Naughty Dog’s latest came into E3 2012 with something of a question mark over it’s head. Sure, we’ve seen a couple of scene-setting cinematics since it’s unveiling at last year’s show, and it almost goes without saying that it’ll be a gorgeous-looking game (it is, after all, from the people that brought us Uncharted), but what we didn’t know is quite how it’d play. Many worried it’d be Uncharted: Post Apocalypse with added escort missions, while others wondered if it wouldn’t head in a completely new direction.

What we got at the end of Sony’s E3 conference looks to be a bit of both worlds. Like Uncharted, it’s a third-person action game, and the same meticulous attention to detail in both the environments and character interactions returns in The Last of Us. The gameplay demo starts off with Joel and Ellie discussing how they’re going to reach a bridge seen in the distance, before moving into the ruins of what was once an expensive hotel.

Moving across the roof, the pair stumble upon a group of scavengers, and it seems stealth will play a greater role in The Last of Us, as the two leads drop into cover to stay out of sight. Moving back inside, Joel manages to sneak up on one of the scavengers, choking him out and stealing his revolver. Unfortunately, he’s spotted by another member of the group, and we slip into familiar cover-shooter territory, with a couple of noticeable differences; firstly, sustaining gunshots is a much more impactful experience, knocking Joel a couple of feet out of cover. Secondly, at the top left of the screen, we can see a health bar, and above that three squares – two empty, one filled with a cross, suggesting health packs will be an integral part of the game.

It looks like survival is a very important aspect of The Last of Us, and this is further reinforced by the next mechanic we see: some light crafting. Hiding from more enemies in one of the hotel’s rooms, Joel takes off his backpack, bringing up an item menu overlaid on the screen. Using this, the player combines items to create a molotov cocktail. This appears to happen in realtime, with the game carrying on in the background, suggesting that delving into your bag will be a calculated risk, much like bringing up the menu or watching video logs in Dead Space.

Combat in general seems to be a more visceral, bloody affair than in Uncharted and we also see that Joel can take enemies hostage in a similar fashion to Gears of War’s meatshield, allowing him to wield a firearm at the same time. Ellie also seems able to pitch in during combat, as she distracts a scavenger by shouting and throwing a brick, allowing Joel to get the upper hand, though it’s unclear whether this is procedural or scripted.

One thing that gives me pause for thought is something that was also present in Uncharted – Drake was a charming, likeable guy in the cutscenes, but a sociopathic murderer when under your control. As much as I like Uncharted (and I do – I own all four), I always found this a curious disconnect – not something that ruined the game, by any means, but certainly an aspect worthy of critical thought. I’m hoping Naughty Dog can reduce this mental gap with The Last of Us, and indeed, Ellie does offer a few (albeit mild) comments about the level of violence she sees from Joel. I understand the characters need to do what it takes to survive, but so does everyone else; this gives the developer the opportunity to create a really interesting, morally ambiguous world, where there isn’t any absolute good or evil – just people, doing what they need to do to survive. But there should also be some accountability for these actions, some semblance of guilt – surely normal people can’t do the things that we see in this segment and not feel their humanity slipping away? And as this is a game about ‘the last of us’, surely every human death is a grand tragedy?

Naughty Dog have given themselves a great opportunity to create something more than an excellent survival/action-adventure game with The Last of Us, and I really hope they take it. It’ll be interesting to see where it ends up when it launches next year. You can see the E3 gameplay video below.

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