When The Last of Us was revealed at the Sony PlayStation media briefing at E3 2012, the initial demo ended with a point-blank shotgun blast to the face and the demoer, from Sony in-house developer Naughty Dog, literally dropping the controller like a rapper who just lyrically punished his opponent in a battle. The demo made a statement: The PlayStation 3 is not dead, and you haven’t even considered what Naughty Dog is capable of on this console.
The most impressive part of the demo – the part that lingered with me, however, was the way the enemy AI seemed to react to what was happening. Surely that was just part of the demo. After all, truly reactive dialogue and planning by AI, both enemy and assistive, would be nearly impossible and surely unprecedented.
Well, Naughty Dog has done it, and its only one of several impressive things I saw in a special two-hour hands-on demo with The Last of Us in a swanky New York hotel suite.
Surprisingly, Eric Monacelli, the Community Strategist at Naughty Dog and the one on hand to give the demos, said I was the first of the day that wanted to play the game myself rather than have him run through the two partial missions shown. But before I got started, Monacelli told Newsarama why Naughty Dog was crazy enough to release a brand-new IP at the tail end of a console’s life cycle.
“The root of it all came from when Uncharted 2 wrapped. There was a need to create a two-team studio. We have a lot of tremendous talent at our studio, a lot of guys with a lot of creative energy who want to explore different things,” Monacelli told us. He revealed that yes, that means this title has been in various stages of development for three years, bucking the trend amongst some developers to pump out a new game yearly. The extra talent, rather than being laid off, was spun out into a new team made specifically to not work on the critically acclaimed Uncharted series (while the other half would go on to make Uncharted 3 and start work on what Monacelli would only say is “PlayStation 4 content.” That’s right, we couldn’t even get the question-dodging pro to confirm it as a game).
But The Last of Us wasn’t there right away. In fact, the team originally started production on a new Jak and Daxter game, bringing the game into a “realistic” style with everything they learned from Uncharted.
“It really didn’t work,” Monacelli said with a laugh.
One sequence in Uncharted 2 stuck out to Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, Creative Directors at Naughty Dog, where you lead another character around. But rather than just pairing the player character with a dummy AI that says when to turn left, they wanted “real interaction” and a character you could “grow to care about as much as the player character himself.”
“He didn’t know who [The Last of Us leads] Joel and Ellie were at this point, but that’s the foundation, what they were thinking of.”
The next piece of the puzzle came from Planet Earth, the BBC documentary that covered our home planet. In the documentary, there was a segment about a type of fungus that could infect an ant colony, “zombifying” the ants and causing them to attack and infect each other until the entire colony was wiped out.
“Neil and Bruce thought ‘what if that jumped to humans?’ And they actually talked to a few scientists, and it’s actually plausible (though highly improbable). It could happen.
“That idea spun the question, which is really the fundamental question of the game: how would humanity behave if this happened? How would they interact? That question spiraled into creating this unique environment to tell Joel and Ellie’s journey in.
“All the action in the game takes place 20 years after the height of the epidemic.” The world has been “reclaimed” by nature, Monacelli said, with plants growing over the man-made infrastructure and all of our creature comforts, from electricity to cell phones to even running water in most places, are gone.
The game, then, is about a relationship. But it’s also about survival. It’s about exploring and scavenging. It’s about literally fighting for your life. It’s platforming and gunplay. And it’s all those amazing reactions, from your companion Ellie to the “hunters,” human survivors who are determined to come out of the apocalypse on top.
Going through Lincoln, Pennsylvania and a small portion of the Pittsburgh ruins, those reactions happen immediately and frequently enough to make you realize it’s not just a few scripted moments – it is actually those AI characters reacting. I can’t oversell this – it stunned me to the point that I had to stop playing a few times simply to let it sink in, and it makes for the most engrossing game experience I’ve ever had. A rabbit runs across the corner of the screen, and Ellie calls after it, “Oh, hey buddy!” as it hops away. She doesn’t do that every single time one runs by – that would be unnatural – but that first time is the first time she’s ever seen a rabbit, and she reacts because a kid would. When you throw a Molotov cocktail at a group of enemies for the first time? Ellie yells “Holy s#!t, Joel!” rather than just running off to the side. You’re aiming to the right and a character starts to flank you? If Ellie is looking the other way, she’ll let you know someone is coming at you from the left, or behind. She might even pick up a nearby brick or bottle to throw at him in distraction. And the enemies all react, too. They know if you have a shotgun, or if you’ve planted a bomb. They comment on your playing style “He’s sneaking around!” or “He’s running right at me!” and they can even hear the dry-fire click of an empty gun (as seen in that early E3 demo), and they’ll taunt you when you’re out of ammo. They work together, they flank you, and they all come at you at once, instead of waiting patiently for their turn like a bad kung fu flick. It makes every battle sequence a hard-fought strategy session, but it also makes things so damn much more fun.
The puzzles I saw in the couple of hours of play were relatively easy, but Monacelli promised me they’d get tougher (and also told me I was by far the exception, not the rule, in my puzzle-solving, telling me I had set the record for a couple of them – but then I play a lot of adventure games) as the game progresses. Still, the puzzles helped to introduce something that the combat sequences hammered home – there is a lot to explore, and nearly everything in this dystopian world has a use.
Whether you’re scavenging for items or saving a long board for a later second use, it pays to keep tabs on what’s around you. That’s even true in combat, where Joel can grab enemies and use things like broken glass sticking out of a frame or even the corner of a shelf to do damage. Even if you are merely shoving an attacker off of you, if they collide with a corner, they react like they’ve hit a corner not just a flat wall. It slams into them and draws blood, it staggers them more than just a wall would, and you can even bash them forcefully into it for the finish. Aside from all that, the game is visually gorgeous, peaking the PlayStation 3 just as Sony readies its replacement. The audio - especially the expert voice acting, likewise stands out from the first few lines, with real personalities evident from the start. If you don't laugh out loud at Ellie's attitude, there's something wrong with your sense of humor.
It may seem odd to write over 1200 words on a mere two-hour demo (save something for the full review!), but the impact of this was that great. In two hours, after a third installment that couldn’t quite live up to the glories of Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog has me convinced that they have struck gold again, and just might have the game that supplants their own as the best of this generation of consoles. The promises of 15 minutes of gameplay have now shown to be fulfilled in two hours of it, and if those promises can extend into the full game, The Last of Us will be something truly special.
The Last of Us hits exclusively on PlayStation 3 June 14, 2013.