E3 2012: Conflicting Emotions On ‘The Last of Us’ Trailer
Yesterday, Sony capped off their E3 press conference with the long-awaited first gameplay footage of The Last of Us, one of my most anticipated games. Due to time zone differences, work commitments, etc., I didn’t manage to watch it for several hours, by which time praise had already begun to spring up for it across several websites and forums. Of course I was slightly disappointed that I was the last to see it (as often seems to be the case), but I won’t begrudge the Yanks out there the extra four hours after waiting six long months since the announcement. I settled down in front of my computer with a sigh and opened a fresh tab, waiting to be blown away.
More than seven minutes passed as I basked in this momentous occasion allowing my thoughts and feelings to wash over me in waves and I was certainly impressed by a number of different facets of what I had seen. As I watched it a second time, I found that my mind was offering two conflicting impressions of what I was seeing running concurrently to each other, but it took me until I had time aside to think about things at work today to realise that, although the footage was what I had been expecting and wanting, it was also what I had not wanted to witness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still very excited for the game, but probably a little less so than I was before going into the conference.
I hardly see any need to explain why I was awestruck by the footage, given that most probably had the same reaction but it is worth noting nevertheless. The first thing to catch the eye is the incredible graphical presentation. Intensely detailed, luridly coloured and a draw distance that seems to stretch for miles. Uncharted 3 is widely regarded as the current benchmark for console graphics and while The Last of Us doesn’t exactly ‘put it to shame’, it certainly manages to attain the same level of excellence. One thing that I’ve noticed, and was all the more obvious here, was the less stylised aesthetic compared to the Uncharted series. It may not make a huge difference, but it does help the world to feel slightly more realistic and visceral.
That may not mean much in itself, but when it is applied to some other aspects of the footage that we saw, it gains importance. One of the sources of this is the combat. The first scavenger that Joel assaults is dealt with stealthily. The life is choked out of him in an animation (is it purely canned animation or a playable balance of power minigame?) that gives the impression of a struggle, but also of the brutality that this brusque figure possesses. The feeling that ammunition preservation really matters is then emphasised in a firefight that quickly depletes the revolver, and you can see that the enemies react warily to the drawn weapon. More importantly, you can see the sheer amount of recoil that it generates upon being fired and it is apparently greater than you’ll see from most similar guns in other games. As the demo progresses, we see an NPC almost take off Joel’s head as he walks brazenly around a corner before retaliating with a flurry of punches that have enough impact to make you wince. The sequences that follow: Ellie throwing a brick at an assailant, Joel tossing a Molotov and that final, gut wrenching attack, are all designed for one single purpose; emphasising the tactics that are needed for survival in this unfriendly world.
Oh yes, the brutality that we’ve been promised is most certainly in place. But the demo also shows the humanity that the team at Naughty Dog have been striving to portray. Based on the dialogue, it would appear that the demo takes place early in the game, as Ellie is constantly making comments alluding to this being one of the first times that they are together. Asking whether he ever stayed in a fancy hotel before the infection, seeming shocked by some of his actions, looking for directions; it all feels quite natural. The storytelling also seems to follow in the tradition of Uncharted by having much of the characterisation take place during gameplay, rather than relegating it entirely to the cutscenes. It’s just one of the small things that will help to build a connection to these characters.
I could easily come up with more, such as the obvious diversity of the combat, the appearance of multiple different ways to attack the obstacle of enemies and the very cool way that the player had to look in the backpack, in real time, to withdraw the Molotov cocktail, but I feel as though I’ve already talked about the positives for too long, especially considering my concerns aren’t nearly as numerous.
So, what’s first? Well, there is a point in the midst of the combat where Ellie is standing beside, if memory serves me aright, a cupboard and asks Joel what they should do next, as she picks up a brick. It makes for a disturbing contrast. Her words display indecision and fear while her actions are confident. It’s only a small thing, but it clearly shows a disparity in the strength of the AI where it doesn’t quite match appropriate timing. Another thing was that many of the actions of the AI seemed very predictable. The aggressor racing forward after Joel’s chamber clicked empty, followed by Ellie’s throwing of the brick was something that could be seen coming. I’m not accusing it of being a scripted sequence as it was clearly intended to show off different aspects of the combat system, but it was expected.
Besides this, there is really only one thing that stood out to me. The Uncharted series is notorious for being a linear, set piece-driven, globe-trotting adventure and it has copped some flak for this. Many people were expecting Naughty Dog to loosen the shackles for this game but judging from this demo, that isn’t really the case. I know that it is the first gameplay demonstration, that it was designed to show off the different combat options and that it came from early in the game when the player is still acclimatising to the controls and style, but the path is straightforward and devoid of exploration. You have to go over that bus and up those stairs. You MUST enter this area full of enemies and, although there are clearly different ways to clear them, it is an absolute necessity for forward progression. There is no real exploration here. It is not open world. Hell, it’s not even a hub map, which would have been even better.
It may not be driven by explosion, chaos and clearly defined villains, but that doesn’t negate the fact that, if this demo is indicative of the final release in this respect, it will take away from what may well be one of the defining moments of the seventh generation of gaming. Mixing compelling gameplay with top-notch graphics and stellar storytelling, the only letdown being the heavy-handed direction of the developers. A guiding hand upon your shoulder may work for some intentions, but it doesn’t seem like a logical fit for The Last of Us. There remains much to be seen however, and with it failing to release this year, anything could happen.