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ESRB RATING: M
DEVELOPER: Naughty Dog
PUBLISHER: Sony Computer Entertainment
About a week before I put finger to keyboard on this review, someone spliced together a 3 hour 15 minute cut of every story moment from The Last Of Us. After spending almost 9 actually playing The Last of Us, I find myself wanting to watch that 3 hour movie more than actually playing it again.
Let’s just put it upfront that The Last Of Us is objectively a good game. Naughty Dog has brought their entire bag of tricks from Uncharted to play here, and injected it with a dose of depth that Nathan Drake’s fast and loose adventures could never really support, and will never. This isn’t another Raiders-lite, this is The Road-lite. Uncharted’s mechanics have been slowed, given weight, tension, brutality. Every action you take has considerations and consequences, and surviving encounters makes you employ each and every one of them. Just the simple act of choosing a weapon for the job or which part of the room to slink through to advance is a life or death proposition. If there’s anyone to pity in this whole thing, it’s Crystal Dynamics, who just can’t cut a break here, after spending a gen trying to look relevant in the face of Uncharted, almost succeeding with the Tomb Raider reboot, then The Last of Us comes along, and completely succeeds at being the genuine survival title their game kept trying to shove down our throats. All the little touches with the hunting and collecting we were hoping to get out of that game, The Last Of Us pulls off. You will scavenge and scrap for supplies, feel just how human and frail our protagonists are with every gunshot, find yourself defenseless more than once, and have nothing to rely on but your bare hands, and your surroundings.
And those surroundings are far less inviting than Yamatai. Behind the glowing, amber, overgrown natural ruin of the game lies its rotten core, the modern world laid waste by the Cordyceps infection, the bombs dropped to stem the tide, and the victims still shambling around, to say nothing of the other survivors with less to lose than you. Ordinarily, the Uncharted tendency where you’re wondering why this guy you just shot point blank in the head is still standing would be an annoyance, and there’s more than one moment where it still is, but in the heat of that adrenaline spike, watching a Clicker wave blindly toward you, and your bullets don’t work, it’s just one more heart attack on the pile. Indeed, The Last of Us is that next step in what Naughty Dog is capable of, something that leads me to want to see how they fare with the power of the next gen behind them all the more.
So, The Last Of Us is actually quite strong as a gameplay experience. Why then am I not excited to play it again?
The Last of Us also represents a rare moment, a rare danger even, where the story being told is strong enough to outclass the gameplay several times over. Even at the story’s more frustrating moments, I’m far more invested in Joel and Ellie’s tale in the cutscenes than I am when I’m running around, beating zombies/bandits with lead pipes. When the game sends me rocketing back into that situation in order to advance, by the time the Fall segment rolled around, it was almost deflating. I felt the game not as a chance to play more game, but as an obstacle actively in the way of me and the 3 hour movie, and it’s a crucial disconnect. A time arrives where I don’t feel like I inhabit Joel’s shoes, so much as guide him where the story requires him to be to advance and actually affect the real lasting change in this story. The levels feel longer than they actually are by extension.
Prime example: There’s a scene halfway through the game where Joel is handed a picture of his daughter, and a prompt to press Triangle comes up. For a moment, there’s the glimmer that you have the choice to take the photo or shove it back in the other persons face.
When the world has gone this cold and brutal, and the gameplay is not necessarily catharsis, or at least allowing me to be proactive in my character’s fate when the story picks back up, it becomes obstacle in and of itself. There’s a sequence near the end of the game with Ellie on her own that ends with, I’d argue, the single most terrifyingly brutal moment in the game. It is cathartic. It is frightening. It is meaningful. And it is completely out of the player’s hands. Nothing changes with the gameplay, or what I am allowed to do despite everything that actually happens in the story. I want to watch this game happen, not so much play it, and the game is simply not letting me, which is exactly the opposite of modern game design. This phenomenon is special enough to need a name. I vote “Hideo Kojima’s Revenge”. Funny enough, this is also on the exact opposite side of the spectrum from Walking Dead, a game oft taken to task because there was barely any game in that game, and yet, there, the player is very much in control of 85-90% of what occurs. The player’s choices are the game, the variable, the interactivity. The player controls the flow of events. In The Last of Us, I control whether or not I’m letting the zombies remain in my way or not.
Arguably, that’s every game with a story, but not all of them have the aims The Last of Us does. The heart of this game, the part that people will talk about when they talk about this game–and make no mistake, by the game’s end, people will most definitely be talking about it–has to do with a middle-aged man being saddled with the responsibility of a capable young girl who is more important than either of them fully grasp, and having to traverse the American apocalypse with her. In that heart, I am captivated by Joel, who has very real, valid, adult reasons to be hesitant about the task at hand; I absolutely adore Ellie, how fully formed of a person she is even before the story begins, and where the game takes her. I love each and every survivor that crosses their path and follows us on the way, for varying, brilliant reasons. I care about these characters as they come along, and yet it’s a game where NO NPCS CAN GET HURT, KILLED, OR SEEN.
Any and all tension having to do with survival comes entirely down to the player’s ability to kill the things in Joel’s way. The story goes places where the gameplay refuses to follow. The game, when control lies with the player, has the atmosphere, the feel of age in the protagonist, and scramble for the right tools, and the tension, but absolutely none of that heart, except as optional background dialogue/moments along the way, and it’s the heart that makes The Last of Us as strong and worthwhile an experience as it is. Ignore the heart, it is well-done but comparatively unremarkable, except as a spectacular graphical/aural achievement. Some developers would kill for that failure. And yet, Naughty Dog is not that developer. They’ve proven themselves to be better. As far as The Last of Us is concerned Naughty Dog as digital filmmakers have outgrown Naughty Dog as game designers. More than ever, the time has come to get the twain to meet.
Out Of 5