The Last of Us, but not the best of us
by Scott Nichols
Since I’m not obligated to write a traditional review here on Gamerly Musings, I’ve decided to parse out my thoughts on The Last of Us in list form since it just makes more sense to me that way. As always with things I write here, spoilers.
Things The Last of Us gets right:
The opening. The first hour of The Last of Us does a fantastic job of introducing Joel and the game’s world. Starting with control of his daughter, you explore the house in a pre-infected state, then find Joel rushing inside being chased by early infected. There’s a nice sense of knowing that the infection is happening elsewhere, but naivete about it actually hitting home, even as things escalate quickly around them. It also features what may be the first time in a Naughty Dog game that your character is being chased and you aren’t running toward the camera while seeing the pursuers behind you. You probably can turn the camera around to look, but I got the sense that doing so would slow me down and get me caught, so I just kept running with an unknown danger at my heels. It’s a heavily scripted scene, but very effective.
The setting. Never let it be said that Naughty Dog doesn’t know how to set a scene. From the ruined buildings and plants reclaiming the streets to the wilderness of the hydroelectric plant and Colorado winter. The art direction has an impeccable attention to detail, with subtle nuggets of information about how survivors lived, or failed to, wrapped into every corner of the world. The sewer nursery and Colorado University campus were particularly well realized examples of world-building.
The acting. The Last of Us probably won’t be on my shortlist for top games of 2013, but it’s definitely up there for one of the top movies of the year. The voice acting is fantastic throughout, and the motion capture for the cutscenes got some amazing footage with body language and inflections to drive the acting home. The only jarring part of the acting was when Steve Blum’s gruff voice kept popping up for the random thugs and soldiers you fight, since his voice is so distinct that it came across as fighting the same enemy over and over rather than a mob. More enemy voice diversity, please.
Winter. Everything about the Winter chapter is the best part of The Last of Us. You finally get to control Ellie, hunting in the woods for survival. She then threatens two strangers with a bow and arrow, and barters her food for medicine, which is the kind of thing I like to see in a survival game (though it would have more impact if characters had a hunger meter or something). David is wonderfully twisted and complex character to add for the chapter, as you go through the initial trials building trust with him through gameplay only to discover he’s the leader of the mob that attacked you in the last chapter.
He’s also a cannibal, and most likely a pedophile since one of his underlings refers to Ellie as his “pet,” though in David’s early scenes he shows just enough humanity that there might me a genuine paternal feeling behind his motivation to steal Ellie away from Joel. The whole stealth fight with David is done well, and I love how Joel arrives just in time to watch Ellie beat David’s face in. Winter is the chapter that shows just how far Ellie has come since the beginning when Joel was trying to shelter her into a survivor capable of handling herself. Of course, she’s also still a kid, which comes out in her attitude and depression in the following chapter after brutally killing most of David’s gang.
Scavenging/crafting. I really like scavenging for materials in survival games, and The Last of Us had plenty of materials to find. Those materials could be used to craft health kits, explosives, and upgrade melee weapons, with some materials needed for multiple items so you had to manage your resources. Well, kind of. The game actually threw too much scavenging material into the environment, and I often had to leave stuff behind because I had maxed out all of my items and the amount of materials I could carry. Abundance aside, the system worked well, and I liked how crafting items was in real-time so you could make items at any time but there was a risk attached if you were in combat.
Things The Last of Us gets wrong:
Partner A.I. Holy hell, the A.I. is dumb in The Last of Us. While I was trying to sneak past clickers with Joel, Ellie and whoever else happened to be along at the moment would run around in tap dancing shoes completely ignoring the fact that we were supposed to be stealthy. And for the most part, as long as I hadn’t been noticed, they could make as much noise as they wanted. It kind of ruins the effect of the stealth portions. But then as soon as I get noticed by an enemy, suddenly the A.I. companions are visible and I have to rescue them. It’s immersion-breaking and really inexcusable considering how much of the first half relies on stealth. When I press crouch, the A.I. should automatically follow suit, even if enemies aren’t actually nearby. It would reinforce both that enemies pose a genuine threat and that Joel is taking on a leader/father role to Ellie if she followed his actions like that.
Notice that Winter was the highlight of the game. David makes for an uncharacteristically competent A.I. partner, shooting enemies to stun them so you can finish them off. His competence, especially after so many miserable A.I. companions, is a big part of why that scene works for building trust in him, or at least wanting him to turn out to be a good guy, and why his betrayal stings even if you saw it coming (which let’s be honest, who didn’t?). David is also only your companion for a short time, after which Ellie and Joel get their own solo segments, which forgoes the entire A.I. problem altogether.
Anything involving guns. I am not convinced that Naughty Dog can make a competent shooter. I’m sorry, I’ve never been a fan of the gunplay in the Uncharted series, and it’s just as wrong-feeling here in The Last of Us. For some reason it always feels much more difficult to aim any gun at close range in a Naughty Dog game, which should be the opposite, and becomes a real issue when fighting the infected. I actually don’t have an issue with the aiming being shaky as other critics have said, but to compensate each bullet should be far more lethal.
Unavoidable combat. Oh, you thought The Last of Us was a stealth horror game? Haha, nope. For each encounter that has a stealthy option there is a scripted sequence where you can’t progress until every enemy in sight has been killed. Usually the unavoidable combat sequences are against heavily armed human opponents, which as I’ve already said anytime the game uses guns the fun level drops drastically. The entire Philadelphia section of the game is excruciating for all of the wrong reasons. Sometimes it will also throw in unavoidable combat with infected, in which case the terrible close-range combat comes into play. Other times it’ll throw a swarm of infected at you and expect you to run, but because the game has established a pattern predominantly of “kill everything to progress” it wouldn’t occur to me to run until after dying several times. Hotel basement with the generator, I’m looking at you.
The focus ability. Joel and Ellie have a unique ability where they can crouch low and see enemies through walls if you hold the R2 trigger. This is super helpful in the stealth portions, and a good addition to the game. So why is the focus ability something The Last of Us gets wrong? Because it has selective usefulness when it comes to scripted scenes. I try to play as a good survivalist, so I’m sneaking practically everywhere, and using the focus ability liberally. But sometimes there will be an infected hiding for a jump scare, or human enemies that are scripted to pop out, and they won’t appear with the focus ability until their scripted trigger is activated. Players should be rewarded for being careful, and at times The Last of Us is just far more concerned with being a thrill ride than giving the player agency.
Magical cutscene injuries. I know, it’s a tired trope that shows up in most games, but that doesn’t make it any less terrible when it pops up in The Last of Us. Even if Joel falling on the metal beam is the catalyst for what leads to Ellie’s starring role in the excellent Winter chapter, it’s still a cheap plot device that A) seems minor compared to the multiple gunshot wounds Joel survived before it and B) wouldn’t have happened if the encounter played out like every other bit of combat in the game. As I already mentioned, I’m a very careful player, so seeing that kind of clumsiness from characters in a cutscene is very jarring. Also, how does Joel survive for a few months until winter in a perpetually deteriorating state, then after one penicillin injection he’s better within 12 hours? Again, yes, it’s game logic, but I feel like for the world they’ve created the consequences should be greater, or at least force players to take care of Joel as Ellie for a longer time before he recovers.
Puzzles. You’d think that at some point during their year-long trek Joel would teach Ellie how to swim. Nope, let’s do the same carry-Ellie-on-a-plank-of-wood puzzle half a dozen times. The ladders and planks were also a good idea that turned into a missed opportunity. Being able to freely position ladders and planks could have led to some tense escape sequences or non-linear exploration, but instead there’s usually only one place you can really use them. It feels like Naughty Dog had big plans for re-positioning ladders, but either ran out of time or got locked into a linear structure and forgot about them halfway into development.
Overall, if I had been reviewing The Last of Us, I’d have probably given it something in the 6-7/10 range, with text that strongly emphasized that it is the story that brought up the score, not gameplay. I’d easily recommend either I Am Alive or ZombiU over it, and the fact that both of those came out last year as superior survival experiences greatly influenced my opinion of The Last of Us. Then again, in ZombiU I had the opposite issue, where the story was awful and gameplay was fantastic, so if there was a game that could merge Naughty Dog’s storytelling with ZombiU that would be just about perfect.