Despite being a huge bummer for everyone involved, the end of the world can at least be counted on as a magnanimous source of drama and spectacle. Naughty Dog's latest game, The Last of Us, aims to leverage the studio's sophisticated technology and credible presentation to forge a more intense connection between players and their on-screen avatars. If it succeeds, your actions will stem from the same paranoia, hesitation and fierce bravery coming from Joel and Ellie, two survivors of modern civilization's mysterious closure.
A recent demonstration of the game in Santa Monica didn't touch upon the fungal infection that gives The Last of Us its zombie-like enemies. Instead, Naughty Dog showed an intense encounter between Joel and Ellie, and another band of vicious, opportunistic survivors. After careening into a dilapidated convenience store – in the moments following the game's latest trailer – Joel and Ellie must deal with the fallout of a failed ambush. It should be a simple case of taking cover and mowing down incoming enemies, but in these circumstances Joel has to make do with four bullets, and whatever objects he can find.
There's a subtle, rising tension in the scene as Joel moves quietly through the aisles, accompanied by tinny, inappropriately upbeat music bleeding from a nearby radio. A context-sensitive icon appears near useful objects, or at least the ones that would be effective in a collision against someone's skull. Bricks and wooden planks are all fair game, even if wielded against a surprised opponent from behind.
By the end of the demo, Joel had fired off some frantic shots, rushed a bandit and beaten him savagely, and broken a piece of wood on someone with a debilitating blow. The animation was unsettling, and the actions seemed improvised, not derived from a desire to exploit an underlying game system. A deathly quiet, descending before Joel and Ellie undo the last marauder, punctuated the encounter perfectly.
Naughty Dog's demonstration was noticeably directed, and perhaps not truly indicative of how it would appear if you were playing it at home. Much of the excellent presentation comes from the usual Naughty Dog touches – such as the way Joel and Ellie press their hands against an abandoned vehicle when they take cover – but it's unclear how much improvisation the game's combat encounters can support. Will you have to resort to melee ambushes again and again if you fail to scavenge ammo at key points? How do enemies respond to a fumbling player, and what happens when you're outnumbered with only a brick in hand?
Naughty Dog intends to show more and answer some of those questions at E3. For now, The Last of Us is obscured behind smoke and mirrors. But if you meet it halfway, and attempt to play it in a way that's respectful to the tension being created, it could be an interesting turn for a team that has embraced George Lucas more closely than George Romero.