There’s a traffic jam ahead, but it’s not the standard rush
hour backup. From behind the wheel of a beat-up, rusted pickup truck, a
bearded, bedraggled man – perhaps in his mid-40s – and what we initially assume
is his teenage daughter both stare ahead at a road overrun with rusted hulks of
cars, the wreckage pierced by greenery, plants reclaiming what was once man’s
proudly paved pathway through this city.
The man, Joel, senses danger ahead. We see it in his kind
but concerned face. Then, a stranger walks into the middle of the otherwise
lifeless street. He appears hurt. He’s pleading for help.
“Put your seatbelt on, Ellie,” he says. Ellie asks: What
about the guy? “He ain’t even hurt,” Joel sneers.
Suddenly, the stranger pulls out a gun, and other attackers
appear out of nowhere. Joel revs the engine, tries to back away. As he careens
down the road, a bus barrels into his truck. They crash. And the screen fades
What happens next is intense. The pair come to their senses,
and Ellie first tries to make a mad dash out of the truck but she’s quickly
grabbed by two men. Another aggressor grabs Joel, then tosses him headfirst into
a plate glass window. A glass shard points up from the window frame, and the
first bit of gameplay emerges: a quick-time event. After aggressively jamming the square button, Joel reverses positions and brutally thrusts his attackers neck
into the shard. Meanwhile, Ellie breaks free, they grab their bags from the
truck, and they run for safety.
Welcome to Naughty Dog’s version of survival action. The
studio that mastered the cinematic action adventure with the Uncharted series,
now steps into a much darker territory: a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by
an epidemic that’s destroyed civilization. And while what we saw next in our
hands-off demo showcased game mechanics similar to those found in the Uncharted
series – third-person cover-based gunplay, furious fisticuffs, and copious
exploration – this feels very different from the popcorn action of that other
franchise. Instead, The Last of Us is about raw emotion, tension, and a real
connection to human characters facing an inhumane horror.
Much of that connection comes from the bond between Ellie
and Joel. The duo will face impossible odds, and they’ll need to work together
to survive – standard fare for anyone in a post-apocalypse, sure, but it’s all
the more believable thanks to everything from the acting to the action. When
Ellie tosses a brick to protect Joel, or when she spots another group of
aggressors off in the distance and warns Joel, we’re warmed by her bravado and desire
to look out for her older protector. Later – after several shootouts,
fistfights, a silent choke-out, and one shotgun barrel jammed into someone’s
cranium – Ellie rushes ahead and Joel has to warn her to slow down. He’s
clearly protective of her, he’s willing to risk his life to save her, and he
even reminds her (in a fatherly way) to turn away from some of the gruesome
horrors they see in the burnt-out shells of stores they wander through. It’s a
terrible place for a 14-year-old, with piles of bodies, and “hunters”
everywhere trying to take them down.
It also turns out Ellie is not Joel’s daughter. As we learn
from their ongoing dialogue, their relationship is a newish one. Ellie doesn’t
know much about Joel, and asks him questions about the hunters. She susses out
that perhaps Joel himself was once a hunter. Ellie also doesn’t know much about
why their world has degenerated into this madness (although we’re not sure if
she was too young to remember, or if she has forgotten due to some sort of
trauma). But Ellie isn’t just a foil for the player, or an easy way to deliver
story. Ellie’s lack of knowledge also helps reinforce her innocence and perhaps
even hope. Meanwhile, Joel clearly knows how to survive, reminding Ellie to
scavenge around for anything they can use, and knowing when they’re in danger.
It’s too early to comment on the core gameplay, other than
to say it looks similar to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series in both quality and
accessibility. But already we see some real confidence in the storytelling. The
dialogue and interaction is believable. Even the music is special: instead of
coaxing and cajoling our emotional responses with movie-like swells and trills,
we hear silence and ambient noise or, at most, the lonesome twang of country
tune in the background. It’s almost counter to what most games do, more in line
with what some movies offer, and it further signals a confidence in the
characters and their connection – to each other and to us.