Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is a darling of both critics and fans alike, but is it truly the modern masterpiece many claim it is? Join me as I look at some finer points of this giant game to find out if it really is as good as everyone says it is.
Full spoilers ahead
In a world
During my time with The Last of Us, it seems that the world is one of the more intriguing aspects of the game. Let’s boil it down shall we? In 2013 we see the downfall of society because of an infection that causes people to go crazy and kill each other; 20 years later the United States has very little infrastructure left and humanity is on its last legs. While some people praise the world of The Last of Us being original or unique, I see it as a pretty standard zombie apocalypse story.
The tropes continue with the narrative. One man finds the cure to the zombie plague and must get it to a hospital and journey to save all of mankind. It’s all very simple if you boil it down to its essence, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Parfaits have layers
When a story is complex at its core it becomes difficult to follow, which can be detrimental to the writing. If your focus as a player is on keeping track of the narrative as opposed to noticing the intricacies of the characters, then any character development might as well be meaningless. What Naughty Dog did was give players a story and world that at their bases are simple and easy to understand, then add layers upon layers of details.
Those details aren’t difficult to notice either. Even the changes in Joel’s mannerisms from the prologue to the first act of the game are clear thanks to the writing and of course Troy Baker’s excellent voice acting. Small changes like Joel’s watch becoming battered over time, the greying of his hair, and the coldness he has when dealing with Robert are drastic changes from the Joel we see early on. This is easy to see because there aren’t any terribly complicated plot details getting in the way of the characters.
All about that pace
The narrative doesn’t stop with this general structure throughout the entire game. Every time the setting changes, from Philly to Wyoming and beyond, the goal is simple: Get Ellie to the hospital. This simple goal allows us to see how the characters progress and keeps the story moving at a good pace. Drama isn’t too high for too long and there’s never a lull where nothing is happening story-wise. This is a good thing, except for when you factor in the fact that this is a video game, not a movie.
Let me be clear, I think The Last of Us is without a doubt one of the highest achievements in storytelling that gaming has to offer, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good game. While the pacing works marvelously for a story, it adds needless annoyances to the gameplay. If you’ve played The Last of Us then you might be able to guess what I’m talking about. Yes it’s the planks. It’s always the planks.
Let me walk the plank
They’re supposed to provide a break for the intensity that follows every encounter and allow the player to take a step back and enjoy the world, but they end up feeling out of place and pointless. You could argue that these puzzles vary the gameplay from the firefight and stealth segments, but can you even call them puzzles?
A puzzle should feel satisfying to complete. The only obstacle in completing the puzzle is your own ability to understand the puzzle, so the good feeling you get when you finish it should come from the act of completion itself, not from finally being done with it. In The Last of Us the planks are all in some arbitrary location that never makes sense, so you’re stuck wandering around aimlessly until Ellie, Tess, or whoever says, “Hey, maybe it’s over here.” Then you grab the plank, walk it slowly to the thing, place it on the thing, and you win! Congratulations, you’re now as skilled as a lab rat. Good for you.
My problem isn’t with the task itself, it’s with the execution. The moment of completion doesn’t make me feel satisfaction, it makes me feel glad to be done with that portion of the gameplay because it was boring and pointless. It felt like I had to just wait around until the other character pointed out exactly where I had to walk to progress through the game, which basically means there was a timer on my progression. If the task were more satisfying to complete or had some other reward than progression I would not mind, but as it stands it marred an otherwise good gaming experience.
It’s not my fault, I swear
The faults with the gameplay don’t stop there. I felt that while the settings for stealth and combat scenarios were incredibly intense, not everything was clearly communicated to the player. There were times when the controls didn’t respond like they had in the past, or one animation caused my character to attack in a completely different direction than I was intending. In intense scenarios like the one in the school gymnasium, the climbing controls got in my way and caused me to die when I shouldn’t have. This is an inherent problem in The Last of Us’ design.
There isn’t a singular instance I can point at to showcase why the controls don’t feel right, but the character movements and combat animations never quite felt responsive like they should. They looked gorgeous and once you get used to the feel they’re mostly fine, but I often found myself locked in some sort of animation trying to navigate the map in a stealth encounter only to have Joel die because something didn’t respond quickly enough.
Win some, lose some
If the controls were 100 percent instant and responsive, then the animation quality would suffer and the game would lose its lustrous sheen that makes it what it is, so I can’t fault Naughty Dog too much. The focus of the game is the narrative and characters, and sacrificing any ounce of this game’s incredible atmosphere would be a crime. It’s just a shame that the controls have to suffer ever so slightly because of it.
This is a series about picking apart what I believe to be games that are overhyped by major media outlets and mass opinion, so when I set out to write this article I expected to tear this game apart given the fact that it’s so universally loved. Then when I sat down to play it again before writing, I found that the game was much better than I remembered it being. So much better that I cannot say this is a bad game or even a mediocre game. The Last of Us has its flaws and I still think it’d work better as a movie, but it’s still a massive achievement in storytelling, and for that it deserves its clout.
Like my analysis of The Last of Us? Hate me for it? Let me know in the comments below!
All image credit to stoken