a plethora of items that can be combined to make more useful things. In the footage we saw, Joel was able to combine a cloth binding and a bottle of alcohol to make a Molotov cocktail, which he threw at an enemy to set him ablaze. I don’t know about you, but I’m reminded of Resident Evil’s herb mixing a bit here. Whether this is a nod to the originator of survival horror or not, it’s a nice touch.
So how does Ellie factor into all this? Well, she’s an unplayable NPC that follows Joel around. Now, at this point, I’m sure several gamers are worried about The Last of Us being nothing more than an extended escort quest, having flashbacks of stuffing Ashley Graham into trashcans in Resident Evil 4. But fear not, Ellie can take care of herself. In fact, she aids Joel in battle at one point by hurling a brick at the head of an attacker. Nice work, Ellie!
The Last of Us is a title that keeps getting more and more exciting as we uncover more details. There’s no confirmed release date yet, but it’s starting to look like we won’t see this one until next year. Until then, maybe we’ll go back to replay the old Resident Evil games to brush up on our survival horror skills.