I just watched two people from Naughty Dog play The Last of Us in Santa Monica. It was the best demo for a game I've seen since Assassin's Creed III a few months ago.
Here's what happened.
What played out was similar to the trailer that Sony just shared—Joel and Ellie, the series' two protagonists drove down a road in a pickup truck. Simple, right? Well, first, of all, beautiful. The post-apocalypse in Naughty Dog's game is a gorgeous wreck, a city drained of electricity and overgrown with foliage.
Their drive quickly turned into an encounter with a man-he looked like a hobo— who threw a brick at their windshield. They crashed in a convenience store. More angry men showed, up, dragging Ellie kicking from the truck, the other smashing Joel through the glass of a meat freezer and trying to spike his throat on a shard of glass. Some of that was cutscene, but a rapid tap of the x button kept Joel from getting skewered.
This is a third-person game, but not one that presents the characters as overpowering heroes. They're not expert fighters, nor even are they at Nathan Drake's level. It all looks like scary survival. But not darkness, monsters, shadows and nighttime skulking—the scene we see is sunsplashed, but we're in a city with the power turned off and the survivors all out to kill us (presumably some may be possessed by a fungus, such is the back-story of the game).
In the convenience store, Joel shoots a revolver at the many men coming after them. Enemies called out positions. Ellie cursed back at them. This girl is calling the enemy "fuck face" and throwing a brick at him. Thanks, teenage girl!
The action in the game is brutal. The enemies seem to be regular people, but they speak from the throat, all death threats and growls. They patrol the streets with guns, two at a time. Joel tosses a brick at one of them and then runs up and whacks him to death with a stick.
It's all cat and mouse. Our heroes hide in alleys. They hear enemies calling out positions. Joel finds himself back in the convenience store, trying to figure out where his enemies went. He mutters to himself, about the "pansy-ass piece of shit" he's tracking. The enemy, just a guy in a leather jacket and pants, rushes him with a 2x4. Joel shoots him.
Ellie and Joel walk around for a bit. Every building in this city is wrecked: toppled filing cabinets in the stairwell of one building, cracked mirrors and overturned mattresses in some form. As they walk around, scrounging, searching, Joel and Ellie talk to each other. He's quiet, a bit weary. She's curious but not that chatty either.
She's impressed with his fighting prowess. He says it's because he's been on both sides of these kinds of survival ambushes.
"So, you killed a lot of people?" Ellie asks him.
He brushes her off.
"I'll take that as a yes," she replies.
It's clear they don't know each other well and would not have been friends in a pre-apocalyptic world.
They reach an overlook and see a distant bridge. Joel knows where to go. They find a schoolbus full of corpses and a yard full of cars, all of their windows punched out. They find some bodies that are strangely whitened. That may be the signs of the fungus.
Ellie notes how horrible things are, but how pretty it all is too. She's right.
Joel has them walk further, but crows stir and Joel whispers for them to duck. More hobo-looking guys-hunters-show up. A few guitar notes play.
It all looked lovely and managed to be gentle and brutal at the same time.
It helps, I think, that the music never soared. It didn't sound like a video game. It was mostly quiet, though an old rock tune played during the opening fight after the crash.
Bruce Straley, the game's director, said that Naughty Dog wants players to feel the same emotions that Ellie and Joel feel as they try to survive in this strange post-apocalypse in the game. He talked about the game as a quest for survival, one that is inflected by a balance of power that causes enemies to adapt to Ellie and Joel's choices of weapons and tactics. Everyone is trying to live, he said.
That's it. I should say that I wasn't too sure the first time I saw Uncharted . I wasn't sold. This, however, was gorgeous. Naughty Dog is making something special.
We'll have more on The Last of Us at E3.