The Last of Us: Imperfections in Perceived Perfection / 27th of August 2014
For the entirety of the last console generation I only ever owned an Xbox 360, and so I’d never had the opportunity to play The Last of Us, not properly anyway. Sure I’d seen gameplay footage, read reviews and had a quick shot at a friend’s house, but somehow that didn’t feel like the appropriate way to experience on one of, if not the most critically acclaimed games of the past five years. So when Naughty Dog released The Last of Us Remastered earlier this month on PlayStation 4, it gave me the perfect excuse to finally pick myself up a next-gen console and give it a try. Now I could sit down, give the game my undivided attention over the course of the weekend and find out if it really is as good as everyone says it is.
And after doing so the only conclusion I keep coming to is no, it’s not. Don’t get me wrong, The Last of Us is a very good game, but it’s not one of the greatest games ever made. In fact I’m not sure it’s even one of the greatest games of the last generation. The problem that I have is that although the story is brilliantly told, with the writing being one of the best examples of narrative in all of videogames, the actual ‘game’ part of The Last of Us doesn’t reach that same standard. The storyline’s what kept me playing until the end, but once it had ended and those credits rolled, I didn’t want for more game, I was done.
That may sound a little harsh, and I’m sure some of you may be thinking I’m just an Xbox fan boy who doesn’t get it. But honestly I just can’t get past the fact that the gameplay is what holds The Last of Us back, it’s something that, for a game to be considered one of the best games ever made, can’t be overlooked. I’ve no allegiance to Microsoft, no agenda against Sony, I’ve always picked my consoles based on whatever platform has the best games - and in recent years, what has the best online infrastructure - and feel fully justified on my decision to buy an Xbox 360 over a PlayStation 3. Had The Last of Us been released on Microsoft’s platform, I’d still be saying this.
So what is it specifically about the gameplay that bothers me? The first thing I’d have to pick The Last of Us up on is the decidedly poor A.I. of both the various companions you’ll encounter throughout the game, and the enemies you’re up against. If you’ve already played through the game you’ll know that the vast majority of the time you’ll be controlling Joel, and whilst the likes of Tess, Ellie and Bill accompany you at different points, they’re simply along for the ride and aren’t intended to affect how you play the game. Now that would be fine if it worked, unfortunately as you sneak, run and fight your way through the game, these A.I controlled NPCs can often interfere with what you’re trying to do and occasionally force you to re-load sections. Several times whilst sneaking around corners, trying to simply avoid the infected, an NPC would hug the wall I’m taking cover against and impede my movement at a crucial moment. As a result I’d end up getting spotted and within seconds be forced to fend off an angry horde, and again the NPCs manage to get in the way. Instead of picking their own particular enemy from the many available, they’re drawn to the one I’m swinging a bat at, pushing them out of range of my swing, leaving me at best to look like an angry drunk, and at worst with a big hole in the side of my neck.
Meanwhile outside of combat, whilst you’re sneaking around NPCs are forever running right in front of enemies yet this doesn’t trigger the alarm - yes it’s preferable to having them constantly alerting guards - but it’s still worth of mentioning how this draws you out of the experience. It’s an incidental action which has no direct impact upon play, but it does force a little thought into your brain; Joel didn’t sneak neatly by that pack of hunters, I just outsmarted some A.I. Now I’m not saying I detach myself from reality and ‘become Joel’ when playing, but when the game actively reminds you it is just a game, especially in something so narratively focussed, it’s a problem. In The Last of Us the developers are intending to make the player feel like they’re constantly on edge, and that one slip up could be fatal, or at the very least leave players desperately short on supplies. The A.I. hampers this intention, and though I concede the NPCs have to be there for the narrative to work, their poor implementation damages what the developers are trying to achieve. Batman: Arkham Asylum was exceptional at creating that sense of ‘being Batman’, an absolute badass capable of overcoming any obstacle so long as you used the tools at your disposal, and unlike The Last of Us it maintained its illusion throughout the entire game.
Further problems exist with the enemy A.I. when players opt to ramp up the games difficulty setting. Naughty Dog’s answer to difficulty in A.I is nothing but lazy programming as far as I can tell. It’s something that I know many players won’t be irked by, if you’re more concerned with the story The Last of Us wants to tell then great, this particular grievance will have no bearing on your enjoyment of the game. But personally I prefer to play on the higher difficulty setting, I feel it adds something to the game when supplies become scarce, headshots become critical and your character becomes less of a bullet sponge.
Tweaks to gameplay such as these are perfect of increasing the difficulty, but what I don’t appreciate is enemies who’re able to constantly hone in on my hiding spot no matter where I go. On higher difficulties stealth becomes more of a necessity than an optional play-style, and as I attempted to avoid large groups of patrolling guards they would somehow manage to gravitate to whatever section of the area I was in at that moment. I’d start out in the south-west corner for example, and carefully make my way through the guards to, say the north-west corner, I’d then watch - or listen - in amazement as every guard made his way over to where I was now hiding as if controlled by some hive mind. Now you may just think the guards are checking each area bit by bit, but that’s not the case. Infected enemies appear to stick to pre-determined patrol routes, but hunters and other armed opponents just hang around the player like a bad smell. This makes the difficulty feel artificial and cheapens the experience. It’s not unusual for developers to cut corners when creating various difficulty levels, and it’s partly why I’m in favour of games only having one difficulty mode, i.e. the one that gives a true representation of how the game is meant to be played. Halo: Combat Evolved was frankly average, until the difficulty was ramped up and enemies began to try and outsmart players, and for any game vying for a place in videogame history - as many consider The Last of Us to be - creating an authentic challenge isn’t something that should be overlooked.
Outside of problems with the A.I. things generally fare a lot smoother, especially in this new remastered edition. However there is a rather strange design choice that occurs around two thirds of the way through the game, specifically at the point in which you take control of Ellie. As Joel lies unconscious from an earlier injury the player will adopt the role of Ellie in the interim. At first it seems perfectly natural as you hunt for dinner and even get into a tense battle with a horde of infected, it’s all rather well done until you begin a stealth section evading hunters. It’s at this point that things start to fall apart from a gameplay perspective. As Joel, when you need to quietly take down a patrolling guard you’ve got the option to either slowly strangle said guard, leaving you exposed for a few seconds, or to use a shiv and quickly dispatch them. The shiv’s definitely the safest option but it’s limited in uses and making more of them requires valuable supplies. It’s a nice trade off that works well for most of the game, but one which falls apart when playing as Ellie. Armed with a butterfly knife she can easily eliminate any patrolling guard quickly, quietly and without as much risk as the player is used to. The effect being that the section of gameplay feels out of place when compared the majority of the game.
This begs the question, why does Joel, the adult and experienced survivor feel less proficient at surviving than the fourteen year old girl he’s supposed to be protecting? I understand that there’s little incentive for the player to scrounge supplies as Ellie if you’re only controlling her temporarily, and so the developers gave her a weapon that doesn’t deteriorate. But surely there was a better way to handle this particular problem? A swift stab to the thigh, or inside of the knee in order to temporarily incapacitate a guard would have been more appropriate. Instead Ellie is able to drop enemies left, right and centre, and feels overpowered after hours of struggling as Joel. These sections playing as Ellie are relatively brief by comparison, nevertheless this kind of imbalance jolts you out of proceedings, hindering the overall experience. Imagine playing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, being given temporary control of Princess Farah and discovering she can jump twice as far as the Prince. You wouldn’t want go back to playing as the Prince, and when you did you would feel decidedly less amazing jumping from wall to wall. The same principle applies to The Last of Us and during the final stages of the game the frustration of slow takedowns in heavily populated areas can be all the more apparent when you remember your brief step into Ellie’s shoes.
Despite the game’s weak A.I. and a short gameplay section at odds with the rest of the game, The Last of Us is still a very impressive game, and if you’ve still not had the chance to play it I’d suggest you right that wrong at the next available opportunity. The game is still exceptionally good looking, especially running on the PS4, and there’s currently very few games out there that can surpass its visuals. The combat, without the cumbersome A.I. feels punchy and gives a great sensation of feedback both in melee and ranged combat. The only other possible gripe I can see would be the simplistic puzzle sections, however I feel to do so would be pointless. They’re not intended to be difficult, they’re merely there to provide a nice break in the action when there’s no place for a cut-scene.
The Last of Us is a very, very good game, and easily the best thing Naughty Dog have ever developed, but it’s not perfect. Those who say it is may, for my money, be focussing too strongly on the storyline and as a result are forgiving the games flaws. There have been better games over the course of the past generation, and there will be more in the next, what remains to be seen however is if the calibre of storytelling can be surpassed. I mentioned at the outset that the script is just about as good as videogames have ever managed to get, and it’s further reinforced by some excellent voice work from the entire cast and Ashley Johnson, the voice of Ellie, in particular. Though this does beg the question, what is the point in the rumoured The Last of Us movie adaptation when we’ve got the game?