Whenever a successful video game launches the positive review scores are inevitably followed by attack pieces tearing it down explaining why the reviewers got it wrong, the game is overhyped, and so on. This is one of “those” articles; I’m not just trying to be a contrarian, but it’s pretty squarely not a 10/10, Game of the Year, best game of this generation title.
To understand why the game is not “all that” you have to divide it into two pieces: the narrative, which the player does not control, and the game, in which the player takes action and makes decisions.
In The Last of Us, the narrative is quite good. It may be drawing a little too heavily on book and film sources like Children of Men, The Road (which itself is derivative of Lone Wolf and Cub), and I Am Legend. I also felt dashes of Leon: The Professional while playing as well, particularly the end levels set in the hospital.
It is also the latest of “escort the girl” type games which became critically acclaimed with titles like Ico and Resident Evil 4, along with more overlooked titles like the very good, but little played Enslaved. This year in particular, escort titles seem to have branched out into maudlin “Dad Simulators” in the form of The Walking Dead, Bioshock Infinite and now, The Last of Us.
The gameplay on The Last of Us, though, is what drags the narrative down. There really isn’t much game here. What playing, the player does seems to purely serve as bridges between cinematic cut scenes or in-engine cut-scenes. If you were to skip ahead every time control is taken from the player and ignore all the dialog, what you’re left with is the following experience:
Player must get the girl from point A to point B. When you arrive at point B, you find it was all a mistake, now you have to get to point C. Get to point C? We’re sorry, your princess is in another castle, please proceed to point D.
The way you progress from point A to B to C to D is the exact same each and every time:
1) Fight paramilitary guys with guns.
2) Fight infected mushroom zombies.
If you just did step 1 then congratulations, step 2 is coming right up. Just did step 2? Okay, we’ll give you a breather while you scrounge for supplies, then go back to step 1. The human enemies and the infected enemies don’t really have much variation. Among the humans there are firebug types who throw Molotov cocktails at you, that requires slightly more care than the usual enemies. The zombies have a clicker variant who hunt by sound, but then if you use the skill tree to max out Joel’s hearing early on as I did, you can pretty much do the same thing. A third type of zombie, the bloater, is armored and pretty tough the first time you encounter one. But they end up being pretty easily disposed of with explosives and fire.
Naughty Dog did mix it up a little bit by adding two other level variations:
1) In the dark, with 60% of your screen blacked out, 40% lit by a magic flashlight which never needs batteries, just a good shake every now and then.
2) Above ground, in the daylight. Scenes with gorgeous trees, foliage and water.
Again, just like flipping between military and fungi, these two levels flip as well. Just fight a bunch of guys with guns above ground during the daylight? Congratulations, your next level will be fighting infected, underground, in the dark. Both types of levels are beautifully designed, and with rare exceptions it’s impossible to get lost with more subtle variants of neon yellow arrows pointing “go this way” (a piece of cloth flapping over by a culvert to catch your eye, perhaps).
There are no Resident Evil style puzzles in the game to make you think. The hardest question I asked myself while playing was “Well, how do I get up there?” Most of which can be answered by rolling around convenient trash cans, carts and (in one case) a piano. Actually, that’s not true. The hardest question I asked myself was when I was roughly halfway through the game, I stopped and asked the Internet “So… when does the game actually get good?”
Again, you have to separate what you’re doing from what you’re watching. What I was watching, the narrative, was emotional, engaging and well developed. What I was doing was monotonous busy work until the next cut scene. Turn on the flashlight, search for loot, listen for danger, sneak up on an enemy, choke them out or stab them, shove this thing over here, get to the next level.
It never feels as though I’m ever doing anything interesting in the game, and that defeats the whole point of a “game”, it’s supposed to be entertaining. The movies are entertaining, which is why you end up with an option to just play all of them beginning to end. The game itself, is not. I found myself walking away in frustration the next time I was presented with a distant landmark I needed to reach or at the next “Surprise! It’s dark! Turn on your flashlight!” level.
The Last of Us is a unique game where someone watching you play might actually have a better experience than the gamer actually playing. That’s a shame and it removes this title from Game of the Year contention.