I got The Last of Us on the day of release and I’ve been playing it since. I finished it and started again. I’m still not quite sure what to think of it. What I am sure of is that it certainly doesn’t deserve the 10/10s it’s been getting. I’ll try to explain why, without giving away spoilers.
The story is of Joel and Ellie, a forty-something year old man and a fourteen year old girl, basically trying to get from one part of post-apocalyptic America to another. The post-apocalyptic setting is due to a virus that alters people. Some kind of cordyceps-like fungus grows inside them and first makes then extremely violent and aggressive, and then pretty much takes over and deforms them. Basically it’s a fancy zombie apocalypse.
So while crossing America, you have to contend with these infected people as well as normal humans. These come in two forms: soldiers and hunters. Soldiers are obviously…soldiers. There to supposedly keep the peace and keep people safe. But they’re not very pleasant inside the quarantine zones, and are all-out murderous outside them. The hunters are survivors who are not allowed into quarantine zones due to limited space and supplies. Instead, they prey on other survivors and…well, eat them. So, zombies, cannibals and stereotypically evil soldiers.
Joel is a smuggler. That means he smuggles mostly medication and weapons into his quarantine zone in Boston. Thanks to a pre-apocalypse section of gameplay at the beginning (20 years before the main game), we know he has good reason to hate the soldiers. Of course, that’s pretty much the last time he shows it, but it at least helps us see why he might have become a smuggler instead of sitting back and doing nothing like a good citizen. He and his partner, Tess, are tasked with taking fourteen year old Ellie to a group of rebels deep in the city, outside the quarantine zone. And so the story begins.
I say story, but there is actually not much of that. The basic premise is very simple, which is ok, but there’s not a lot to beef it up, which isn’t so ok. It is acted very well, and there’s a few sad moments that make you think it’s a deep and meaningful story, but when you stop at the end and think about everything that just happened in the past fifteen hours or so of gameplay, there isn’t that much. If there was more to the relationship between Joel and Ellie, then it wouldn’t be so bad. That relationship is handled pretty well, with them resenting and distrusting each other at first, right up to Joel seemingly seeing her almost as a daughter by the end. However, it progresses a little too fast. There aren’t that many defining moments in their relationship, and those that there are, are brushed over quite quickly. For example, at one point, Ellie has to save Joel’s life by shooting a man. This is the first time she has ever killed, and is momentarily upset and sickened by it, before…being perfectly fine and back to normal. Meanwhile Joel is just annoyed that she didn’t stay put like he told her. Now the suggestion is that he’s angry because he didn’t want her to have to go through that, and doesn’t want her to get hurt and so on, but never does he address the fact that this fourteen year old girl just had to shoot a man in the head at point blank to save the man who is supposed to be protecting her. I know this is part of the bleakness of the setting, that these things happen and there’s not always warm, comforting words to make you feel better, but I didn’t feel it, or a few other parts, were handled that well.
That said, the story and the relationships (both between the two protagonists, and them and the occasional other survivors they team up with) are good and believable. You can’t help spending a lot of the game with a little knot in your stomach because you’re afraid something might happen to Ellie or Joel or even to their new and temporary friends. Ellie is a particularly good character. She’s funny and likable. She can handle herself, but she’s vulnerable and frightened at the same time. You want to help her and protect her, rather than just doing so because the game says you have to.
So overall, the story and the characters aren’t the problem. Even if the whole thing is severely lacking in nuance. There’s some. Ellie’s animations, for example, change over time. First she’s quite guarded, and spends a bit of time with one arm crossed over her, holding the other in that unsure, slightly defensive manner. Then later, when she comes to better know and trust Joel, she’s a lot more open both physically and in character. She tells jokes from a joke book she finds, she teaches herself to whistle, she talks to Joel about how the world used to be, before her time. So if these small problems were the only ones, I would have given the game 9/10. But they’re not.
The game’s biggest problem, and a big let down, is the combat. Trailers and previews of the game made it seem as though Joel would have a problem handling just one or two enemies at once. That every kill would be a choice, and a moral dilemma. Perhaps that you have to make the choice between killing someone in order to get badly-needed supplies, or leave them and risk running out. But that isn’t so. Not even close. You find yourself in the midst of anywhere from one or two to a dozen enemies at once. If a single one spots you, then like magic, everyone else knows that you’re there, and precisely where you are. I’d hoped that kind of crap was being buried in an unmarked grave as we draw closer to next gen. But apparently not.
If this was only a problem if you were careless and got yourself seen, then I could perhaps forgive it. But that isn’t the case either. On many occasions, you are forced into combat against waves of enemies. In one part of the game, you are actually locked in a room and forced to fight about four or five waves of enemies, before what is basically a mini boss fight. I’d love for someone to explain to me how that has any place in a game like this.
The game is billed as both a survival horror and an action adventure. I don’t think it can, or should, be both. The most tense and exciting parts of the game are when you are pitted against just one or two enemies. For example, there is a part where you get pinned down by a sniper on a street in the suburbs. You have to sneak around the side, avoiding getting shot, while your allies draw his fire. As you reach the house, you suddenly realise that he isn’t firing any more. You get inside, and the house is silent. So where the hell is he? That makes it tense and exciting. The problem is, Naughty Dog (the developer) decided that wasn’t enough. So they threw in about six or seven other enemies for you to fight on your way to the house. To me, that ruined the atmosphere. To me, that kind of thing transforms it from a survival game into a shooter. The best moments of combat were when you were fighting only a small number of enemies. The combat system doesn’t even lend itself to anything else.
But the developers don’t seem to know which they wanted it to be either. Joel is strong and pretty fast in cutscenes, but in-game, he’s like an old man. If you hear footsteps running up behind you, then it’s already too late. You can’t turn in time to hit the attacker before he hits you, which can be fatal. You can’t sneak at any kind of speed. There’s no urgency to his sneaking as he gets closer to an enemy he’s going to take out. He can’t roll or slide into cover. Surely, if you’re being shot at, you get to that low wall or crate or whatever cover as quickly as possible? But not Joel.
To me, the game plays as though Naughty Dog were afraid to stray too far from the Uncharted formula. The waves of enemies scenario may work ok for that, but it doesn’t fit in a game like The Last Of Us. It’s a shame they didn’t have the guts to properly pull off the kind of game it was trying to be. One that is more story driven than combat driven, one that deals with occasionally upsetting themes, one that doesn’t fall back on ‘well we can always sit here and shoot everyone’. I think I finished the game with something like 450 kills. 450!
So the combat reduces the game from a very solid 9/10 to an 8/10 at the most.
And then there are the glitches. They aren’t numerous, but they are annoying. Especially in a game from a studio known for highly polished games. The first I noticed was enemies getting stuck. You’d perhaps get spotted by someone, and everyone else, no matter where they are, immediately knows that their friend has seen you. Because they’re telepathic, naturally. But then they run in circles. Or they run ten feet, turn around and run back, only to turn and do the same again. The biggest and most annoying glitch that I came across was with the ‘focused hearing’ system. Holding R2 causes Joel to kneel down and listen hard. Doing so allows him x-ray vision, naturally. So you can see through walls and know exactly where enemies are. Except, about 40% of the way through the game, I started to lose people in my focused hearing. I’d look around using it, see no one, then turn a corner and come face to face with an enemy. This was particularly irritating in the final section, which is all-out action, and I couldn’t see where anyone was until I got shot in the face. I didn’t really mind the focused hearing, but something a little better would have been nice. But most alternatives would have required Naughty Dog to add in decent AI. And then there’s the allies who come into cover with you, and then…push you out of it. Into view of an enemy. Thanks, Naughty Dog. The game wasn’t hard enough, so I’m glad you added that in, despite the fact that you thought it was ok to make Joel’s allies completely invisible to enemies. Ok, perhaps that’s not a glitch, but it’s still damn annoying.
So in the end, what had the potential to be one of the best games of this generation ended up being a little too shallow and scared. 8/10 I think. I wrote a post a while ago about what I think next gen should be and do, and The Last of Us came close. But just fell short. The plus side is that The Last of Us is THIS gen, not next gen, and if this gen can still produce something like that, then there’s reason to hope. However, the downside is that the game wasn’t let down by technology, but by people. People being too scared to properly address the difficult subjects and move away from the idea of each quiet, exploration and/or story section being nothing more than a stepping stone to the next shootout.
Overall, the story is good enough, the characters and relationships are good, the acting is very good, the setting is good and the combat is good when it’s both optional and minimal. But it doesn’t deserve all those 10/10s.