Amazing story with average gameplay.
You might have heard that The Last of Us is the Citizen Kane of video games. You might have laughed at that poor analogy that was surely dreamt up as a result of some fever dream induced by the crushing weight of meeting a deadline with a 20 hour single player campaign on your hands. The fact of the matter is that Last of Us IS a really great game. The difference we have to observe is that while it does leaps and bounds for narrative and storytelling, the gameplay.. not so much.
Considering that the story is your main drive and the quintessence of the Last of Us, I’ll keep any details to a minimum as it’s a crime to deprive the player of literally even the most insignificant of revelations in this title. You play as Joel, a now smuggler and veteran survivor of a mysterious epidemic that has the nasty habit of turning regular folk into tulip headed murdering psychopaths. Through a series of cascading events that unfold during the early tutorial stages of the game you end up with the task of smuggling a young girl named Ellie from the east to west coast of the now largely ruined and desolate America. The story you experience through the journey of these two characters that could not be any more different from one another is a crowning achievement for video game storytelling. Joel is a tired, aging cynic, shaped by a life of hardship and emotional baggage that keep him from easily opening up and trusting anyone. He couldn’t be a better foil for the young, optimistic and very talkative Ellie that hasn’t yet experienced the crushing reality of the ruined world she lives in, as it’s the only one she’s ever known. Through the season themed acts of the game you will come to know each of them better, and in turn experience their relationship slowly evolve from a simple job of escorting a piece of cargo across the states to genuine emotion and caring that can rival the best of cinema in terms of emotionally engaging the player. Seeing Joel and Ellie build their relationship from the ground up takes center stage over anything else in the game, and is absolutely mesmerizing.
But this is a game after all and at some point we have to actually play it to experience all the amazing story beats it has to offer. The Last of Us is basically stealth action intermixed with light traversal puzzles. You will journey through America, much of which lies in ruin on both a moral and quite literal level and as such Joel and Ellie will come to traverse through a-many abandoned buildings and generally unpleasant, dark and eerie locals. As a departure from their Uncharted series, Last of Us treats itself a lot more realistically and Joel is certainly no Nathan Drake. You won't be making daring leaps across bottomless chasms or scaling impossibly steep inclines by way of cleverly implemented handholds. Quite often you’ll have to find ladders or objects to put up to a wall before you can climb up and over, actions that lend themselves to a lot of situations requiring Ellie’s help to progress forward. None of these traversal puzzles are especially demanding, usually requiring you to push some objects around or find a ladder. Despite the openness of the areas you will visit, Naughty Dog has expertly crafted them in such a way as to clue the player in on what direction they should be heading without the need of glowing checkpoints. As you explore the wasteland of America there will also be ample opportunity for ambient conversations between Joel and Ellie that help to flesh out the world and characters. These button prompted non-sequiturs are especially interesting as Ellie will usually inquire about things that are quite natural for both Joel and the player, but completely alien to her as she has only ever known the world as it is and not as it once was - things like swings being completely foreign to her.
During your travels you’ll come across many areas which you can optionally scavenge for materials in order to fuel the significant crafting mechanic. At any point, during combat or in the middle of a stealth segment, Joel can take off his backpack and in real time craft a variety of items from a list of recipes you naturally acquire along the way. Medkits, shivs, explosives or molotovs can all be made on the fly granted you have the required materials. Crafting quickly becomes a minigame of it’s own, as a molotov might oftentimes turn the tide of battle to your favor, but since it uses the same ingredients as a medkit you’d be sacrificing the ability to heal later on should the engagement go awry - and since health does not naturally regenerate, medkit materials are a prime commodity. Adding to the realism is the fact that as mentioned, crafting happens in real time meaning the game does not pause while Joel cobbles together a few stones and powder to make a flash bomb. You have to be careful when you choose to craft and doing so in the middle of combat can be quite an adrenaline rush. In addition to crafting usable items you also pick up materials for upgrading your various weapons at workbenches and pills that upgrade Joels core abilities such as health or crafting speed.
Which brings us to the other 50% of the game. Combat in the Last of Us doesn’t feel bad but it doesn’t necessarily feel great either. Joel controls a bit sluggish but not to the point of being detrimental to gameplay. Likewise your aim starts out wobbly but not enough that you can't aim properly. Guns feel like they pack a solid punch but the damage your adversaries sustain from them is often inconsistent. Hand-to-hand and melee combat is present, but boils down to simply mashing one button without rhyme or reason. Stealth is your prime mode of traversal but isn't expanded enough beyond the bare basics of taking out hostiles via sneaking behind them for a silent takedown. Everything about the combat seems to be headed in the right direction, but falls slightly short of the mark.
Most encounters can be approached by stealth or full out combat. Your primary tool for stealth maneuvers is a crouch which you can toggle into, rendering Joel almost completely silent to most enemies. While crouched you skitter about the area, staying out of sight behind perfectly measured waist high cover and sneaking up behind opponents to initiate silent takedowns. Although you can’t drag bodies around it’s not a necessity as human adversaries will generally not care enough about the death of their comrades to engage in any sort of heightened alert mode, and infected simply don’t care. To help you with all this sneaking, Joel can trigger a special hearing mode which paints the world black and white, outlining anyone moving or making sound with a bright white silhouette perceptible through walls granted they are in range of your hearing. This sort of boils down the exploration of any new area to immediately dropping into a crouch and intermittently popping into your hearing mode to scout out your surroundings. Sneaking by infected and human opponents differs greatly in your approach. While humans are fairly straightforward to deal with, Infected usually come in big packs and contain within them the aptly named Clickers - infected whose condition has gone on for so long that the fungal mutation has wildly sprouted from their heads rendering them completely blind. Although they cannot see, their hearing is extremely acute forcing you to slow down even when crouched to avoid detection. They emit a characteristic clicking noise which will instantly alert you to their presence in the area, and if you allow them to get close enough they will kill you instantly. During the early portions of the game when you don’t have a lot of weapons Clickers are a genuine source of dread. Later on though they become a bothersome nuisance as not only do they kill in one hit sending you back to an earlier checkpoint, but unlike any other enemy in the game, they in turn can only be killed by a shiv which you must craft ahead of time.
Should you choose the offensive route the projectile weapons present are quite standard. Keeping in line with the more realistic approach to gameplay, ammo is quite scarce and your aim will swim around unsteadily before you attain a few upgrades to stabilize it. The low ammo and wobbly aim would be fine if the game was consistent with realism in terms of enemy health. During my playthrough I’d find enemies to be a bit spongy, especially Clickers, which for some reason took way more shots than your standard infected. There were times when a shotgun blast would send baddies flying, blowing off a few limbs in the process, and other times only make them wince slightly. Small details, like a fully charged bow shot to the leg killing a human opponent instantly but a rifle shot to the chest only staggering them for a split second stand out even more when set against the backdrop of realism the game takes great pains to introduce at every step. At the end of the day the stealth isn’t stealthy enough and the shooting tip-toes the line between arcadey and realistic doing a disservice to both. As the combat stops being about evading a few guards and increasingly starts relying on clearing out entire areas, the graphic violence and severity of confrontations lose their edge.
While there is nothing inherently bad about the combat in the Last of Us, it does feel somewhat uninspired and dry compared to the other elements of the game. For the most part it does feel pretty good, especially in the beginning when Joel isn't carrying an entire arsenal strapped to his backpack. Any headshot is cause for a mini celebration and frantically rummaging through your backpack in the middle of a firefight to either craft healing items or simply find any gun that has ammo left in it can be enthralling. The main problem is that these hostile encounters don't change throughout the course of the game. You will encounter the same two infected for the entire game and all human enemies look and act the same. The Last of Us shines brightest when you're exploring the ruins of humanity and engaging in friendly banter with Ellie. The latter combat encounters which serve to breakup these moments and which you'll often not have a choice in avoiding tend to outstay their welcome, especially since unlike Joel your enemies will never run out of ammo. By the midpoint of the game combat stops being an organic part of the experience, but rather stands to remind you that you’re playing a videogame and these increasingly longer and more drawn out sequences of murdering random bandits are only there to link up all the interesting narrative elements into a cohesive story.
The Last of Us looks and sounds great. Although by now the post apocalyptic vision of lifeless cities, overgrown with wild vegetation is nothing new, Naughty Dog does an admirable job introducing their own unique touch and making these places feel moderately real and not quite like “levels” that you need to solve. There are still plenty of instances where you’ll walk into an area filled with knocked over desks and waist high cabinets telegraphing a combat sequence, but there are just as many moments where you’ll find yourself simple rotating the camera around admiring the view. The soundtrack is appropriately somber with a twinging guitar heard throughout that masterfully fades in and out without you even noticing.
While not a perfect game, the Last of Us manages to be so emotionally engaging that you can forgive it the slightly monotonous gameplay. Be warned that depending on who you are, for better or worse this is quite a long experience clocking in at roughly 20 hrs for the single player campaign. While there is a multiplayer component I honestly don’t think it should at all factor in how this great single player experience should be judged. It is there, it is competent with a few neat tricks and it requires an online pass to play. I’d highly recommend The Last of Us to anyone that wants to experience a wholly unique and engaging story that you likely won’t experience again for quite some time. While you might have to slog through a few arbitrary fire fights to get there, it is definitely worth it.