There are few studios that produce such uniformly excellent content as Naughty Dog. Producing exclusively for the Platform since the beginning their work has, in large part, defined each generation of PlayStation hardware. Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter and Nathan Drake are truly iconic characters. Never ones to over-stay their welcome the studio decided against a fourth “Uncharted” game and instead have moved into more serious territory with “The Last of Us”. They presented the first gameplay trailer at E3 and it’s absolutely stunning.
As I discussed in my comments on “Beyond: Two Souls” the most impressive games from E3 this year have not been those attempting to carve out new territory but rather those that have decided to polish existing genres. For all their undeniable genius Naughty Dog has never been known for truly orignal games. Rather they excel, more than any other studio, at perfecting existing paradigms. “Uncharted” was far from the first pop-and-shoot adventure game – but it was the best one.
In the same way it’s clear that “The Last of Us” builds from the same foundation that made “Uncharted” the success it was. The environmentally aware animations are significantly more fluid and less telegraphed. The enemy responses are contextually aware and realistic (no more “duck, pop out left, duck, pop up, rinse, repeat”). The tool set has been adapted, improved and – yes – polished to tell a completely different kind of story.
The environment of “The Last of Us” reminds one instantly of the excellent but underappreciated “Enslaved: Odyssey to the West“, another game in which a powerful man leads an all-but-defensless girl through ruined cities. Both feature our world, but broken and in the process of being reclaimed by rampant nature. These aren’t world’s that have been burned clean; these are worlds in which we’ve been marginalized. We’re in the process of leaving them with a whimper rather than a bang.
Where the world of “Enslaved” was populated by the shreds of humanity battling robot overlords “The Last of Us” cuts much closer to the bone. While the initial trailer featured an attack by some kind of mutant/infected assailants this gameplay trailer was purely man versus man. Joel and Ellie are aren’t looking for a fight they’re trying to stay alive.
Combat in “Uncharted” was of the action movie variety. The literally hundreds of deaths were glossed over and effectively meaningless. It was a brilliantly realized popcorn movie. In contrast every aspect of the gameplay in “The Last of Us” has been tuned to convey the desperation and brutality of the situation. When Nathan Drake creeps up to a foe and snaps their neck it’s a clean, momentary distraction. When Joel does the same thing it’s a brutal, gasping, clawing agony that goes on for much longer.
We see the pain twisting their faces when Joel hits them. We see the fear and uncertainty when he holds one of their friends hostage. When Joel burns a man alive we catch a glimpse of Ellie’s relative innocence in her shock even when moments before she crushed a man’s face with a brick. The trailer ends with two explosive, close-in attacks (which were incredibly effective but made me wonder how we would control the character in these tight-shots) and a brutal shotgun blast to the face.
Stepping away from the combat for a moment we also see something amazing for a video game: when Joel looks through his inventory he actually kneels down and rummages through his backpack. Not only does this drive home the realism that they’re enforcing but it also reinforces the edge on which these people live. Anything they need they need to carry on their backs.
Even in this trailer we see some humor from Ellie so I trust that Naughty Dog will punctuate the desperation with other (surely deftly, delivered) emotional notes. The game looks like it will be one of the more emotionally powerful stories of the year backed, if my predictions are correct, by some of the sharpest gameplay ever seen.