It’s been months since the world has been given the opportunity to plunge into the creative, post-apocalyptic world of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and what a journey it was. Taking on the overused setting of the typical zombie-survival variety, The Last of Us managed to provide a surprisingly unique viewpoint along with a truly involving narrative. Combine that with 3.19 million units sold along with a 95 average based on 98 critical reviews via Metacritic and Naughty Dog’s latest title is not only easily considered a modern day classic but also a potential game of the year winner. However, having recently gone through the title myself, I think we could stand to realize its over-hyped and superhuman facade.
Your Opinion Is Wrong is a new feature on Leviathyn that focuses on a very specific item with a widely accepted belief, such as the first Mass Effect being the best of the series. One of our writers dissects the information surrounding the subject and explains why the popular opinion, to the individual, is wrong. Expect controversial, flame-worthy topics many will not agree on. Just remember: the purpose of this feature is to expand the limited horizon and present a different view on a clash-worthy topic. Oh, and expect spoilers within as well!
I understand, to many, including this very website, The Last of Us is the second-coming of Christ in videogame form. With remarkably memorable characters like Joel and Ellie, it’s impossible not to get wrapped up into the involving and rather interesting narrative Naughty Dog has wove. The post-apocalyptic environments are tense and as vividly atmospheric as the original BioShock’s Rapture was. Dialog and character exchanges feel human and combat scenarios contain enough options to keep just about anybody busy. Don’t get me wrong, The Last of Us was a fantastic game and an experience every single person with a Playstation 3 should try. However, as excellent as everything was that I described above, there’s plenty about The Last of Us that bring it crashing back down to earth.
But why now, Andrew? Why are you talking about The Last of Us now when the game released over three months ago? It’s a fair question and one I feel makes more sense to speak about now with the videogame holiday storm already upon us. This is the end of a generation, a fantastic and revolutionary one, and The Last of Us has made enough of a stir to be hailed a modern day classic; something to remember the Playstation 3 by. It’s also just about Game of the Year discussion time, making it all the more relevant to sound off. So, without procrastinating further, let’s do this thing.
There’s no question that The Last of Us has one of the best opening sequences in videogame history. While the clairvoyant might’ve got the feeling that Sarah’s death was imminent, the setup is still terrifyingly riveting. Witnessing the grisly scene leads you into believing the rest of the tale will be just as addictive and emotional, but nothing, perhaps with the exception of the ending, comes close to matching the intensity of the opening moments. Saying that, I appreciate the way the story is set up in The Last of Us. It’s a tale of two individuals who couldn’t care less for one another and, by story’s end, become inseparable.
In an interview via Venture Beat with Neil Druckmann (creator) and Bruce Straley (director), Druckmann states: “I feel like, as we get more sophisticated with our storytelling, the criticism has to become more sophisticated. We have to dissect these subtleties, instead of just pointing to these tropes and saying, “Well, you have a woman dying, so you have a game where the death of a woman fuel’s this man’s story.” The discussion has to go deeper than that.”
Indeed it does. I had little qualms with the story in The Last of Us. In fact, it does a great job at not holding onto typical allegory of a female figure becoming the sole reason why the protagonist must move forward. Yes, it does eventually still fall into the same unsophisticated trap much later with Ellie taking the place of Sarah, but there’s plenty of other underlying elements that add mystery and depth to the experience. Actually, as I bounced from encounter to encounter, I often audibly sighed when I knew it’d take quite some time before I was able to get to another major story-arc. That issue is easily attributed to the game’s underwhelming combat.
Most that I’ve spoken to vehemently defend The Last of Us’ combat, saying that it’s intentionally poor to represent the human experience in that Joel is not Nathan Drake. While I appreciate the subtleties of worse aim and a lower health threshold, the number one mistake Naughty Dog committed was not going all the way with this so called ‘human experience.’ Let’s jump back into Venture Beat’s interview for a moment:
Straley: “Taking what we’d learned from the Uncharted series, studying the craft of creating characters and paralleling that with the conflict in gameplay and conflict in stories, we can make you as a player feel more of what it’s truly like to exist inside of a world where every bullet counts and each step you take is a conscious choice that’s going to make or break your existence.”
One of the biggest draws to The Last of Us was its focus on survival. Without having seemingly endless amounts of ammunition and other items constantly thrown your way, braving scenarios you’d otherwise hope to pass by would be a constant. As the journey begins, it certainly works that way. Picking up your first and second weapons, you’re forced to scavenge and preserve what you have. A short time later, you’d swear what I just told you is a flat out lie. Your maximum ammo is what’s limited, giving players the idea that they’re essentially required to use what they have sparingly. Eight shots in the chamber? Better be careful with those things! That’s what I liked to tell myself before I knew better.
Unfortunately, it’s all a finely crafted facade.
After almost every encounter where I used bullets or a melee weapon, around the next corner would be a replacement weapon or a cask of ammo. Not exactly as survival-esque as you’d imagine. Quarter to Three also had some things to say about The Last of Us’ ‘human experience’ writing a great article talking about some of my gripes with the game:
“There is no risk of failure in a game like this. There is only the risk of having to play the same section yet again. In a survival game, that’s anathema. A survival game without meaningful death isn’t a survival game. It’s just a game. Because it ultimately doesn’t matter how many rag salvage fragments I have. All that matters is whether I can get through this part without taking so much damage this time around.”
They’re right; there is no meaningful death in The Last of Us. Upon painstakingly exploring every area of a certain building, you’ll usually only come out with a few trinkets to help craft the best stealth kill tool in the game – the molotov, but we’ll get to that later. Would a man protecting a child take these extra chances? Probably not, but this is a video game and having the choice to try to stealth or fight through should be equally compelling. Most of the time you die, get annoyed with how much time it took to accomplish nothing and just end up shooting everyone anyway to get to the next story section. That’s just a game.
I don’t know about the majority of you out there, but when I play a stealth game that overly emphasizes actual stealth I try to stick to the path of least horrific encounters. At worst, stealthing through in The Last of Us usually results in getting gobbled up by a Clicker you just didn’t see or at the very end of a section, setting off a horde of Runners who, in turn, set off a horde of Clickers; you do the math. Oftentimes I found it easier (and faster) to put my back to a wall, shoot all the dudes and/or set them on fire, grab ammo around the next corner and hope that the next area wouldn’t be so tedious. Coming from a man who appreciates the depth of the characters in The Last of Us and stealth for what it is, that hurts. It also doesn’t help when you hear this:
“Straley: Every fight is a life-or-death struggle. You can’t mow your opponents down. You have to use stealth or run away.”
When able, I like to get through sections without being seen, the rush is unparalleled. The scenes toward the end of the game where there are just too many enemies to deal with were my absolute favorite. There was no winning in this situation. Utilizing key environmental points and moving by silently was the best weapon here. Maybe I could take out a few enemies if the conditions were right, but I couldn’t risk attracting more attention to myself and, even though my firepower was considerable, the enemies around me could deal with it. It’s at this point I realized that this was how The Last of Us should have been all along and to what Mr. Straley was referring to.
Straley: “We wanted to create a lack – a lack of supplies, a lack of everything else. You’re not building yourself into a tank.”
But that’s what happened anyway. Joel got to the point where he’s carrying so many weapons, it’d embarrass the likes of any Quake game. You’re not a tank in the sense that you can absorb unseemly amounts of bullets, but you are a walking armory of which you’ll be hard pressed to run dry… ever. If Naughty Dog wanted us to feel the pressure of being stalked, of being alone against an enemy we can’t understand, they could have taken some pointers from the admittedly worse I Am Alive. Enemies you encounter in that game don’t know how many bullets you have or your intentions. It’s amazing to see some of the things you can do with a little mental ingenuity. The Last of Us strangely bypasses these features and goes for a more dumbed-down, conventional shooter role; a role that I believe would bring it down to an average title if it weren’t for the characters and narrative.
So back to the secret weapon of the game – molotovs. After alighting someone in glorious alcoholic fire, you’d imagine the screams and thrashing about would generate concern or at least curiousness from the man or thing standing directly next to them, right? Wrong. For whatever reason, enemies largely ignore what’s happening to their comrades hit by the stuff and go about their business. I can’t tell you how many times I lowered the enemy count from five to two or three from well placed molotovs and this was on the standard, normal difficulty. Go back and try it out, it’s amazing.
This is probably a good time to talk about the AI. Well, why don’t I let Mr. Straley say the first word:
“Straley: Our AI is so dynamic. They respond to distractions. They regroup. They search the area and split up the environment in very intelligent ways. Most stealth games, it’s a spline, a patrol path. This is much more dynamic than that. When you have a very convoluted environment like the interior of the hotel space — multiple rooms, high occlusion levels — I don’t know the timing of what a guy is going to do. Is he going to come out of the hallway and bust me or not? I couldn’t strategize.”
The AI is not that good. Funny enough, one of the biggest blunders for the AI in the Last of Us came at the hands of the beloved Ellie. During the scene where Joel and Ellie are moving about the town rigged with explosive traps, I found myself approaching a waist-high trip-wire that triggered Joel to tell Ellie to duck underneath. Progressing well past the point where I assumed she made it, I moved forward a few more feet when, to my horror, I hear the explosives go off. Immediately I assume a Runner or other heathen found his way to a very unpretty grave, but as I turned around all I saw was Ellie, standing there with a goofy grin on her face. Nice job, little one.
Besides that, the AI doesn’t do anything dramatic to make you gush with joy. Jacob Minkoff, the lead designer on The Last of Us had an interview with Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker and explained the whole ‘wide-linear’ system the game uses and how each life in the game matters. As a matter of fact, Mr. Straley also sounds off on the same subject:
“Straley: Surviving sometimes means killing a human, which isn’t a pleasant act.”
Well if that was the case, then why did Naughty Dog hand us a small arms trove of weapons to carry? Why did they give us a flamethrower and assault rifle to mow down enemies that they very specifically stated earlier on, you just can’t do? After finishing the game, my statistics rang up a kill count of just about 600 people. 600. For a game to attempt to dig into your emotional cavity in hopes of thwarting that killing gene that’s taken so many of us videogamers hostage, this was a puerile attempt.
I didn’t care about any of the hundreds of dudes who rushed me to rape, murder and pilfer me and mine. This isn’t Spec Ops: The Line, who did it best. Why would I care? With thousands of rounds of ammo and explosives at my beck and call, it’s almost as if they’re counting on you to give in to those primal instincts. It’s a weak design plan for such an outstanding depth chart of characters and story and we haven’t even talked about the plank and ladder puzzles. Actually, let’s just not do that.
Personally, it feels to me that Naughty Dog gave into pressure from some outside source to make the game easier on every level. By upping the count of every form of ammunition and equipment in their own stealthy way and having no repercussions for kicking the bucket, the gameplay became more of a chore than a good time, which greatly upsets me. I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again, this is a great story setback by a plethora of gameplay mishaps. Right now, instead of this, we should be talking about the controversial ending and how Joel is a selfish monster. Druckman says it himself:
Druckmann: “Well, you’re a parent. We’ve talked to people who’ve finished the game. A lot of articles refer to Joel as a monster at the end – “What does it feel like to play a monster?” Just as I don’t feel that Marlene is a monster for wanting to kill a kid to save mankind, I don’t view Joel as a monster either. How can you ask him to do that? You can argue that maybe he goes too far. There’s a conversation to be had. But for him, well, you can survive. He’s survived for a year in this world. What is it worth saving mankind if he has to go through hell again?”
The Last of Us was good, but that’s where it stays, clearly above average; no more, no less. If Naughty Dog spent more time tending to the gameplay like it’s narrative, we’d be having a very different discussion.