Most people can simply enjoy what they do. I nitpick, poke fun at things I enjoy and appreciate them even more so, whilst others are quite content to be content. Yet there are those vocal few that find it difficult to just have fun.
There are those that like to take the adversarial stance. The more a game, a movie or a show is popularised, the more likely they are to find fault with it. On the other side, some people cannot enjoy something if they know critics find fault with it. You can usually find these two groups bickering about their most/least favourite thing online, whilst everyone else enjoys that thing without issue.
The Last of Us is a hill on which many people have squabbled. I’ve heard the words “prefect game” and “total garbage”. It cannot be both of these things, and its really neither. No game is without issues, and something so popular must have merit…
How the Game was Played
- I replayed The Last of Us last month. This was the third time I’ve played, but the first time in its ‘remastered’ form.
- I played over the course of about three weeks, off and on.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” – Oscar Wilde.
A small cohort of games hold the honour of the “This New Game is Like…” status. There are so many articles that present the ‘X number of games like The Last of Us. Dozens of games have since borrowed the games storytelling style, and the story itself. The Last of Us didn’t invent the escort mission, but the emotional connection between protagonist and escort was rarely so profound until this game, and the protector-protectee dynamic has been heavily copied since.
However, I think its a little inaccurate to say that a Great part of this game is the story. The tale is far from original, none of the characters do anything too surprising, it compounds a lot of tropes in a very effective way but its not steeped in originality. It is a Good story, grounded in a nice little tweak of the zombie apocalypse survival genre.
No, what makes this game so great is the performance. The story is secondary to the delivery of that story. Each character’s voice and motion–capture performance is exceptional. Every word and every action elevates the tale, the characters, even the scenery. Ashley Johnson, the actor living inside Ellie, has the greatest part to play. One wrong step and the little girl Joel has to escort could come across as whiny, irritating and embarrassingly loud for a world filled with zombies. Instead, the performance creates a character so watchable, so compelling, that it makes so much sense that she would lead the sequel.
Small as it might seem, pacing makes the story great too. The Last of Us is episodic. It is set out in levels, with a cut-scene either side, but rather than stitching each level together, each cut-scene acts like a bookend, or a closing statement to a chapter. This allows for each mini section to tell a short story, usually with a new NPC and new location. Each section is its own crisis, a problem that has to be overcome before the next, rather than one big overbearing \problem or a central villain. Most people play for an hour or two when thy get the chance, and this chunked storytelling works into that routine.
There are considerable time skips here, usually following a moment of shock or high tension. These skips give a sense of weight to what has passed, giving a moment to relax as a player, and allowing the story to skip to the good bits whilst making the journey still feel ‘big’.
Another common summary I hear of The Last of Us is “story great, gameplay bad”. Again, if that were the case this game could not garner the attention it has. There are some mediocre aspects of combat, but there’s also a lot that works very well. Much of these positives sit on a knife edge however, which I’ll discuss with ‘The Okay’.
For one thing, the combat has a ‘heaviness’ to it. Each punch or baseball bat swing feels like it has real weight behind it. Each shot has grit. Being overwhelmed by the infected or human enemies really does carry a sense of grim desperation. Each stealth kill feels consequential.
If you can master the stealth, or the more violent options in combat, it can lead to some very satisfying moments.
The game mechanics are passed on the fact that your characters are real people. They know how to shoot, how to survive, but they are no where near Super Hero status. Having to dig into your backpack for supplies or to swap weapons and having to search cupboards in abandoned houses makes this feel like survival. Many survival games give you a plethora of crafting options and resources by the crate, but they rarely feel like you actually having to work to survive. The Last of Us makes it feel like the characters are embedded in a struggle to keep going.
On the other hand, how much you can enjoy this games combat and survival aspects really depends on how happy you are to be hamstrung. If you want pace and explosive action, this game is not going to let you have it. If you don’t like the idea that Joel’s weapons sways because he’s not an expert, or that melee weapons break after too many hits, you will not enjoy combat. If you want your ammunition total to be in double digits, you will be irritated.
This is a game that wants you to be sluggish, hampered and very, very mortal. To many, that sounds like bad game design, and even boring.
Action games, especially ones about real people, have a hard time bridging those spaces between the action. I criticised Jedi Fallen Order for this, and that’s a game where the playable character that flip and leap and climb with the athleticism of a Jedi.
For Joel and Ellie, there are often very small barriers in their way. A ten-foot wall, a small gap too wide to jump, a broken ladder. When you’re not stealth-killing clickers or shotgunning cannibals, you’re looking for a plank of wood to slowly lug to a gap between rooftops or dragging a raft through the water because Ellie can’t swim (which is never solved by the way; in their entire journey, Joel never show Ellie how to at least doggy paddle to save time).
It’s very dull even once. A pointless excursion that seems to delay from the sake of it. What’s more telling is that the game doesn’t do this every time, and travelling the world is so much better when it chooses not to put these little puzzles in. Riding a horse through an abandoned college isn’t very exciting, but it is a chance for the characters to chat, is visually memorable and fits the overall pace of the game. It feels almost like the game didn’t have the confidence to just have these wandering sections – there must be a puzzle of the player will get bored – but substituting the plank of wood for an extra bit of scenery with something small to discover, or an extra conversation with Ellie would have been so much better.
For one thing, when those puzzles showed up I knew I was safe – no monsters attack during these sections – which is not something you necessarily want in a game that’s looking to keep you on your toes.
Every game has its quirks and its glitches. The Last of Us gets pulled up for its AI a lot, and for good reason. In any other game, watching the NPC you are escorting running around out in the open, when you are clearly stealthing, would look bad in any game. For a game going for gritty, harrowing scenes its especially jarring. Even more so, given that most of the time the enemies seem to deliberately ignoring Ellie or your other company. It feels like they are all actors trying to pretend they haven’t noticed that the stage in on fire.
There is a degree of learning with combat that, at times, threatened my enjoyment of this game. The Last of Us plays fast and loose with what it considers to be a stealth kill. If I’m hiding in cover and the Triangle appears, its seems totally random whether I will bring them to the ground, or whether every enemy in a square mile will come rushing in on me. They don’t need to be in the room, they just instinctively know what I have done and where I am now hiding. Bricks and bottles can be used to lure or distract enemies, but sometimes it just doesn’t effect them.
And some of the enemies you face are some of the greatest marksmen ever seen, but then I suppose that’s how they survived this long.
It’s very easy to point out that whether you will like a game depends on you. Of course it does. I can’t get along with a game that is exclusively about stealth and it doesn’t matter how great a game is. Yet The Last of Us is especially divisive, both because it is so popular and because it know exactly how it wants to tell its story.
If your a player that wants to get to the action, you need to know that this game will drag its heals and tell a heart wrenching, expertly delivered tale. Fans of first of third persons shooters need to know that this is a game that tries to make combat feel real and visceral, though it trips up now and then. If you can’t forgive a game for wonky AI and unruly enemies, you are going to find it difficult to be immersed in a game that has a great deal of depth.
Thank You For Reading
Written by Rufus Scott.
Last Late Review: Final Fantasy VII Remake