Details from the latest issue of Game Informer’s cover story on The Last of Us have hit the net. The late 2012 / early 2013 PlayStation 3 project is a survival title centered on the relationship between its two protagonists, Joel and Ellie.
The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world inspired by “ruin porn,” (their words, not mine) where nature has overtaken cities and a Cordyceps fungus virus has infected society.
“It’s been done before. We’ve seen the typical zombie shooter, the typical desaturated gray worlds,” The Last of Us game director Bruce Straley told Game Informer. “That’s not Naughty Dog. That’s not our style. It has to be beautiful. It has to give you that sense of mystery and entice you to want to see more.”
The story kicks off in a quarantine zone in Boston – 20 years after the fungal outbreak – where Ellie, a 14 year-old girl, has lived since birth. She’s interested in cultural relics from our world, such as music and books. Joel, a man in his late 40s, runs drugs and weapons through the zone’s black market. He is an former hunter, and is hinted to have killed many innocent people in his past. He is recruited by a dying friend to sneak Ellie out of the quarantine zone for unknown reasons. But things go wrong, the military gets involved, and Joel, remembering his promise to keep her safe, sets out to take Ellie west.
Development on The Last of Us began after Naughty Dog assembled a second team, created due to developer inquiries about licensing the Naughty Dog engine. But the engine couldn’t work outside their Santa Monica studio, so they set up a second team to work with it, instead. When the team was formed, the question arose: ‘What game will we make?’ The idea of a new Jak and Daxter surfaced. Unfortunately for fans, the idea never came to fruition. It was dropped because it drifted too far away from what made Jak and Daxter what it is. They didn’t want to create a game that didn’t stay true to the franchise, nor one that the fans wouldn’t enjoy.
“Now is not the time,” said Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells. “Never say never. It could happen.”
“I guess it’s possible the Uncharted team could move on to Jak and Daxter. It’s still up in the air, but I wouldn’t think that’s going to happen because I think we’d run into all of the same problems with that team that we did with this team.”
When it was decided, The Last of Us was born – a game inspired by the Tenzin and Drake scene in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The developers wanted to create a game where the characters would build a relationship over a long period of time, rather than a short one – which is essentially what The Last of Us is all about. It’s not a game about zombies. In fact, human antagonists are the game’s enemy focus, as you’ll fight them more often than you do the infected.
“It’s about the mystery of who these characters are, what their backstory is, why are they together, and why are they leaving the quarantine zone,” said creative director Neil Druckmann. “That to us is more interesting than how did this [virus] thing spread [or] who spread it. I’ve seen that before, but I haven’t seen this kind of relationship in games.”
You’ll face against various factions, including hunters. Confrontation is best avoided, as resources are limited and health regeneration isn’t automated (you’ll have health packs). That said, don’t expect to be running around, firing off 300 rounds in a machine gun. Realism is very present in The Last of Us, and a single bullet can kill. Lethality affects enemy decisions. If Joel kills an enemy, the others will hide or attempt flanking him. If Joel is armed with only a melee weapon, they’ll attack him head-on. Naughty Dog calls it the “Balance of Power” system.
Enemies will have emotion and personality. If one of their comrades or friends die, they’ll become angry. They’ll warn each other of oncoming attacks, or become frightened when it’s evident they’ve lost the upper-hand.
When behind the controller, you’ll take command of Joel. Ellie is never playable. She is an A.I. character capable of handling her own, and won’t get in the way. In the demo shown to Game Informer, she stayed out of sight, warned Joel when danger approached, and got him out of jams.
“We know if the entire thing is an escort mission you’re gonna hate it,” said Druckmann. “The easy thing for us to do is every time there is combat she just hides somewhere and comes out at the end. We gave ourselves the insane challenge of, ‘How do we make her part of this combat space?’”
Over time, Ellie’s skillset will expand. The preview didn’t go into detail, though mentioned Ellie’s holding a gun on the cover to be a hint.
“It’s so important to ground these characters, to make them intelligent, to try to get the interactions with the players right,” Druckmann added.
Both Joel and Ellie can do things that the other can’t. They must rely on each other to move forward. But don’t expect them to perform stunts along the lines of Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake.
The demo shown to Game Informer didn’t have it all. Platforming and puzzle elements were minimally present, though “figuring out how to navigate spatial problems with unique Ellie and Joel abilities is a key pillar,” according to Druckmann.
Naughty Dog IPs typically evolve into franchises, but even if that were to happen with The Last of Us, don’t expect any cliffhangers.
“The story stands on its own. We don’t end on a cliffhanger,” said Druckmann. “The characters and the journey they go through ends with this story.”