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The Last Of Us Second Opinion

Brad Gallaway's picture

The longest journey

The Last of Us Screenshot

HIGH the scenic view in Utah.

LOW getting turned around in the first dark sewer section.

WTF wooden pallets, ladders and generators.

It's rare that Dan and I have wildly differing opinions on a game, but when it comes to The Last Of Us, I couldn't disagree with him more. 

Weak writing? It's some of the best script work I've ever seen.

Questionable design decisions?  There are places to improve, but most of what's here is brilliant.

Main character Joel is one of the least-likable protagonists in gaming history? I can't conceive of how he's even in the running.

However, I'm not going to pick apart Dan's review line-by-line and explain how he goes so tragically wrong.  Instead, I think it's more valuable to explain why The Last Of Us if is one of the best experiences I've had all year.  In this case...  It's the details.

More than anything else, the relationship between Joel and Ellie is one of the most well-realized that's ever been.  I'm a critic who puts a lot of weight on writing and characterization, and it's not overstating the case to say that Naughty Dog knocked it out of the park and the ball is still flying.

The Last Of Us begins with one of the most powerful opening sequences in recent memory and takes the time to properly lay the emotional foundation upon which the game rests.  From this point, the developers create natural dialogue and situations which are relatable, despite being set in a post-apocalyptic landscape haunted by the fungal undead.

For example, when coming across a magazine or half-ruined billboard from before the catastrophe, the brief exchanges that follow make Joel, Ellie, and the rest of the cast feel like so much more than hollow avatars in contrived levels.  Some players might be frustrated by listening to a debate on the plausibility of ice cream trucks, or why old-world supermodels looked so skinny, but that's exactly the sort of richness that makes it succeed. Most titles fail to see value in slowing things down and taking a moment to let their characters actually be, but The Last Of Us understands it perfectly. 

That same sort of richness extends to the environments, which have no shortage of stories to tell.  In too many games, environments are little more than nonsensical architecture acting as storehouses for power-ups or places to slaughter enemies. In The Last Of Us, paying attention to where corpses lay, what they're surrounded by, and what scraps they left behind is like a running commentary that never stops bubbling beneath the surface.

The most memorable example was the posthumous tale of a lonely man hiding in a sewer, and how he unwittingly doomed a mother and her children. It would have been easy to ignore this lore on the rush to the next combat sequence, but taking the time to absorb the unspoken story (and the many, many other instances like it) imbue the adventure with thoughtful, meaningful atmosphere.

Not to harp on Dan, but it's things like this that make me disagree when he says that the game doesn't give players a chance to understand the world they've been tasked to save.  I found that The Last Of Us told me more than enough of what I needed to know and then showed me the rest...  The effort put towards bringing this dead world to life was spot-on.

As good the atmosphere and storytelling are, there's no doubt that The Last Of Us was built on a core of stealth and combat. It's gripping, visceral stuff and the developers went above and beyond in coming up with twists and variations, but I wanted more. I was disappointed that there were never any dialogue choices, and there were instances when I felt the game would have been better served by refraining from combat altogether.  Offering actions besides sneaking and shooting would have been marvelous-helping with chores when visiting Joel's brother or having an extended conversation in Utah would have given more to the narrative than yet another fight for life.

Though we largely disagree about the game as a whole, I find myself agreeing when Dan brings up odd problems like enemy gunmen almost never dropping ammunition, or the way Ellie is effectively invisible to enemies until a battle begins.  Neither of these things were huge issues, but they were strange choices in a game which otherwise takes such great pains to ensure everything makes sense and that it's easy to believe in the characters and their journey.

However, none of those odd things make a significant dent in the overall presentation, impact, and sophistication of The Last Of Us.  As someone who didn't care much for Naughty Dog's recent work, I never expected to become engrossed in the story of Joel and Ellie the way I did, but it grabbed from the start and kept me captivated until the very end.  It may not be a perfect game, but it does set a new standard against which all other games like it will be measured, and it's safe to say that most will be found lacking. Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 17 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completedNo time was spent in multiplayer modes.

Category Tags
Platform(s): PS3  
Developer(s): Naughty Dog  
Publisher: Sony  
Genre(s): Adventure/Explore  
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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Great piece of writing which

Great piece of writing which clearly focuses on what exactly makes The Last of Us so great - not only the admittedly perfect blend of combat, graphics and high production values but the storytelling that actually gives the meaning and makes the game a total package. I proudly call myself a hardcore gamer with many years. platforms and games under my belt but not once have I seen a story that is so engrossing, compelling and believable despite being set in a largely fictional world. Every once in a while along comes a game that tries to set new standards in storytelling (recently BioShock Infinite and Beyond: Two Souls come to mind) but as Brad rightfully notes, from now on all these games should be compared against The Last of Us and it is really safe to predict that the level of masterful story crafting by Naughty Dog won't be achieved for quite some time.

A slightly better story, but beyond that...

I've just gotten to The Last of Us recently, and while I respect Brad's appreciation for its story elements (and give Naughty Dog credit for their above average efforts in that department), I find it less than compelling as a gaming experience for a number of reasons I don't think the story overcomes and I don't think most critics, aside from Tom Chick in the sole less-than-steller review on metacritic, have emphasized nearly enough.

One problem, in my view, is the narrow and repetitive gameplay: almost all of the game consists of (A) sequences in which you follow a character through an environment while conversation unspools; (B) sequences in which you solve an extremely simple, one-step puzzle usually involving moving a ladder or board or box; and (B) shootouts which are signaled immediately by the structure of the environment and which play out in almost the same way as shootouts in the Uncharted series.

None of these three modes is especially appealing: the wandering allows one to soak in the beautiful environments and (as Brad mentions) to examine story elements that happen to be laying around but isn't actual gameplay, per say; the puzzles are so simplistic and repetitive, they fail to provide the sense of challenge and pleasure one gets from puzzles in, say, Zelda dungeons or (to pick a game more similar in style) the multi-part puzzles in in pre-reboot Tomb Raider games; and the shootouts are frustrating and repetitive (especially for those who've endured hours and hours of similar ones in the Uncharted games). And the extremely overt division of sequences into these three categories also distracts from immersion in the story, reminding us again and again that this is a game, and a very narrow and repetitive one.

Additionally, while the story is dark and serious and there are some nice details, I don't find the delivery of the plot as innovative as some seem to imply: games have been telling stories through diary entries and recordings left conveniently (unrealistically) laying around in environments since at least the first Resident Evil--and in that game, in Metroid Prime, and BioShock, those documents tell virtually the same kind of story they tell in The Last of Us: accounts of gradual breakdowns into chaos (usually involving science gone awry) and characters wondering what is happening to them/others as they become infected/mutations spread/etc.

Another issue, one that became increasingly apparent in the Uncharted series, is that Naughty Dog is so interested in making their games cinematic, and in ensuring the player is not even momentarily confused or uncertain or bored by providing constant guidance in multiple forms, their games rarely provide the experience of actual discovery (and thus the rewarding feeling of figuring out something complicated). As a player, I often feel incidental in their games. And I am absolutely not a hardcore/old school "games should be brutally difficult and frustrating because that's the way they used to be" person--if anything, I'm the opposite. But while I appreciate when games remove unnecessary frustration, if I don't feel like I'm given the chance to figure out anything more complicated than where to place a ladder (and even then an onscreen prompt tells me where), I also don't feel any sense of action or accomplishment.

If I remember correctly, in an interview in the last year or two, Jonathan Blow discussed his impatience with games that basically tell you what to do and then let you do it, arguing they deny the player any real opportunity for experimentation and discovery--while it's good to have a mainstream game push story and character somewhat further than others have, The Last of Us strikes me as exactly the type of game he was (rightly) criticizing. If, in addition to its story, it had more varied gameplay and richer puzzles and allowed for more actual discovery (think, for comparison, of the incredibly varied and creative gameplay elements in Resident Evil 4, a game which to some degree provides the model for many of this generation's cinematic adventures), I think The Last of Us could easily have been an amazing game. I think it's possible many critics and players are so pleased by somewhat richer story, they're overlooking or downplaying its limitations (even failures) as an actual game.

But of course I could be wrong, or perhaps it just didn't work for me.

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