Review by 1Truth

"The most powerful and compelling narrative you'll find in any game released this gen. However, the game design is flawed."

Introduction

The Last of Us is the latest game from critically acclaimed studio Naughty Dog. In the past, this studio has developed the franchises Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, and Uncharted. After Uncharted 2 was released in Q4 2009, the studio decided to establish a second development team to create a new IP. This new IP would go on to become The Last of Us. The game was first announced in Q4 2011 during the annual Spike Video Game Awards. It instantly became the most anticipated game of many gamers, including myself. Now, over 3 years later, the game has finally been released.

Development of The Last of Us was led by Bruce Straley (Game Director) and Neil Druckmann (Creative Director). They've stated that they were inspired by the film No Country for Old Men, and wanted to bring the palpable tension and desperate sense of struggle in that film into a playable form. In all honestly, they've achieved their goal. However, there are glaring flaws with the game design that prevent The Last of Us from being a true gaming masterpiece. You'll find out what these flaws are by reading this review.

Game Design

The game design of The Last of Us is fun, and that's the most important aspect for anything that calls itself a video game. However, there are noticeable flaws with the game design that are caused by the stark realism the script and cinematics.

As far as I'm concerned, game design should come first with anything that calls itself a video game. After you conceive the game design, you then create a story built around it. The Last of Us does this well as the gameplay is focused on palpable tension and your desperation to survive. The entire game revolves around this concept and you feel it almost all the time you're playing. Whether you're in direct combat, trying to sneak by without getting noticed, scavenging the environment for supplies, or in your bag crafting items, you will feel like you're struggling to survive in this brutal, post-apocalyptic world.

However, there are flaws with the game design that present itself when you take into account the stark realism and maturity of the script and cinematics. The realism and harshness of the script and cinematics make you take this game's story far more seriously than you would most other games. However, this is exactly what causes the problem, as there's a jarring inconsistency between script and the actual gameplay.

The game presents a world where people are all struggling to survive and have to do whatever it takes to keep themselves alive. There's times during cinematics where people kill other people using only a single gun shot. However, when you actually play the game, human enemies can take many shots before they die. The protagonist Joel can also take multiple gun shots before he dies. This makes no sense, as neither Joel or most of the human enemies he's facing are wearing bullet proof vests. This is an example of the inconsistency between the realism of the script and cinematics compared to the actual gameplay.

Another example is that when you craft a weapon called a shiv, which is essentially a knife, you can only use it once. This is illogical when you consider the harsh nature of the script and cinematics. In the world of this game, where scavenging for supplies and making full use of them is key to survival, why would anybody only use a shiv once before discarding it? It makes no sense. When Joel stabs an enemy in the throat and they die, it's completely logical that he would take the shiv out from the throat of the corpse, give it a quick wipe, and place it back in his pocket for future use. Having Joel only use a shiv once is inconsistent with the realism that the script and cinematics are trying to present.

Then you have the item drops by enemies. I was dissatisfied to notice that some human enemies that used guns would not drop their guns or ammo after they were killed. Further still, enemies that possessed no firearms would end up dropping a gun or ammo when they were killed. There were even times when I'd defeated Clickers and when they died, they would drop ammo. Seriously, why would Clickers still be carrying ammo? It's illogical. To make matters worse, when you pick up a gun that an enemy has dropped, rather than Joel actually obtaining the gun, he only obtains the ammo. It makes no sense. Just like I explained with my criticism of only using a shiv once, there's no reason why Joel can't pick up and obtain another gun to save for later use.

Also, regarding the Clickers, they are blind zombie enemies that use echo detection to find their way around. To do this, they give off a clicking sound and use the doppler effect to find the distance and location of their targets. This is fine game design on paper. However, when you actually play the game, it's simply not executed as well as it could have been. You are almost always journeying with Ellie and she often makes a ridiculous amount of noise, both physically and verbally. She'll either be running around loudly or talking loudly. However, despite all the noise she gives off, she will barely get detected by the Clickers, even at times when they're within 5 metres of her. Yet, when Joel makes so much as single loud footstep and is over 20 metres away, the Clickers are instantly alerted to his presence and come running over. It's totally ruins the player's immersion in the world. Earlier in the game, you're accompanied by a woman named Tess and she will often make a lot of noise in rooms with Clickers, yet not get noticed by them. Further still, there's some times when you are crouching and sneaking while in a room full of Clickers and Tess will attract the attention of the Clickers by shooting her gun. Instead of the Clickers going after her seeing as she's the one that shot her gun, they instead go after Joel. This is despite Joel making no noise whatsoever.

Then you have the player having the ability to see through walls due to Joel paying close attention to sound. Why is this feature even in the game? This is incredibly immersion breaking. Not only does it look ridiculous when activated, but it also gives you a large advantage over the enemies, as you can fully make out where they're located. In a game that's main goal is to provide palpable tension and a desperate sense of struggle to survive, this feature is the antithesis of that.

Also, the human enemy AI is good, but there are again flaws that ruin the immersion. When you're crouching and sneaking to avoid being spotted by human enemies as Joel, Ellie will often make herself blatantly visible due to either not keeping up or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite her being clearly visible to the human enemies, they will not react and start coming after her. Furthermore, when human enemies have discovered your presence, they will mostly ignore Ellie and concentrate their efforts on Joel. You can even hear it in their dialogue, as they barely mention Ellie's existence and instead talk about trying to kill Joel. All of this just show that the human enemies are unnatural, and this contrasts greatly with the harsh reality the script and cinematics present.

When Joel's health is low and you use a health pack to restore health, Joel will often tie a bandage around his arm to recover. He'll do this despite him having been either physically attacked in the face and abdomen, or taken gun shots to the chest, stomach, and back. It's another factor that breaks the immersion of the game. Further still, for a game that presents such a mature script and realistic cinematics, why don't Joel and Ellie ever eat, drink, sleep, urinate, or bathe over the course of the majority of the game? These are elements that could have been included in the gameplay to further enhance the player's immersion in the world and make Joel and Ellie feel like real people.

People may defend The Last of Us for having these flaws due to it just being a video game, but I strongly disagree with such a stance. The Last of Us attempts to tell a realistic and mature story using very realistic cinematics and dialogue. Therefore, the game design should equally be on the same level of realism. After all, the game has a very realistic wobble for Joel's firearm aim; many other games don't simulate this much realism in their shooting mechanics. You have to wonder, if The Last of Us could pay so much attention to gameplay realism in this aspect, why is it that there's a notable lack of realism in others? If you want to attempt gameplay realism, you should go full force with it and make it encompass every aspect of the game design; you can't make some gameplay aspects realistic and not others.

In short, the game design in The Last of Us is good. However, went coupled with the stark realism that the script and cinematics present, you begin to see glaring flaws that prevent the gameplay from being immersive.

Level Design

While the game is linear, The Last of Us has fantastic level design. Locations are very detailed and journeying through them is enjoyable. Locations function as a series of very intricate maps that you'll progress through by climbing, crouching, swimming, and more. There's even a number of environmental puzzles to solve. As a result, while the game is linear, you won't really feel it, as there's so much to do over the course of the game and so much detail put into each area.

Also, the game entices you to explore the maps due to your need to scavenge supplies. These supplies are often hidden, so you'll need to search every nook and cranny to find them. In short, you'll be exploring a lot to make sure you find the best items available to you in each location you visit.

With regards to combat with enemies, the level design still holds up well. There are many places to hide and objects to use for cover. There are also many different routes through the combat environments, with most having multiple doors and rooms for you to go through. This is really useful should you be attempting to stealth kill enemies, or when you're running away from enemies once you've been spotted and running low on health.

Visual Design

The Last of Us has the best graphics and visual design of any PS3 exclusive game. I'm not going to waste time on this point. However, I will quickly touch upon two key areas.

The in-engine graphics during gameplay are stunning. The amount of detail put into the environments is truly praiseworthy. There will be times where you'll have to just stop and use the camera to fully take in your surroundings. I think a good portion of my 20 hour playthrough was spent just standing still and moving the camera to marvel at the environments. Also, the textures in the environments are very detailed and have so much variety; so much detail was put into the visuals of this world. There's also so much history; you'd go into a house and you'll see so many different things to observe. The graphics alone provide a form of environmental storytelling. Even if The Last of Us had no story, the player would be able to create their own just by looking at the detailed environments and visible history of the post-apocalyptic world. The character models during gameplay are also really good. Their animations are fluid and really make you feel the characters are real people.

The in-engine graphics during cinematics are just phenomenal. These have to be the best in-engine cinematics I've seen in this console generation. The facial expressions and body movements are incredible. They're also really well synchronised with the voice acting that you'll barely notice the uncanny valley. It's truly remarkable work.

Narrative Design

A true masterpiece. A superbly written script with sharp and riveting dialogue. Probably one of the greatest scripts I've ever encountered in a video game. It's difficult to say exactly what makes it so great without giving away spoilers. However, as I mentioned before in the graphics section, the facial expressions and body movements are so well synchronized to the voice acting, you'll barely notice the uncanny valley. As a result, you'll take the cinematics very seriously and almost like you're watching a film.

While the cinematics are amazing, the best thing about the script has to be the amount of dialogue and narrative you will encounter while actually playing. There is a wealth of interactive narrative in this game. It's not interactive in a sense that you make dialogue choices, but rather that they occur while you're just walking around, exploring and playing the game. This approach makes the characters feel alive while you're actually playing as them. Also, Ellie is a very inquisitive character and there are many moments in the game where you'll see how she is reacting to the world around her. She will often ask about and interact with these things she is seeing in the environment.

Over the course of the game, you'll see Joel and Ellie bonding and showing signs of a Father/Daughter relationship. This is the aspect I enjoyed most out of the game's story.

Conclusion

Some critics have called The Last of Us a game that will go down in history as the Citizen Kane of the gaming medium. I can't agree with such a statement. Citizen Kane is praised for what it did for the very art of filmmaking. It was the first to explore depth of field, contrast, low-angle shots, and many other aspects used in modern films and cinematography. It paved a lot of new ground for films as a medium. The Last of Us doesn't even come close to having as big an impact on game design. As far as I'm concerned, the Citizen Kane of video games has come and gone. It was called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

To conclude, The Last of Us is an amazing experience from start to finish. Unfortunately, I can honestly say that it's the script and cinematics that gripped me, not the gameplay. The reason being that while the script and cinemactics are masterfully done, the gameplay shows flaws that break the immersion that the script and cinematics are trying to convey. All said and done, The Last of Us is a great gaming experience and it achieves its original goal being a playable version of the film No Country for Old Men.

Scoring

Game Design: 6/10
Level Design: 9/10
Visual Design: 10/10
Narrative Design: 10/10

Final Score (Not an average): [ 8/10 ]


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 06/25/13, Updated 09/05/13

Game Release: The Last of Us (EU, 06/14/13)


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