The Last of Us First Look
Developer: Naughty Dog / Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment / ESRB: Not Yet Rated
The real, absolute, fine-print bitch-kitty about most post-Apocalyptic scenarios, whether in books, games or films, is simply this: As if the world-ending whatever-it-was—environmental catastrophe, nuclear ‘exchange’, spontaneous mass resurrection, etc.—isn’t already bad enough, you’ve then got to worry about your fellow survivors acting like total grade-A ass-hats. Dare you even get close enough to discern the men from the monsters, once the whole World As We Know It has come crashing down around your ankles? And you thought Pittsburgh sucked rocks now.
The Last of Us, then, is Naughty Dog’s forthcoming foray into what could fairly be called a ‘daylight’ action/survival-horror outing: An epidemic—a really, really nasty one, even insofar as such things go—has torn more-or-less present-day America a gaping new orifice, and the casualties are….unpleasant. Despite some of the game’s perhaps-familiar tropes, the infected don’t end up as actual zombies—count your blessings in one hand, poop in the other, I suppose—but it’s almost as bad: Those who succumb to the infection evidently transform into rabidly-violent, submental thyroid-cases with lumpy, bulbous, bloated fungal-sacks for heads…and unlike the traditional, lumbering zombies of Hollywood yore, they’re fast and agile as hell. So that’s not good.
Despite being a cinematic action game heavily and deliberately in the vein of Uncharted, The Last of Us focuses it energies even more on the emotional aspects of the still-trying-to-be-human reaction to the end of the civilized world. Our protagonists here are tough, gruff, forty-something manly-man Joel—who looks, and sounds, like he might well have just recently beat the ass of the last wiseacre to make a Brawny paper towels joke to his face—and Ellie, a14-year-old girl who seems to be the deadpan, fairly streetwise but still essentially innocent foil to Joel’s Tough Guy. They’re not father and daughter—specifics on their relationship and the circumstances of their meeting are still sketchy—but there is a decided familial tinge to their interactions, nevertheless. Whatever the circumstances of their initial meeting, they now travel across a recognizable modern-day America that’s starting to fall under the creeping, reclamative flora of a world left unattended by mass humanity. Their constant, day-to-day struggle for just survival—let alone anything approaching a normal ‘life’—is the stuff of wearying nightmares (check out the trailer): If the wandering, hyper-violent fungus-heads—’hunters’, for lack of a more evocative moniker—don’t eat your face off, the roving packs of urban-variety, nominally ‘human’ wolf-pack asshole survivors out to make the world their personal ghetto just might get you first. Nice.
Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann says that the trailer as it stands is “very representative” of what the design team is shooting for in terms of the actual game experience, as he feels strongly that the state of pure storytelling in contemporary video games is sorely wanting—and you can almost hear him not incidentally making the obvious comparison to the (initially) equally-effective trailer that circulated prior to the release of Dead Island (a title which briefly worried the Naughty Dog folks early on, due to its superficial points of similarity to The Last of Us, i.e., the focus on a gamer’s emotional response to a horrifying world; but where that game ultimately didn’t entirely deliver in that arena, Druckmann seems adamant that The Last of Us will.
The game will employ a dynamic cover/fire mechanic as well as a constant interweaving of cinematics and insistent action that fans of Uncharted will certainly find pleasantly familiar—but to bolster the urgent, life-threatening nature of the game’s grim premise, players will have to heal Joel through the use of health items picked up throughout the story. Of the two protagonists, players will only directly control Joel, while Ellie is relegated to the status of AI buddy (and, presumably and rightly so, an emotional focus for the player’s affectionate and/or protective instincts).
From what we’ve seen, the quality of the voice-performances is absolutely superb, flawless, with subtle and not-so-subtle tinges of menace, weariness, fear and occasionally humor in even the simplest, briefest exchanges and utterances (upon seeing a small shower of dust and plaster from the ceiling, indicating an obvious life-or-death struggle between Joel and someone—or something—upstairs, even Ellie’s small, quiet, totally drama-free blurting of nothing more inspired than ‘Oh, man’ just comes across as loaded with cautious apprehension…and tough little chick that she is, she immediately mounts the stairs, bolting right for the heart of the danger in a way that James T. Kirk would appreciate; shortly thereafter, upon witnessing Joel bash a bad guy insensate with a two-by-four, she responds to his utterly-banal ‘You okay?’ with in immediate, adorably matter-of-fact ‘Well, better than that guy.’ Again: Flawless).
As our heroes make their way across a grim and depopulated America, they’ll learn more about the consequences of the epidemic, of course, but also about each other; apparently Joel hints that at one point or another, he “was on both sides of this situation” (of ‘hunters’ versus human survivors), and thus could potentially be not quite the hapless, blameless Victim as he might appear to be—which prompts the ever-pragmatic, can-do Ellie to bluntly ask, “So, you kill a lot of people?”
Other human characters, too, are meant to feel believable, so they’ll exhibit sane behaviors like backing off if you appear more heavily-armed than they are; they want to survive as badly as you do, after all. You just happen to lucky enough to be accompanied by a healthy, agile, switchblade-packing 14-year-old who blurts helpful, distracting, insightful nuggets like “Hey, fuckface!” before chucking a brick at your would-be attacker’s head; sorry, fellas, she’s taken!
The Last of Us is looking like one of the most promising titles in the coming year, simple as that—even for a Naughty Dog project, it’s a standout, and you can bet your fungal-pandemic-resistant ass we’ll be reporting back with more details on the way the world ends in the months ahead.