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The Last of Us isn't about monsters but humanity

"You can see the investment we've put into our AI."Naughty Dog's Bruce Straley

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The Last of Us is the latest game from Naughty Dog, the acclaimed studio behind the Uncharted series. The game follows Joel and Ellie, survivors of a plague-racked world, as they travel across the United States.

There was an Uncharted 2 commercial that featured a couple sitting down to watch the game, the conceit being that the player's significant other didn't realize it was a video game. While the ad was intended to play up the cinematic nature of the game, it also spoke to the maturity of the subject matter. It said, "Uncharted 2 is a game that you don't have to be embarrassed to play when your non-gaming husband and/or wife enters the room."

Naughty Dog's latest game, The Last of Us, makes the Uncharted series look like Saturday morning cartoons.

"We took great efforts in making Ellie capable."

After seeing the trailer for The Last of Us during Sony's presentation last night (you should really watch it if you haven't!) we had to get another taste of the action — and Naughty Dog didn't disappoint. We had an opportunity this week to watch an alternative play through of the very same level, played very differently.

Just as with the trailer shown off at Sony's event, we enter on the characters of Joel and Ellie as they're trying to find their way out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (in case you're wondering, one of the developers went to school in Pittsburgh, and the consensus is that it's a "beautiful" city). But Pittsburgh is just one destination of many as you make your way across the US towards the West Coast.

The game relies heavily on the interplay between the protagonists — a 30-something man named Joel and a 14-year-old girl named Ellie. "We took great efforts in making Ellie capable," game director Bruce Straley told a small audience. "She's with you, she's a human being, she's realized in this world. She's a companion throughout this adventure."

Straley explains that Joel "was born before the outbreak, before the pandemic" and had "seen society collapse" while Ellie was born after the outbreak. "She's grown up in this dark, brutal, bleak world."

And that's a world that's as grim as any I've seen in a video game. As nature seeks to reclaim the wreckage of an abandoned Pittsburgh, Joel and Ellie make their way to a hotel. In the street, Joel comments on a movie poster for "Dawn of the Wolf."

"I saw this right before the outbreak," he says, mostly to himself. When Ellie asks him about it, he responds, "It's a dumb teen movie."

"Who dragged you to see it then?"

"I don't know," he says quietly. "Let's just stay focused."

Inside the hotel, they work together to find a ladder, with the player boosting Ellie on top of some scaffolding to pass the ladder down (is post-apocalyptic scaffolding harder to climb than its contemporary counterpart?). Once on the mezzanine level, Joel and Ellie discover they're not alone in the hotel. A group of other men are scavenging.

Straley explains that enemies will work together and, in a world of diminishing resources, they're busy scavenging the same items you are. If they discover a bandage in a drawer, it won't be there for you to discover. It will be on his body though. "You can see the investment we've put into our AI," Straley notes.

"We want every NPC to feel like a real person, like they're gonna protect their friends," the game's lead programmer told Polygon after the demonstration. "You hold a gun to their friends' head, they care about their friend they're gonna try to keep him alive. That's the kind of thing we're headed for."

And despite an enormously cinematic presentation, don't mistake presentation for "scripted" action scenes. The hotel set we saw wasn't necessarily an "open world," the impression I was left with after watching this second play through was that there are many ways to proceed through various locations, with your actions directly changing how enemy characters will respond.

"If i showed a shotgun, that would be completely different than if I showed something else," Straley says. For instance, in the demo we watched, a character ran from Joel because he had a gun, but if he hadn't been armed, it's more likely a hand-to-hand fight would have ensued.

"This is all systemic," Straley explained, drawing a contrast between the heavily scripted interactivity of the Uncharted series and what Naughty Dog is trying to accomplish with The Last of Us.

"Definitely with this demo you could've snuck through the whole thing."

Our behind-closed-doors play through deviates from the press conference play through around the 3:30 mark in this video: Where Joel jumped into the open window to his right in the video demo, he crouched under the windows in front of him in the other. Joel tossed an empty bottle into one of the rooms getting the guards attention, which provided an opening to sneak through the other room unnoticed. In the video demo, Joel takes down a scavenger but is quickly spotted by another, with a shootout ensuing. In our demo, he puts a gun to a different scavenger's head — "Not a fucking word," he warns — before knocking him out.

It's difficult to fully understand a game in a short gameplay demonstration, but if Naughty Dog's goal was to convince the cynical gamers of the world that The Last of Us was different than its excellent, albeit heavily scripted, Uncharted series, it succeeded. "Definitely we are moving away from more scripted. We wanted to give the player more choice, especially with combat," a Naughty Dog developer told us after the demo. "We showed you two examples here of totally different ways to play and there are thousands of different ways to play those sections."

And perhaps, most interesting to me was that, for a game about fungus-infected humans ("don't think of them as zombies" we were told) we didn't see a single one in this demonstration. "To us, we think it's the humanity that's gonna make this game interesting. Not monsters." Naughty Dog, you've got our attention.

Joshua Topolsky contributed to this report.

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