Great story, atmosphere, and visuals marred by some bad gameplay
I don’t think that Naughty Dog has put out a good game since Jak 3. Jak X was all right, if unfair. The Uncharted games are all right at best. They’re chock full of bullet sponge enemies that don’t have much in the way of reaction to being shot, weak-sounding and feeling guns, supernatural segments toward the end that are somehow way worse than everything that has come before, and “platforming” that consists of “shimmy along this ledge in the exact pattern we’ve laid out”.
With that noted, The Last of Us is absolutely worth playing. I didn’t give it four stars out of guilt for being harsh on Uncharted (there’s no guilt there). But it’s not worth playing because of its gameplay. I’ll talk about the good parts in a minute, so put your torches and pitchforks away for now. The sections of the game where you sneak past the infected are, hands-down, the absolute worst parts of the game. And the worst kind of infected sections are the ones where they mix Runners, recently infected who can still see, with Clickers, infected who can’t see due to fungus but can instantly kill you. If it were better designed, these encounters could have been some of the tensest parts of the game. Instead, as soon as you’re spotted, Runners surround you and if they don’t kill you, then the Clickers will get to you with their instant kill. There is a way to counter the Clickers, but it’s in the form of an upgrade that costs 75… whatever currency the game uses for upgrading. It also only works if you have a shiv in your inventory. Shivs are easy to craft and very common, but you can only hold three of them at a time. Encounters that don’t mix instant kill enemies with enemies that can see tend to be far better in that they are merely slow-moving. Tense for the first few hours of the game, but by the end you realize that all you have to do is not touch them, pray that your AI partner doesn’t touch them, and push the analog stick halfway to creep to the other side of the room. These segments take up large portions of the game and it just feels like Naughty Dog ran out of ideas by the four or five hour mark of a twelve to fifteen hour game.
Encounters with humans tend to be a lot more dynamic and interesting. Fortunately, these make up at least half of the game, likely more. There is an element of “humans are the real bastards” in this story; the infected are a sort of extremely lethal pest at this point. Naughty Dog still seems way too dependent on the player being able to get headshots very often, which isn’t easy when combined with Naughty Dog’s not-great aiming code and the PS3’s not-great analog sticks. However, the scarcity of resources means you’re not going to want to take shots unless you know for sure you can hit someone in the head anyway, which conveniently hides the issue. At least enemies stumble or reel backwards when hit somewhere other than the cranium. The game tracks accuracy and mine hovered around seventy percent for most of the game largely because I only fired when necessary. Stealth, distractions, smoke bombs, grenades, and the sickening melee kills play into a lot of the combat. It still feels like Naughty Dog dragged things on for too long, though. By three quarters of the way through the game, I could look at a room and tell you when I was going to be attacked, where from, and where I should hide, and I could take a pretty good guess at which pattern the enemies were going to follow. I played through most of the game on Hard, and fighting human enemies was fun until about the time I got to winter. Had the game had more ideas or shaved a few hours off the overly-long summer section of the game, I might have considered a five star rating. As it stands, by the end I was so tired of doing the same things over and over in the gameplay that I just switched to easy for the final batch of human enemies. Yeah, call me weak. Whatever. I would have infinitely preferred a cutscene…
…which leads me into the positive points for this game. I have played few video games with stories as well-done as this one’s. As far as standing up to books and movies, I doubt that a literature professor would be impressed but if a game was ever needed to show that game stories can stand up to movies, then this is it. You might wonder why this even needs to be a game when a major reason for playing it is in the cutscenes, and that’s a valid thing to say. This story could have easily been a TV miniseries and it would have been no less impactful. There is definitely something to be said for players themselves wandering into a room and seeing a story laid out in front of them, with a body and notes and clear signs that they had held-out in a locked room, hoping to survive. There’s also something to be said for the player themselves bashing some bandit’s head in with a rusty piece of pipe, but I would say that such a sight is more impactful when you see a character you thought was heroic do something like that. Here, in video games, it’s nasty but… it’s a video game. I was getting past a course of enemies using the tools at my disposal, not brutally murdering my fellow man in gruesome ways. It simply doesn’t have the same impact when you understand that you’re playing a game. It also holds a lot less impact when “brutally murdering your fellow man” means “defending yourself and a young girl with the only things you have”.
But if you’re not interested in the post-apocalypse (and you should be interested in this post-apocalypse), then you might be interested in some of the best scenery gorn I’ve ever come across. Take it from a PC gamer – this game is beautiful to just take in, from top to bottom. Roots and plants have begun to re-take the parts of cities that aren’t inhabited anymore. In an early part of the game, a skyscraper leans against another and you’re generally in high places, getting a bird’s eye view of a desolate and abandoned Boston. Later you find yourself in city streets, with a close-up view of the destruction. And later you’re treated to an even larger variety of environments well-worth seeing. Visually, The Last of Us is quite easily one of the most impressive games of this generation, perhaps the most impressive console-only game. And even more impressive than that, it rarely has performance problems, sticking to thirty frames per second for most of the experience and only dropping occasionally, never for long.
The roughest thing that can be said about The Last of Us is that it has little business being a game. Its roughest parts are right in the middle of gameplay, and frankly I would probably be a little happier with The Last of Us if it were a TV miniseries. As it stands, we’ve got a strikingly gorgeous PS3 game with a story well-worth seeing and hearing for yourself, and enough of the game is actually fun that the gameplay isn’t a hindrance to either of these things.