When we know so little about The Last of Us - a game quickly becoming one of our most anticipated - every bit of information we can glean is that much more precious. Thanks to a few brand new screenshots and details, an Eastern seaboard setting and a mix of melee and shooting combat can be confirmed, as can the engine behind the game's gorgeous visuals.
Considering Naughty Dog's previous efforts the direction being taken for The Last of Us truly is as puzzling as it is promising. The newest in-game screenshots come courtesy of GameInformer's exclusive coversage, and confirm our suspicions that the setting and mechanics being planned for the game will be both familiar and refreshing to players.
We aren't just talking about the more than striking resemblance of the main character Joel to everyone's favorite quipping adventurer, since the similarities to Nathan Drake have been talked about since The Last of Us announcement trailer. Nor are we talking about the stealth mechanics that will likely ground the game firmly in the survival genre. But while recent post-apocalyptic games have taken place on a grand scale or distant planets, it seems the setting for The Last of Us will be much smaller and intimate.
As can be seen by the above screenshot, the Fort Duquesne Bridge located in Pittsburgh, PA figures prominently, with Joel apparently even pointing it out as a landmark. Whether Pittsburgh will be the only location in which the game is set can't be known, since the exact plot is still unclear. Whether Joel and Ellie are content to survive amidst the ruins of an apparent fungal plague or are intent on escaping to a safe zone is anyone's guess. The bridge does bear a 'Quarantine' sign, so conspiracy theorists may feel free to speculate that some humans have been isolated - perhaps the whole state of Pennsylvania? - while the rest of America searches for a cure.
The type of drama and potential violence that humanity is ready to display in Naughty Dog's survival tale became even clearer when The Last of Us cover art was revealed, and the screenshots continue to emphasize the same. Despite the criticism the developer has taken for its less than perfect shooting mechanics in the Uncharted series, things may be looking up for fans of melee combat. The first trailer showed how precious ammo can be, meaning survivors will often be forced to get...a bit more brutal.
Joel may be taking the worst of this attack, but having the player feel somewhat vulnerable will only make the drama and danger seem more believable. According to GI the weapons will only be useful until they break, so hopefully the system will be too sophisticated to be reduced to simply swinging a bat - as satisfying as that may be.
Considering the melee combat of Uncharted 3, it may be safe to assume that a similar quicktime-approach will be taken. With the extremely cinematic approach to that series' presentation, pulling out of an open world and into locked animations was at times frustrating, but considering the fact that Naughty Dog has been working on this for more than two years they've hopefully made more progress.
That length of development has also apparently been spent on keeping the character of Ellie from becoming more a nuisance than a benefit to the player. The young girl accompanying Joel will not be playable at any point but controlled by the computer, but there's no need to worry that the game will descend into one massive escort mission. Apparently the AI routines for Ellie have been a major focus for the team, and the early results are promising. Forgive us if we still insist on keeping our fingers crossed.
Obviously escorts and vulnerability are a breeding ground for frustration - see our review of AMY for proof - but when done right both aspects can be greatly rewarding. Considering the fiction of the game, it wouldn't make any sense for the seemingly-capable Joel to weigh himself down with a useless teenager.
Whether Ellie can actually offer some benefits or is merely being protected from the savagery of fellow survivors is something that will hopefully be explored in the future, but for now gorgeous environments and promising mechanics is enough to keep our hopes up. We haven't quite reached 'redefine gaming' levels of promise, but there's still time.
What do you think of the setting and new elements revealed? Any more details or interesting tidbits that you can spot in the screenshots? Leave us your thoughts in the comments.
The Last of Us is expected to be released for the PS3 in late 2012 or early 2013.
Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce.