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The Last of Us (PlayStation 3) artwork

The Last of Us (PlayStation 3) review

"Hedges its bets on one idea and fails by a mile."

It's clear that I'm in the minority, but I didn't like The Last of Us. I played it one year ago now after the game launched to universal acclaim. Critics loved it. Regular gamers loved it. Even my colleagues at work loved it, many of whom rarely play games and use their PlayStation 3 consoles as nothing more than a Blu-ray player most of the time – and yet, Naughty Dog's blockbuster left me cold. It was made with passion and significant parts have undeniable quality, but on a personal level the experience fell flat.

Much of the focus with The Last of Us is placed on its narrative and characters, something which is evident in the opening dramatic sequence. The prologue is undoubtedly the highlight of the entire game and perhaps even one of the most memorable scenes of the past console generation. The story picks up 20 years later, with civilisation practically destroyed by a fungus infection turning anyone affected into horribly mutated monsters, whose only objective is to spread the sickness. Joel and his friend Tess are tasked with smuggling a young girl named Ellie to the Fireflies, a militia group hiding outside of quarantine. What makes Ellie valuable is the seeming fact that she is immune to the infection – she has not turned despite sporting bite marks from an Infected.

The journey that Joel and Ellie go through together has emotional highs, for sure. Their objective represents hope in a hopeless world, and it’s not difficult to sympathise and become invested in the characters, especially with superb, understated voice acting from Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson that crucially makes the pair human and likeable; the connection they forge is believable. The rather graphic violence – both in cutscenes and in combat – is less gratuitous and more emphasises the lengths necessary to survive in the unforgiving, decaying landscape filled with the Infected and merciless bandits. Joel and Ellie have each other’s backs, and it’s a powerful bond that really pulled me in at first.

The big flaw lies in the disparity between action and storytelling. Despite some one or two ideas attempting to reinforce Joel's relationship with Ellie (she can throw rocks at dudes!), the game never grabbed me when I was in full control of Joel. It wanted me to be immersed in its world. The Last of Us was depending on that. I couldn't, no matter how hard I tried. The tedium and the frustrations I had when actively playing the game were too much, and the longer I spent, the less I cared about Joel and Ellie. These issues were harming the top-class narrative and presentation so much that I would have honestly given up at around the halfway mark were it not for the fact that it received an incredible amount of hype and praise. I completed it purely because I wanted to be able to judge the game fully from a critical perspective, not because I was so engrossed in the tale.

For starters, the gunplay feels heavy and is frustrating to adapt to. I was never that fond of how weapons felt in Naughty Dog’s earlier work with the Uncharted series, yet here in The Last of Us, I find it even less tolerable. Sure, Joel is your everyman and far from an expert marksman, but the idea is taken too far without any compromise. If the developer wanted to go down the road of ‘realism’, they should have at least made enemies take less bullets to kill. The large amount of sway can be cut down with upgrades, but the combat remains tedious and greatly unsatisfying.

The Last of Us encourages stealth but the execution is just as poor, ruining any atmosphere or tension you’d hope for from such segments. One type of Infected you come across regularly will kill you in one hit if you don't have a spare shiv in your back pocket – a huge pain, not only because you have to endure the same death animation time and time again but also given that whether you are detected or not appears inconsistent and a little arbitrary. Meanwhile, friendly AI characters are so clueless during stealth that the developer decided to make them invisible to enemies until you're spotted. Your partner struggles to follow your lead and remain quiet, and it's distracting every time Ellie prefers to loiter out in the open while you're trying to sneak from cover to cover undetected.

For a title set in a harsh and devastated post-apocalyptic world, I was also baffled by the hundreds of bandits Joel and Ellie end up fighting along the way. The overall number is ridiculous, breaking whatever little immersion is left over, and these encounters (as well as the painfully routine puzzles involving the retrieval and placement of ladders and planks) are a constant reminder that away from the writing, performances, and cutscenes, The Last of Us is an underwhelming game first and foremost. The action struggles to add anything positive to the experience – it achieves the opposite, in fact, as any enjoyment I would have had from watching the story play out is ruined. It’s a shame, because on paper, Ellie has a fascinating arc. But the fact that I felt absolutely nothing during the ending tells me that The Last of Us failed in what it initially set out to do.

Compare this to BioShock Infinite, where combat is varied and rewarding and incorporates elements from the narrative by having Elizabeth open tears in combat. The battles in the sky are thrilling, but more importantly, the rich setting of Columbia reels you in and never lets you go, and there is a sense that you're fighting alongside Elizabeth as you make your way through the grand city. The ending is more powerful and poignant as a result. Or consider Gone Home, the affecting story of which unfolds organically as you proceed from room to room, exploring your empty family home. Or Papers, Please, in which the daily grind of a mundane job – fitting the depressing and dreary dystopian backdrop – is made both immersive and engaging, resulting in empathy that is rarely seen in the medium.

What these three games did so well in 2013 – the same year in which The Last of Us came out – is use interaction to enhance its storytelling. The Last of Us hedged all of its bets, make or break, on this very idea, but failed by a mile.

Rating: 4/10

Ben's avatar
Community review by Ben (July 29, 2014)

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jerec posted July 30, 2014:

Yeah, I know what you mean about the gunplay. That game just made me so damn tired every time I played. I wanted to get the rest of the story, but I just couldn't be bothered. And yeah, all the environment puzzles.

I think this might work well as a movie.
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Ben posted July 31, 2014:

Thanks for commenting, Jerec. I agree - I actually speculated in an earlier draft of the review how it would've turned out had it been a film instead.

I guess we'll know the answer to that soon enough. Apparently, Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) might be playing Ellie in the movie adaptation.
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Suskie posted August 01, 2014:


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