Being the patient gamer I am, I finally got the chance to pick up Naughty Dog’s renowned magnum opus – The Last of Us. For those people who read my last review on Uncharted 4, you’d know how surprised about how much I liked the game considering how gameplay has always been my priority over storytelling when it comes to video games. Since I’ve been catching up with PS4 exclusives finally, I keep getting surprised how great the quality of writing in a game can amount to. The Last of Us took the opposite direction from Uncharted. While the former is filled with unreal things happening in a pretty much normal world, The Last of Us is about very real things happening in an abnormal world. The quality of its writing is on par with a well-written movie or TV show – it shouldn’t be, and I’ll cover that after the review. Just like all my reviews, I’m going to dissect the game and try to talk about each aspect individually, rate them on THIS 10 point scale and give out my final words in the end. There won’t be any spoilers for the story.
Gameplay – 6
I am really divided on what I feel about this. While the core gameplay loop is great, the game sometimes puts you in a situation where it becomes very rigid and one-directional on how it wants a situation to go. I will share several instances of that happening, but I want to first go through the core gameplay elements which I enjoyed. The stealth is very fun. While the lack of polish shows through in the mechanics, it’s good enough to not be a hindrance. It captures the tension of the world it’s based in perfectly. I especially loved the stealth segments where you needed to hide from clickers, a special kind of zombie that can only hear you. This unique characteristic made the stealth with clickers different to everything else, since you could walk right past them but if you pressed on your analog stick too hard – they would grab you and it would be an insta-death. It created for some of the most gripping and fun parts of the gameplay for me. Something that felt horrendous was that clickers can’t hear your companions run around and even bump into them. I mean, it’s not as big of a deal but it does take you out of the immersion. I don’t know how hard it would’ve been to make the companion AI be a little smarter and walk at the same pace as you, or maybe even go their own way every now and then to take down zombies or scrounge a couple of supplies for you. A missed opportunity if you ask me.
The other part of the gameplay I enjoyed is scrounging for supplies. Since this is a game based in a post-apocalyptic world, essentials are scarce. You need to look through every nook and cranny in order to find that last bit of resources which could mean the difference between life and death. It did make me feel that tension because I always had “just enough” to get by. I played on the “Hard” difficulty, and I would recommend doing that. The whole ‘looking for supplies’ is pretty much a replacement of the climbing mechanic from Uncharted games. Something that provides for a connecting filler as you navigate while also making you explore and notice the environments in their entirety.
And now that I’ve gone through the things I like, let’s talk about what I don’t. The AI is unimpressive. Sometimes the human enemies react to bodies, sometimes they walk right over them. At some points, you can just feel that the AI knows where you are and is just acting as an afterthought to that. Humans and Infected are the 2 main enemy types, and it’s a shame the game didn’t experiment much with putting them together in some levels and making you get creative with that problem since they conflict with each other as well. The DLC had a portion where you could do that, but I think the main game would’ve benefitted with having some segments like that as well.
Now onto my main concern. It’s a stealth game but still forces you to take part in a lot of action a lot of times. You are always kept in short of supply so you rely on stealth pretty much all the time unless you get caught – after which you can either get into combat or run around use a mix of stealth and action. That makes for satisfying gameplay and is a pretty tried and tested, if not an abundantly redundant formula. The only layer of tension in The Last of Us which makes it unique is the lack of supplies, which is why I hate when the game forces me into sections where the only approach is head-on. You have no other option but to do some shooting, and you don’t even have enough ammo to get by.
The most notable example is the Winter chapter, which has both some of my favorite moments but also my least favorite one. There is a section where you are locked into a hut with an AI companion, and zombies are pretty much coming in from every window. It’s pretty simple. Use your limited supplies and keep any zombie from killing you. Up until right now, I had only been using a mix of stealth and shooting which made for pretty flexible gameplay. In this case, you are locked in a square room with no other option but to shoot. Not just that, your AI companion will keep getting caught with the zombies and you are supposed to save him as well. This converted the game from a stealth survivor game into a run of the mill third-person shooter. I hated this portion, but it was to only get worse. After that, you get locked into yet another of those, but this time the zombies are dropping from the roof as well – there’s also a huge zombie to kill as well. This and the previous level were probably the worst part of the game, and shouldn’t have passed QA.
Another segment I need to bring light to is one against a sniper where Joel literally says “you guys distract him while I an angle on the sniper” but nothing close to that actually pans out on screen. Your companion AI don’t do anything to distract the sniper, and you can’t get an angle on him since there is no one manning the gun! Neither is the gun moving as it shoots you, nor can you even harm the sniper. The only way is that you get inside the building behind the sniper where the QTE happens of you struggling with him. Even if you check the right side of the room, you don’t see the guy hiding. He magically appears out of nowhere. So, while the gameplay could’ve been a solid 8/10 due to the portions where it’s good at, it averages out to an even 6 for the portions it’s bad at. It’s still pretty good, but not the part where the game excels.
Narrative – 10
I don’t want to get into too much here to avoid any spoilers, but I just want to say that the writing and dialogue on this game are top-notch and at par with a well-written movie or book. The characters are fleshed out and written like real people with dynamic thoughts and emotions. They’re not written in a one-dimensional “I am sad” or “I am happy” way that video games usually write characters, but have layers of moral complexity to them. A lot of times, the gameplay is used for the purpose of storytelling, but I don’t want to spoil any of it. I loved the ending and that was what nailed The Last of Us as the best storytelling done in a video game for me.
One factor that a lot of people don’t praise enough is the environmental storytelling in this game. I remember walking through the sewer level and finding hints of what used to be a large group of people living there. You can use the letters and all to fill in the blanks about what happened in a place, and the best part is that the main characters even talk about them if you read the letters. Some of those stories get pretty dark and give a good look at the world in which The Last of Us is based in. All in all, nothing short of a masterpiece in terms of storytelling.
Visuals – 8
While the graphics do look dated, the facial animations are very well done and are an integral part of the storytelling. Even with how well the game is written, it wouldn’t have been the same without the nuances in the expressions and the great voice acting. The visuals do it all the justice, in terms of that. Another thing I want to talk about is the visual variety across different locales. The game doesn’t give us a diverse range of vistas to enjoy like Uncharted 4, but it still has a good amount of variety while still staying grounded in the world it is in. To sum up, I think the game still looks pretty excellent despite feeling a little aged, and the aforementioned facial expressions will always hold up no matter what the year.
Content – 7
The game takes about 18 hours to finish with the DLC. This can vary a couple of hours here and there depending upon your difficulty. Apart from the main story, there are a lot of parallel stories going on which you can follow through the environmental storytelling, the random letters, the audiotapes, etc. In the case of this game, the quality of the content takes inclination over the quantity, and I think that’s how it should be in a game that is narratively-driven. I usually take a 50-50 ratio when it comes to judging the quantity and quality of overall content a game, and I’d say it gets a 2 and a 5 out of 5 respectively.
Mechanics – 6
This is primarily a stealth game, but the stealth mechanics are less than limited. All we have is a throw button and a crouch button with nothing much else to do. Even those can be satisfying enough to play around with, and they mostly are. Alas, the janky movement is always reminding you that this isn’t a game you are playing for the gameplay. The wall-hugging is wonky. Sometimes you are on the left edge of a wall and the character is facing right for some reason. A lot of times a zombie is able to catch you even though you just ran past it. Melee attacking is inconsistent in the way that you swing your weapon through enemies at times. The horse riding mechanics and its animations were so bad that I’m going to act like I didn’t even notice how bad they are. Also, the detection system of the AI is not consistent, as in sometimes they’ll be able to spot you from a huge distance while other times you’d just be crouching right past them and they wouldn’t do a thing. On top of that, the overall movement feels very unresponsive and drawn-out. It’s pretty apparent how many complaints I had with the mechanics since every sentence I have written so far has been a fresh complaint.
I also hated the ‘eagle vision’ feature. Whatever difficulty you play at, I would recommend turning that feature off as it is just an inferior way to experience the game. There are these bottles and bricks lying around everywhere, and I’d recommend throwing them far off to get a sense of how many enemies are in an area instead of using the vision thing. The only reason I still give the mechanics a 6 is that they’re still good enough to be serviceable and I don’t have any major gripes, they they’re bordering on being branded as mediocre, so they could’ve done with some more polish.
Challenge – 6
Just like the gameplay, this is an area I am divided on. While the core gameplay loop and mechanics are good enough to give a gratifying and challenging gameplay experience, the game forces you into a lot of sections which sours the whole experience. I have already described the problems with some sections of the Winter chapter and the sniper segment. Alas, there are a lot of other portions that force you to get into combat while giving you zero flexibility due to the restrictive level design.
The game shines when it gives you a bigger playground to play with. It creates this cat-and-mouse scenaroi where you’re having to remain undetected up until a certain point, and then you’re running around and hopping in-and-out of sight if you get caught. In the end, there is one section where there are a lot of enemies but you have a lot of rooms and hallways to go through, which makes it really engaging. Yet, right after that, they tried to increase the difficulty and give you a single hallway with a dozen enemies with pretty much nowhere to hide, and literally 5 enemies standing on the door to the exit. I played on Hard but I did try the harder difficulties, and I’d say they make combat pretty much unviable. I don’t know how this section could be done by stealth alone. This, along with another early section where you have too many zombies, and you need to clear all to proceed, at all are the moments that soured the gameplay for me. There should have been an option to sneak through complete areas, and bypass combat if you are able to pull it off, but those areas are rare and far between. Because, a lot of times, the title will get you detected because it needs to. A lot of times, enemies will spawn out of nowhere from areas you have cleared beforehand, and I think those things could’ve been handled better.
I tried all difficulties, and I think “Hard” is a sweet spot to enjoy it. I personally felt that the other difficulties were inferior ways to enjoy the game. The easier difficulties keep showering you with supplies, where you don’t feel the gripping tension you need to feel to immerse you into the world. The harder difficulties want you to sneak through everything perfectly, which again has a couple of problems. First, Ellie doesn’t get to help you at all, thus the “bonding through gameplay” aspect is completely gone. Second, the game forces you into a lot of combat sequences anyway, as mentioned before, and it would be really annoying to find any fewer supplies than I already had.
Diversity – 6
There isn’t too much visual variety across the levels, but there’s still enough that the game doesn’t feel downright samey. The different chapters do bring completely different areas. The game tries to get as much in with different locales like hotels, pre-schools, a university, a hospital, and what not as the backdrop of the action. The snow chapter looked pretty good too and was pretty gripping except for some of the badly designed shooting levels I described above.
In terms of gameplay, I don’t think there’s too much variety. The flexibility of the approach goes down every time you turn up the difficulty, which is why I described “Hard” as just a good enough spot to enjoy the best of both worlds. All in all, it is pretty much a stealth game and while a lot of the bigger levels are fun, it’s the smaller ones with forced combat that sour the whole experience for me, as I have said time and again. Also, the game relies too much on the “throw brick or bottle and then strangle” gameplay. Would’ve been great if the guards were smart enough to say “No. It’s probably him throwing that bottle as he did to the 4 guys he’s already killed before us. Don’t go!” It would’ve added some challenge and room for improvisation, forcing you to use the tools you’ve been saving up, like the smoke bomb or guns. Ah, I forgot – the game doesn’t want you to use guns in anything above Hard! Until, of course, it does…
Mapping – 7
I like how the title uses the color yellow to gently guide you through the navigation without using a single notification on the HUD at anytime. It is an accomplishment, and something Uncharted 4 pretty much perfected. A lot of times, I did get stuck in a place wondering where to go, so I wouldn’t say it was executed without flaws. What I hated, again, was the redundancy of the puzzles. There are too many ladders to put up, too many carts to roll down, and too many rafts to float Ellie on. Would’ve appreciated some better puzzles from the environment. As much as I complain about the new Tomb Raider games, they’re really good at this. Despite those issues, I’d have still rated the game more than 7 if the level design of the stealth levels was consistently good. Some levels were really memorable and expansive, giving you a lot of space to move around and play with, but others were so small and gave you hardly anything to hide behind, so it went from challenging to annoying. Overall, I think the level design is pretty good but only because some portions are well done and some portions are swill.
After talking about the problems I have with some of the levels, I do feel the need to acknowledge some of the genius in level design that’s easy to overlook. This is a pretty linear game but it does let you stray away from the trodden path and explore to gather resources and supplies. There are a lot of subtle cues in the environment that acts as hints over where the player can go or what part of the world the player can interact with, whether it’s enemy placement, the light coming from a place, or using bright colors like yellow to grab your attention. It is pretty commendable to use level design alone to let you know where to go without using any markers or blips.
Sound Design – 10
The music score is top-notch and one of the most memorable ones I’ve experienced through a game. Troy Baker has given a performance of a lifetime as Joel; and while I hadn’t heard of Ashley Johnson before this game despite watching some of the things she’s been part of, she did a phenomenal job as well. The sound design of the zombies was very well done and created for a very gripping experience. All three major areas of sound design were pretty much perfect.
Interface – 7
The interface was pretty good wherever needed and did a fine job with what it was supposed to. I would’ve appreciated an option to turn off screen effects like the snow on my screen etc. and motion blur though. The QTE events were definitely there and I would’ve liked it if the game didn’t make it so obvious as “Press triangle to kill villain” after the only boss fight in the game. Might as well have made it a cinematic, or do something like what Uncharted 4 did with its boss fight. What I like especially about this and other Naughty Dog games is the lack of interface. You know exactly where to go because of the level design and subtle hints in the environment using colors and light, which more games should already be doing but usually don’t.
I liked the crafting aspect of the game since it prompts you to explore the environment. I would’ve appreciated more things you can craft, but maybe another kind of health pack using sugar along with other ingredients – since the only use of sugar was in creating smoke bombs. The upgrade system didn’t have that many useful upgrades in my opinion, but it did what it needed to do. One gripe I do have is that things that were important didn’t visually stand out in the environment as much. Maybe shining the flashlight around the room should have made everything reflect light more than it naturally would. While they did sparkle a little, it easily got blended in the dark environment.
Pricing – 10
It’s been a while since it’s release, so it’s pretty much a steal and a must-play for everyone with a PS4.
Performance – 10
The game runs without any trouble at all. I haven’t tried the online so I can’t say anything about that, but even if I did, I would rate it separately to the rest of the game. In terms of performance, I have no complaints just like pretty much anything on the PS4.
Replay Value – 7
I can definitely see myself playing the game again. The story is worth a revisit, and having the option of New Game + makes it so that your scavenging isn’t completely wasted either. I do dread doing the redundant environmental puzzles and the forced combat segments again though, and would’ve appreciated a “Skip Section” button on NG+.
Online/DLC (Not part of final rating) – 8
The DLC provides some character background on Ellie and also fills a plot gap that was left out in the game. There were some additions in the gameplay department like the interaction of electricity with water, and the interaction between the human and infected enemies – and these are things that should’ve been a part of the main game as well. Overall, the DLC is actually very short and doesn’t have too much content – you could say it is proportional to the size of the main game somewhat. It took me a little less than 2 hours to finish it, and while I would’ve liked it to be longer, but it did end on a high note. A must play, in my opinion.
Final Rating: 7.7
All in all, The Last of Us is an incredible experience. The storytelling is levels above anything that was done in games right when it came out, and even today. The influence it has had on narratively-driven games is very clear and I am glad of the direction it has given games that want to go that extra mile. The gameplay itself isn’t something I’d have played the game alone for if the story hadn’t been what it is, though. The stealth is satisfying, but not always an option. The mechanics are serviceable but not polished enough. The crafting and upgrade system keeps you engaged but isn’t too deep either. Ultimately, I think just improving over those little problems would have gone a long way in creating a really well-rounded experience from everything to the narrative to the gameplay. This will still be among my favorite games because of how well the story is told, and I do think anyone who enjoys a well-written story and plays video games should experience The Last of Us at some point in their life.