Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us has made waves since its release with many hailing it as the greatest example of video game storytelling to date. With the three games in the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog has gained a reputation for incredibly high production values and paying careful attention to their writing and, in particular, their characters. With The Last of Us, Naughty Dog took those two elements and combined them with a dark, morally ambiguous storyline, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Naughty Dog even attempted to address in The Last of Us one of the largest complaints leveled against Uncharted: the fact that the series’s charming, smart aleck protagonist murders hundreds and hundreds of people.
In The Last of Us, brutal, horrifying violence is at the forefront of the narrative, making its presence in the gameplay more appropriate, and stealth and resource management mechanics mean that gameplay doesn’t require as high of a body count as Uncharted‘s strict third-person shooting. But even with these changes you still have to kill a ridiculous amount of people throughout The Last of Us. Naughty Dog was too hesitant to move away from traditional third-person shooter mechanics and to fully embrace resource management. Just four months after The Last of Us‘s official unveiling in 2011, a different game was released that also followed a man in a post-apocalyptic world as he protected a young girl he didn’t know and struggled to find the resources to keep them alive. While it isn’t even in the same ballpark as The Last of Us when it comes to storytelling (it’s not even the same sport), I Am Alive introduced a unique and tense combat system that would have suited The Last of Us better than its own system did.
I Am Alive‘s combat generally has you dealing with only few enemies at a time, but even a couple of guys can take you down if you’re not ready. Using stealth to take out enemies with your machete is most efficient as it saves on ammo. If enemies spot you first, they might approach you, before they decide to outright attack you, giving you the chance to surprise kill the closest one with your machete. The machete is only good in one-on-one encounters because each kill requires a small amount of time as you struggle to overcome your opponent. With multiple attackers, you’ll be interrupted before you can finish taking one guy out. So after you’ve either managed to take out a few guys using stealth or had to surprise attack the first one that walked up to you, the group of insane, bloodthirsty bandits now know you’re a threat and will proceed to make you not alive unless you act quickly. This is where I Am Alive makes things interesting.
Your next move is to pull out your pistol. Just like real life people, your enemies don’t want to get shot, if you have your gun out and firmly trained on them they’ll stop moving and put their hands in the air, giving you some time to plan out your next move. For most of the game, ammo is extremely scarce so its use should be minimized at all costs. Enemies will stay still only as long as they think you’re going to hurt them. Take too long to decide what to do next and they might get the idea that you’re bluffing, that you don’t actually have any bullets, and that they should continue with the bludgeoning. Bluffing, by the way, is a viable tactic when you are actually out of ammo.
So the smart thing to do is to shoot the enemies who have their own guns (just be sure none of his comrades pick it up when you’re not paying attention), or maybe find a steep cliff or broken window to push him and any of his friends out of. If you pay attention to what your enemies say and how they act, you might be able to figure out which one is the “alpha male” or the leader. Take him out, and his cronies will surrender.
I Am Alive’s combat is almost more of a puzzle than traditional third-person shooting; a puzzle that wants to murder you. The options for engaging with enemies require quick thinking, strategic planning, and swift action. Conserving ammo is important creating a constant tension between what you’re willing to use now to survive and what you might need later. The combat does tend to get repetitious once you become comfortable with the mechanics and learn who to dispatch and when, but new weapons, like a bow and shotgun, and enemies wearing armor help mix things up.
Limited by the third-person shooter genre, Naughty Dog’s bleak game of survival and violence doesn’t extricate itself enough from its genre’s tropes to avoid hurting its story and themes. I Am Alive‘s combat, with its shifting power dynamics and emphasis on conserving resources, feels more true to The Last of Us‘s world than The Last of Us‘s own combat.
Plus, I Am Alive totally deserves a sequel. That game had a torturous 9-year development cycle and changed developers partway through, and it still came away with some really interesting and unique game mechanics. Give Ubisoft Shanghai time and a budget to do a sequel right and I think they could come up with something really engaging.
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