Uncharted 2 is one of my favorite games this generation. It’s an adventurous shooter with sarcastic characters and bombastic setpiece moments; most of all, it felt like watching a fun summer movie. But Naughty Dog was also critiqued for the ludonarrative dissonance of the series: Nathan Drake will murder vast quantities of people then turn to the camera with a wink and a smile, the way only a likeable action hero can.
The Last of Us throws that entire formula out the window and creates something uniquely different, but not always successful.
The Last of Us opens with a phenomenal prologue telling the story of the first days of the apocalypse through Joel and his family. You feel tension and fear from everything around you as people panic, cars crash, and those infected begin attacking everyone in sight. It all ends with a shocking event that caused me to lay down my controller and walk outside, even though I read the signs and knew what was probably going to go down. After the opening, we meet back up with Joel twenty years later, living day-by-day in poverty.
The narrative doesn’t give a damn what you know about the different characters or factions in its early hours. It removes any forced exposition and sets you right in the thick of a world destroyed by chaos. You’ll be lost for a while, but soon the pieces start coming together forming a realistic vision of a post-apocalyptic world. Soon, Joel is sent on a mission eerily similar to the plot of Children of Men, but most of it is relegated to the background, and only used as a force propelling the characters forward.
The relationship that builds between Joel and Ellie is the real star of the show; they have a chaotic and dysfunctional alliance that is constantly tested by the world around them. They deal with murder and morality in a caustic world where you only survive by the skin of your teeth. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson fully commit to their roles as Joel and Ellie. Joel tries to hide his emotions as much as possible by being a massive jerk, and Ellie is not afraid to call him out on it. She’s a spunky fourteen year-old who has only known the chaos of the world after it ended. Sometimes she’ll start humming or attempt to whistle, just doing whatever she can to fill the time. Ellie grows on you, and soon she’ll be someone you care for and want to help. None of this would work if Joel and Ellie weren’t incredibly dynamic and interesting characters. Their relationship unfolds in an organic and seamless way; it is absolutely compelling and emotional.
But through all of the rich dialogue and character moments, there stands an army of relentless infected and militant groups in your way. I struggled with liking the combat; at first it seemed too easy and the AI was ridiculously simple-minded in the way they would just stand around all looking in the same direction. As the scenarios developed, the AI began to react to situations a little more fluidly, but still dull and mindless. Sure, they would flank my position, but then they’d just charge forward and I’d eliminate them with one swift shotgun blast to the abdomen.
Oh, did I mention the combat is abhorrently violent? Thick spurts of blood will shoot out of a man’s neck as you stab him with a shiv, and bullets leave large red holes in victims. I quickly came to terms with the fact that violence is despicable and I constantly struggled with wanting to continue. It became a task that I had to accomplish, something that was necessary for me to move on and interact with Ellie some more.
Which is a little bit of a complement since so many third-person shooters glorify violence in a way that makes it seem cartoony. However, The Last of Us straddles the line between frivolous shooting galleries and intensely raw violence, causing the scenarios to seem more generic. Almost every enemy encounter is blatantly telegraphed by neatly placed, waist-high boxes and walls that I could easily duck behind. Soon, enemies would flood in and I’d have to systematically kill every last one as they popped their heads out of cover. Whether I came up behind them or just shot them square in the face, they’d be sitting behind cover waiting for me. The few times you’re presented with a different setting without a lot of cover is when the combat really feels tense and unique.
The guns are loud, annoying to reload, and they kick hard — which I think is fantastic because guns are loud, annoying to reload, and kick pretty hard. If Joel gets hit by a bullet, he stumbles backwards in pain. He’s also not a very good shot; there’s a realistic shakiness to the reticle that you have to compensate for when aiming. Sometimes the combat is visceral, difficult, engaging, and thrilling, but the over-reliance on traditional third-person shooter scenarios kills that tension quickly.
Then there’s the infected to worry about. These enemies are faster, more spastic, and a lot harder to predict than their human counterparts. This makes maneuvering undetected rather difficult, and getting stealth kills is even harder. Their heads jerk around violently, making headshots a difficult task, not to mention if you make any noise they come charging forward. If you’re detected by one of them, they all immediately begin swarming your position, which does not play well with the slow reload speed of weapons. A few of the infected types have weird one-hit kills if they get up too close that you can’t escape from, so you’re constantly resetting checkpoints to try again.
The Last of Us has incredibly detailed environments and characters. The city areas are beautifully somber up close, but objects at a distance look grimey and unfinished sometimes. Once I was out of the city and seeing more forest areas and small mountain towns, I was more invested if only because I’ve rarely seen those types of environments in games. Every time I would start to loot a house and walk into an empty child’s bedroom I was a little distraught. You can see the subtle changes in a character’s face, notice the stitching on Joel’s plaid shirts, and even judge the emotion from their eyes. This makes shooting people that look cringingly realistic all the more gruesome.
The Last of Us also has a number of technical bugs. The AI partners have issues with hiding behind cover and will sometimes stand completely still out in the open. Enemies don’t react to them, which is a good design decision for a stealthy game, but it looks ridiculous when a flashlight hovers over your partner and an enemy gives an all clear. Other bugs include weird artifacting around the edges of walls, and extreme framerate dips especially where shotguns, molotovs, or grenades are involved (or if there’s more than five enemies charging at once).
Naughty Dog also included an interesting multiplayer mode that compliments the unique third-person combat. It’s a slow and methodical deathmatch, similar to Call of Duty’s Search and Destroy mode. The multiplayer also employs a unique meta-game where you’re collecting supplies in each match and bringing them back to your base. Better performance gets you more supplies for your people to keep them healthy and safe. It’s a unique world-appropriate view on leveling up your multiplayer persona (along with the regular weapon and outfit unlocks).
I want to say I liked The Last of Us, because I kind of did, but I also think it’s incredibly rough around the edges. There are amazing risks taken by Naughty Dog to create something incredibly different than most games on the market. The character development and interaction is incredibly well-written and thoroughly emotional (I think I teared up a few times). But they constantly err on the side of caution and rely on traditional third-person design, rather than going all in. Overall, the ideas behind The Last of Us are a little too ambitious to fit snugly within a modern third-person shooter mold.