With Naughty Dog’s creation finally off the shelves and in our homes, Ben and I couldn’t wait to dig in. Once the end credits had finally rolled for both of us, we sat down to commit our thoughts to a page.
Colin: From the makers of Crash Team Racing comes the best survival game in a long, long time. Uh, what? With The Last of Us, Naughty Dog has made a post-apocalyptic world well worth experiencing, while still capturing that sense of desperation and struggle that games like Fallout and Left 4 Dead don’t. The game is certainly not without its flaws, and I didn’t find myself adoring it the way so much of the internet did, but it’s a damn fine game, well crafted and fascinating to experience.
Ben: Despite the glowing previews and whirlwind buzz, I went into The Last of Us with low expectations. Sure, Uncharted is a fantastic series, but it never gave me the sense that Naughty Dog were capable of the subtlety needed to make this bleak, zombie-infested future truly shine. While the typical Nathan Drake bombast manages to seep through the cracks, the level of restraint shown is commendable, and sells the story of Joel and Ellie with a deftness that caught me by surprise. I have serious qualms, but I feel strongly about the parts I didn’t like because the rest of it won me over.
Colin: It is the kind of game that inspires passion, isn’t it? At times, the game feels too… well, game-y, for lack of a better word. It forgets logic in its pursuit of interesting combat encounters, mildly subverting its own plot and lore to try to put you in a tight spot. There are even a few boss fights, which… well, I don’t know about you, but any kind of boss fight just screams video game to me. Despite some questionable logic, though, what it does well is just so compelling and interesting that you find yourself forgiving or excusing the bits of tedium.
The game is amazing in a traditional sense- tight design, beautiful graphics, stunning animations, and such, but that’s not really what captures you. It’s strange to say it about a triple A game, but it’s the writing, the characters, and the atmosphere that keep you. It’s that distinctly non-big budget attitude that everything doesn’t have to be explosions, assault rifles, and armies. Well… for most of the game, anyway.
Ben: The writing proves that well-worn ideas can still resonate with the audience if the execution is just right.
Colin: (Nods) Completely agree.
Ben: I’ve digested countless stories about ragtag survivors overcoming the odds and fighting back the zombie hordes, so I could instinctively tell when certain plot beats would happen and how they would play out. At a certain point, it’s almost unavoidable, but Naughty Dog mitigated most of my clairvoyance by making their humans… human. Even the stereotypical “jerk” of the bunch went through a rough moment where his carefully pruned stone exterior crumbled, and it was heartbreaking to witness. Their attempts to humanize your bandit assailants aren’t nearly as successful, but it was an appreciated baby step away from the typical “human target” degradation in most action games.
Colin: But it was a step in the wrong direction! I appreciate an effort to defy tradition, because certainly that’s a tradition worth defying, but they mangle it to such a degree that it’s practically a joke! It feels like a common story when talking about the brave steps that The Last of Us takes- it tries something different, and interesting, and fumbles the ball. To what extent it fumbles varies, but it consistently underdelivers on interesting ideas. Like resource scarcity, for instance. You have steel pipes that break after being used a few times, you make me craft my own med kits from rags and rubbing alcohol, but these guns I’m finding are in pristine condition and never jam, break, or in any way malfunction when the last gun factory closed more than twenty years ago?
The crafting is underutilized in other ways, too. I constantly ran out of arrows for my bow, even though it wasn’t my favorite weapon. An arrow, though, is just a few feathers, a stick, and a rock (or piece of metal) for an arrowhead. Why exactly couldn’t I craft my own arrows? Trust me, anyone who can make a nail bomb from scrap can make some arrows. It just seems mechanically half baked in a lot of ways.
Ben: The game was at its weakest when Naughty Dog hewed too close to the “game-y” formula. In a story that takes 12-20 hours to finish, why am I pressured to find all the Firefly amulets, or read every journal I come across? The bits of story gleaned a conversation with Ellie or the last scribblings of a child should be enough of a reward on their own; tying achievements and unlock points to these moments turns them into chores, and ruins what could have felt organic. Instead of learning about the world that came before, I felt like I was checking boxes, searching for the next triangle prompt in the hopes of building my trophy collection.
Even worse were the moments when Uncharted peeked its head around the corner and forced me into a “setpiece action” moment. After they spent hours hammering the scarcity and vulnerability of the world into our noggins, Naughty Dog decided it would be cool to force us into sequences where we’re given unlimited ammunition and the enemies are reduced to targets in a shooting gallery. I was all caught up in this universe until the developers smacked me in the back of the head and reminded me that I was, indeed, playing a video game. Thanks for spoiling the mood, guys.
Colin: I do want to take a moment to specifically mention the Winter part of the game. The game is divided into four seasons- you start in Summer, then progress to Fall, Winter, and finally Spring. Spring is drawn out and kind of crappy- at that point, the game is clearly padding everything you do in the most unnecessary way. But Winter is probably the most effective part of the whole game. Beyond the fact that I’m a sucker for snow effects, it has some really interesting character switching, amazing cat-and-mouse tension with the bandits, and really shows you how much Joel and Ellie have come to care about each other.
Winter also sees the game subvert ludonarrative dissonance- when one of the duo is seriously injured, the game does not just play it for sympathy, and then shrug it off in a minute or two. It has serious, lasting effect on the game. If only Tomb Raider had been half as brave.
Ben: The stealth was a highlight for me. With very minimal cues and bandits that are generally smarter than the average bear, it was rewarding to elude and deceive them. One road in particular had a large pack of goons picking it clean; I stayed absolutely silent and let them pass while narrowly avoiding detection. In a game where jaw-ripping, eye-gouging and melon-bursting are common, horrific sights, it felt nice to halt the cycle of violence for a moment.
Colin: The only bit of violence that really got me cringing is when those fat zombies rip your face apart. That shit is gnarly. Other than that… well, I didn’t really pass up any opportunity to hurt people. I’m a pretty vengeful player, I suppose. I did think it was a little ridiculous how easy it was to manipulate the bandit AI with bottles. Even when they were staring straight at the cover you were behind, and saw the bottle fly out from behind it, they would turn and go investigate the spot where the bottle hit. Combine that with the fact that there were bottles every two feet in the game, and I had ample opportunity to get my strangle on.
Ben: For me, the AI sometimes went sideways when they went into high alert. Some bandits were intelligent enough to distract and flank me, but others panicked and started running in circles. One bandit even ran in place and slowly spun around, as if he were the hyperactive fitness coach in Burn After Reading!
Colin: I know what you mean. I had some odd AI in stealth mode, too- at one point, I managed to choke out a room with four guys in it, none of them reacting to the noisy death of a friend some ten yards away. It was a little jarring.
I guess ultimately my feelings on The Last of Us are that it’s a perfect way to close out the PS3. It’s a new IP that, by my interpretation of the ending, probably won’t get a sequel. It tries a lot of interesting things, and though it doesn’t really nail many of them, it shows us as we go into a new console cycle how much uncharted (har har) territory there still is in gameplay system. It’s an example of how old, tried-and-true ideas can still feel interesting and enjoyable when they’re expertly done. It feels, honestly, like a next gen title- not that it’s a technical marvel, or that it’s so out there, it just feels like it’s a step above the tired triple A fair that this cycle has fallen into. I don’t think I’ll end up replaying it, but I’m really glad I grabbed it (even at sixty bucks).
Ben: Though some of the story missteps are rather serious, it feels refreshing to be in a place where we can critique a game on that level. We’re moving beyond handing out brownie points for looking nice or playing well, and can finally say “It’s nice that game isn’t mechanically on fire, but is it more than a pretty shooting gallery?” Thankfully, there IS more to The Last of Us, and it raises the bar for what’s acceptable in a big-budget game. It isn’t the Citizen Kane of games (an awful comparison in the first place), but it’s hard not to feel like we’ve started on a promising path.