The Last of Us Part II

Upon its 2013 release, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us proved to be a tremendous hit with fans and critics alike. It proceeded to receive awards from nearly every conceivable outlet with one journalist considering it gaming’s Citizen Kane moment. Emboldened by the success of this game, series creator Neil Druckman and the rest of Naughty Dog began working on a sequel in 2014. As development proceeded, Naughty Dog also provided gamers with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The former provided a sendoff to series protagonist Nathan Drake whereas the latter continued the story with two prominent female characters. Both games were well-received and cemented Naughty Dog as one of the most beloved American developers in the process. With the sequel to The Last of Us announced in 2016, fans eagerly awaited what Mr. Druckmann and his team had to offer.

Unfortunately for Naughty Dog, the development process would prove to be less than uneventful. While Mr. Druckmann had previously encountered tremendous difficulties on his path to bringing his artistic visions into reality, it was nothing compared to what was about to occur. The troubles began brewing as early as the very year they began work on the game. In March of 2014, it came to light that the creative director of the first three Uncharted installments, Amy Henning, had left Naughty Dog alongside game director Justin Richmond. One article from IGN speculated that they had been forced out of the company, citing how it coincided with Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley’s subsequent replacement of their respective positions. Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra released statements, clarifying that neither of them had anything to do with the departure of Ms. Henning or Mr. Richmond.

The controversy eventually subsided, and the fans continued to await the sequel to The Last of Us. Shortly after the release of The Lost Legacy in 2017, the first trailers for this sequel surfaced. Fans were now more excited than ever – particularly after the game became slated for a release in September of 2019. However, history repeated itself – this time, in the worst way possible. Jason Schreier, writing for Kotaku, wrote a report that revealed Naughty Dog’s intensive crunch schedule wherein 12-hour workdays was the standard. Many people concluded that Naughty Dog had been exploiting their programmers’ passion, and soon enough, the company gained a bad reputation in Los Angeles County for up-and-coming programmers. With its staff unable to bear working such untenable hours, the company had a 70% turnover rate. Although several other sources claimed such a thing was not unheard of in the industry, this caused many of Naughty Dog’s fans to turn on them.

Because of these harsh working conditions, the game found itself delayed yet again – this time to 2020. Naughty Dog assured fans the game would be released by that year’s summer, but then a disaster the likes of which humankind hadn’t experienced in nearly a century occurred. In late 2019, a coronavirus dubbed COVID-19 had broken out in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province. Being highly infectious and capable of causing severe damage to one’s respiratory system, everyone on the planet not employed by an essential business soon found themselves under lockdown the following March. Unemployment skyrocketed and the ensuing stock market crash was likened to the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the end of the year, over one-million people had lost their lives to the virus. It would eventually be considered the single worst pandemic in recorded history since the influenza outbreak of 1918.

In response to logistical problems caused by the virus, Naughty Dog opted to delay the game once more – this time indefinitely. By this point, fans were beginning to lose patience with Naughty Dog. It would seem that the game was not to surface for quite some time. However, an undesirable development forced their hand. In April of 2020, key details of the game’s story were leaked onto the internet. Although it was initially dismissed as a hoax, the leaks were quickly confirmed as the genuine article. Under most circumstances, leaks spoiling major content would cause fans to despair. The emotion these leaks instead inspired was sheer, raw anger – directed at Mr. Druckmann himself. Due to the content of these leaks, many fans swore off buying the game entirely with some going as far as canceling their preordered copy.

A few days after these leaks occurred, Naughty Dog announced the game had gone gold. Discs could now be manufactured for a slated release date of June 19, 2020. Many fans were excited about getting their hands on the game sooner than expected, but it was clear the leaks had taken the wind out of Naughty Dog’s sails. Regardless, the game, simply titled The Last of Us Part II, quickly amassed a level of acclaim rivaling – and in some circles, surpassing – that of the original. Many of them considered it the first true masterpiece of the 2020s. Facing delays, internal problems, and a worldwide pandemic along the road to seeing the light of day, was The Last of Us Part II truly able to surpass the acclaim of the original game and truly tap into the medium’s storytelling potential?

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Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Introduction

Along with Bloodborne, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4 proved to be one of the killer apps of its platform. As with the previous entries, it received nearly universal critical acclaim as a storytelling experience that far surpassed those of its peers. This caused many gaming enthusiasts to buy a PlayStation 4 for themselves in a parallel to how Uncharted 2 caused people to gravitate towards the PlayStation 3 in the previous console generation. Uncharted 4 was advertised as the series’ finale, as it gave its central protagonist, Nathan Drake, a conclusive sendoff.

However, shortly after the game was released in May of 2016, Naughty Dog began working on a new campaign within the same universe. Though many ideas were thrown out, Naughty Dog ultimately cast Chloe Frazer, a side character who debuted in Uncharted 2, as the lead. This campaign was billed as downloadable content for Uncharted 4, though it ultimately got a standalone, physical release when it debuted in August of 2017. This game, titled Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, didn’t exactly garner the same level of critical acclaim as Uncharted 4, with some outlets criticizing its lack of innovation and short length. The decision to continue a series after promising the previous installment would conclude it is a tricky proposition. Considering that mainstays such as Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley had little input for this game, it would indeed appear to be a recipe for stagnation. Was this new team able to do this critically venerable series justice?

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Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Introduction

The PlayStation 3 was widely mocked upon its release, but after many critically acclaimed games found their home in its library, Sony regained much of the market share they had lost to their competitors. One of the developers that helped draw newcomers to Sony’s console was Naughty Dog. With their trilogy of Uncharted games, they received a level of critical praise few other artists could claim to match. In 2013, they followed up this success with The Last of Us, which in many circles, managed to surpass their previous efforts in terms of artistic merits. These four games were widely believed to possess the best of both words; not only did they boast the cutting edge of 3D technology, the voice actors brought their characters to life when their peers in the AAA industry struggled to do the same.

The Last of Us is popularly considered to have been the seventh console generation’s swansong, and the within same year of its release, the gaming world saw the debut of the PlayStation 4 in North America and PAL regions. Much like the PlayStation 3 before it, the PlayStation 4 faced something of a backlash when it launched. Though gaming fans marveled at the superior processing power of this machine, there was a major point of contention regarding its lack of backwards compatibility with any previous PlayStation console. Naturally, fans weren’t enthralled with the idea of purchasing a console incapable playing the games they had amassed, so the savvy ones saved their money. It was clear like any successful console before it that the PlayStation 4 would need a sizable selection of exclusive games in order for the average consumer to consider it a good return on investment.

In November of 2013, Naughty Dog announced their newest project: the fourth installment of their Uncharted series. Series writer Amy Hennig was to make a return and serve as its creative director working alongside Justin Richmond. However, Ms. Hennig and Mr. Richmond left the company during the game’s development in March of 2014. These sudden departures led to some speculation within the gaming community, spurred by an IGN article suggesting that Ms. Hennig was forced out by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, the directors of The Last of Us. Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra, released an official statement, clarifying that neither of them were involved in Ms. Hennig’s departure while proscribing the article as “unprofessional” and “hurtful”.

In June of 2014, the co-presidents requested Mr. Druckmann and Mr. Straley to lead the game’s development. It was during the E3 conference of the same year that Naughty Dog formally unveiled the project under the name Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Examining the promotional materials caused some fans to suspect the series was to take a darker turn, though in a 2014 interview, Mr. Druckmann assured them that the story would be different while still retaining its charm. The sudden change in personnel caused no shortage of problems. Plot ideas and eight months of shooting were left on the proverbial cutting room floor and the voice actor for a central character had to be recast. Consequently, the project was plagued with numerous delays. It was slated to for a late-2015 release before getting pushed back multiple times within 2016. Uncharted 4 at last saw its debut in May of 2016. Like their previous four console efforts, it became a critical and commercial success, and it was considered one of the finest titles for the PlayStation 4. The subtitle this game bears does not belie its status as the series’ grand finale. Was Naughty Dog able help make the PlayStation 4 a viable platform while also giving their most lauded franchise a proper sendoff?

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The Last of Us

Introduction

In 2004, a student of Carnegie Mellon University named Neil Druckmann participated in a group project. At the time, he was pursuing a Master’s degree in Entertainment Technology, and one of his professors happened to be friends with George Romero, the man who directed Night of the Living Dead. This 1968 classic is widely considered to be ground zero for the zombie apocalypse genre. For this assignment, Mr. Romero compelled the students to pitch an idea for a video game. Mr. Druckmann’s idea merged the three works which left an indelible impact on him as a creator. It would feature gameplay akin to Ico, star a protagonist with a personality comparable to John Hartigan from Sin City, and the story was to be set in the world of Night of the Living Dead. The game’s concept centered on a cop would protect a young girl in a ravaged land filled to the brim with mindless, flesh-eating monsters. However, the cop had a heart condition that would act up every now and again, prompting players to take control of the girl in these situations, thus reserving the roles of the protector and the protected. In the end, Mr. Romero chose another project.

Later that year, Mr. Druckmann met Jason Rubin, the co-founder of a game company named Naughty Dog. Mr. Rubin’s company had made their impact on the medium on Sony’s PlayStation platform with their Crash Bandicoot series of 3D platforming games. It was a success that would continue into the following console generation with Jak & Daxter. After “bugging” Mr. Rubin enough, the co-founder handed the enthusiastic college student a business card. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Druckmann joined Naughty Dog as an intern before being promoted to full-time employee as a gameplay programmer mere months afterwards.

When his tenure at Naughty Dog began, Mr. Druckmann began to revisit his rejected game concept, thinking to himself, “What’s another way I can explore these characters?” The answer to this quandary came in the form of a comic book named The Turning. It was to be about a criminal who found himself tasked with escorting a young girl across a dangerous land. The roles would be reversed in the end when he is captured by erstwhile criminal partners and the girl saves his life. He intended to write and draw the comic itself. When he completed the script for a six-issue story arc, he submitted it to an independent comic book publisher. Unfortunately, much like George Romero, the publisher rejected the idea – Mr. Druckmann being told, “I like it, but I don’t love it.”

Meanwhile, as Naughty Dog was in the middle of developing Jak 3 and Jak X: Combat Racing, Mr. Druckmann asked co-president Evan Wells about joining the design team. Although Mr. Wells was hesitant about the idea, he allowed Mr. Druckmann a chance under the stipulation that he completed his design work after hours. Once Jak X: Combat Racing saw its release, Mr. Wells was convinced by his subordinate’s skill and put him in charge of design for their next project: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. This game and its sequel were commercial and critical successes, and Mr. Druckmann soon found himself as one of the lead developers for the series’ third installment.

As he worked on the design for the first two Uncharted installments, Neil Druckmann would often have dinner with co-worker Bruce Straley to discuss ideas about what they should do next. This time, his proposed story followed a man accompanied by a mute girl with whom every point of interaction was executed via game mechanics. During these sessions, they became intrigued with Cordyceps, a fungus that infects insects by taking control of their motor functions and forcing them to cultivate more of itself. This game was to be set in a world in which the Cordyceps began to infect humans, but only women fell victim to it. The girl was the only female immune to the fungus, and the hero had to transport her to a laboratory so a cure may be synthesized. The concept was vetoed when the company’s female employees voiced concerns about a game in which men had to band together against women who became ugly, irrational, and powerful. Not helping matters was its proposed title: Mankind. By Mr. Druckmann’s own admission, “The reason it failed is because it was a misogynistic idea.”

Undeterred by these numerous setbacks, he began to refine his idea, and in 2010, he and Mr. Straley felt it was ready to be pitched. However, it was rejected yet again when the higher-ups felt his new concept failed to mesh with his characters’ arcs. After weeding out the last remaining issues, Mr. Druckmann’s dream project was finally greenlit, being formally announced to the world in 2011. As Naughty Dog received innumerable awards and a large, dedicated fanbase with their trilogy of Uncharted games, this new title, dubbed The Last of Us, became one of the most hotly anticipated titles of its time. At long last, the medium would have a title to show the world that video games had grown up and were every bit as worthy of being considered legitimate artistic cornerstones alongside film, music, and literature. This heavily promoted game was released in 2013, and saying that it received unanimous critical acclaim would be a gross understatement. Critics felt it was one of the medium’s greatest artistic achievements while fans fell in love with the characters and the setting. Essayists have gone into great detail about the game, its themes, and how immaculate the experience is as a whole. Many spectacular titles were released within the seventh generation of console gaming, but many insisted The Last of Us blew every single one of them out of the water. That it managed to somehow surpass Uncharted 2 in terms of accolades is no mean feat. Was Mr. Druckmann able to use his determination over the better part of a decade to create something that stands not only as Naughty Dog’s magnum opus and the seventh generation’s swansong, but also one of the greatest games ever made?

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Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Introduction

Naughty Dog’s 2009 effort, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, received glowing reviews from nearly every major gaming publication upon its release. It wasn’t just a critical darling; Naughty Dog soon found themselves with a fanbase that utterly eclipsed the ones for their earlier games in terms of sheer numbers. It was largely due to exclusive titles such as Uncharted 2 that the PlayStation 3, which originally had been widely ridiculed, began taking back much of the ground it lost to the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in the seventh generation of video game consoles.

There was only one logical reaction to this overwhelming success and torrent of critical accolades: make a sequel. The game was formally announced during the Spike Video Game Awards ceremony in December of 2010 with a trailer depicting a table covered in Arabian artifacts. A few days later, a worldwide demo premiered on the American late-night talk show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. In interviews, creative director Amy Henning stated that she and her team wished to push themselves by setting the next Uncharted installment in a desert region, as elements such as sand, fire, and water are considered “technically difficult to credibly render with animation”.

Naughty Dog spared no expense with their marketing campaign. Spike TV held competitions where the prize was the honor of getting to play the game before the official release date. Two important people, narrative leader Taylor Kurosaki and stunt movement coordinator Mike Mukatis, appeared on an episode of America’s Next Top Model: College Edition wherein contestants acted out a scene from the original Uncharted. Players who purchased certain items from the fast-food restaurant Subway would be granted access to the game’s entire multiplayer mode. By the time of its release in November of 2011, the anticipation for this installment, entitled Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, couldn’t have been higher. Its reception continued Naughty Dog’s winning streak by receiving unanimously positive reviews from critics and fans alike. It’s an impressive feat to be sure, but could Ms. Henning and her team truly live up to the lofty standards set by Uncharted 2?

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Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Introduction

Sony’s PlayStation 3 console met with a lukewarm reception when it was released in 2006. There were several reasons for this – the two biggest sticking points concerned the lack of console-exclusive games upon launch and its initial retail price of $600 USD. It could have made for a handy replacement for one’s PlayStation 2, as the original models boasted backwards compatibility, but the prohibitive amount of money it sold for deterred even the most dedicated fans.

In 2007, Naughty Dog, a company known for making quality games exclusively for Sony’s platforms, released Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The game proved to be one of the console’s first bestsellers, showcasing its potential to any would-be adopters. However, many fans continued to express hesitance, as it would hardly be worth investing hundreds of dollars just to play a single game – no matter how good the press insisted it was.

Nonetheless, it sold enough units to warrant a sequel, the first trailer of which was unveiled in December of 2008. Earlier that year, the highly acclaimed Metal Gear Solid 4 saw its debut as a PlayStation 3 exclusive. As Metal Gear was a long-running IP with an existing, dedicated fanbase this action caused the tide to slowly turn in Sony’s favor, a trend that would continue into the following year after they reduced the price to a more reasonable figure. As a result, the anticipation for this new installment in this up-and-coming Uncharted series was far greater than that of its predecessor. The development period of this game took nearly two years, ending in 2009 with the final product being entitled Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Countless publications awarded Uncharted 2 perfect scores with many critics believing it to be a new landmark in gaming. It was to the point where these accolades found themselves bombastically emblazoned onto the game’s cover. From this, it’s evident that Naughty Dog was proud of their work. Was their effort able to end one of gaming’s finest decades on a triumphant note?

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Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

uncharted-drakes-fortune

Introduction

Much like in the fifth console generation before it, Naughty Dog had much success in the PlayStation 2 era with their Jak & Daxter trilogy of 3D platforming games. Shortly after the release of Jak 3 in 2004, Naughty Dog assembled their most technically proficient staff members and began development of a new project under the codename Big. Meanwhile, Sony was working on their newest console: the PlayStation 3. Rather than continue the Jak & Daxter series on this platform, Naughty Dog opted to create a new franchise to better suit the hardware capabilities, terming the art direction as “stylized realism”. Taking inspiration from pulp magazines and contemporary movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure, they sought to create an action adventure game with mystery themes that explore various what-if scenarios.

This project was unveiled to the public in 2006 at the annual gaming exhibition, E3, with the working title, Uncharted. When gaming fans learned of its platforming and shooter elements, they inevitably drew comparisons to Core Design’s Tomb Raider series of action-adventure games that became well-known in the original PlayStation era, eventually earning the nickname “Dude Raider” based on it having a male protagonist. The developers distinguished their game by placing a greater emphasis on a cover-based play mechanic, citing the pioneering third-person shooter, Resident Evil 4, as an influence along with other popular titles. The game saw its official release in 2007 under the name, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Critics and fans alike praised Uncharted for its stunning visuals and entertaining dialogue. As the PlayStation 3 met with a tepid response due to a lack of games, this was one of the exclusive titles that helped turn the tide in their favor along with Metal Gear Solid 4 a year later.  Doubtlessly was it impressive that managed to sell one-million copies before its platform caught on with enthusiasts. How did it accomplish such a feat?

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