Now, I’m not a console gamer. So part of my dislike of the terrible shooting in the game might be because I’m part of the Glorious PC Gaming Master Race. Regardless, I’m really surprised that Last of Us won basically every award ever made. That isn’t to say that I didn’t like it. I did like it. But the parts I really liked were the parts where you are just ransacking houses which probably makes up a total of 30 minutes of the whole game.
So why didn’t I like it? Well, the reasons for that can be split into two categories: gameplay and story. And since the actual gameplay itself isn’t really much of a surprise, I’ll start with that in case there are any people that a) haven’t played Last of Us and still might and b) read this. So for the two or three people on the planet that this applies to, I’ll start off trying to avoid any spoilers and then move on to the spoiler talk.
Tastes a Little Gamey.
The worst part of Last of Us’ gameplay is just how game-y it is.
I think the worst example of this is the dumpsters. Throughout the game there are sections where you have to get over a fence or a wall but it is too high to climb over. So you have to find something to push up next to the wall so you can climb up on it and then over the wall. Almost always that thing to push is a dumpster and even though it is years after the apocalypse the dumpsters still roll around and move more easily than any dumpster I’ve ever tried to move (not that I’ve tried to move a lot of dumpsters. Maybe there are some that are super easy to move even after years of neglect but I haven’t seen them.)
If there aren’t dumpsters nearby then there is sure to be a conveniently placed ladder or board around which gives the game an excuse to have a nice interaction with the girl, Ellie, who is often tasked with being boosted up to wherever the ladder is.
Now, these scenes with dumpster moving and ladder fetching do make for a nice diversion from the combat as it gives you a chance to flex other mental muscles than shooting. Unfortunately, I needed that break because I hated the combat in the game. Again, maybe it is because I’m not a console player, but the aiming and shooting of the game was just painful.
….. The few times you play as Ellie, the shooting is better. I read someone mention that Ellie is a better shot than Joel but I didn’t interpret it that way. I interpreted it as the game making it easier because Ellie is a kid. When playing as Ellie it seemed like Clickers went down easier than they did when playing as Joel. But, I might be wrong…
<end of spoilers>
OK. Let’s talk about the crafting system. It is really just terrible. I hate games where you have to gather items to make something that will just break or wear out so that you have to find more stuff. I’m looking at you Dead Island… In Last of Us, all the zombies and crafting made me feel like I was back looking for the red herb in Resident Evil. Luckily, because I could make shivs to open doors I didn’t need to be the master of unlocking… (Ha! in searching for the famous RE clip I found out that Last of Us does have a “Master of Unlocking” trophy!)
While the presence of so something like the crafting system is an obvious feature, one thing that I found equally annoying but less obvious was the ever-present waist-high wall. A big part of the combat is also crouching behind things. Conveniently, everything in the world is just the right height to hide behind. Even in sections where you aren’t fighting, the presence of these waist-high obstacles makes it feel like you are going to be fighting in that space eventually.
Last of the Plot
OK, now I am going to start talking about the plot.
Big Spoilers ahoy ….
The place where the waist-high walls was most irritating was also the point where the writing was the worst: the power plant. When Joel’s brother says something like, “We’ve been getting some bandits attacking us lately,” is there any doubt that as soon as you get done arguing with the brother that the power plant is going to be attacked?
And that predictability is one of the main problems with Last of Us. With a few exceptions, everything about the story is cliched and predictable.
Another example is the cannibals. Now, it wasn’t entirely predictable that the cannibals would turn out to be cannibals but it was obvious that they were Bad Guys™. Similarly, there’s a scene near the end where they are trying to build tension by not showing if Ellie is alive or not. But of course she is because she is the main character and they have already killed off one girl so they aren’t going to kill off another one. But they hold the camera on Joel for a really long time before panning over to Ellie to try to build tension and for me it was just tedious.
(Spoilers in this clip for the end of the game)
Tedious also describes how I felt about all the billions of cut scenes. I really don’t understand why developers so often feel the need to put in little cut scenes when it would be more dramatic to allow the player to actually do things. Maybe it is limitations in the game engine and it seems like Naughty Dog is pushing the PS3 pretty hard. But it is still frustrating to me because in too many instances it is hard to tell when the cut scene ends and I’m allowed to start playing again.
I think a lot of this comes from trying to be “cinematic” (whatever that means) but one scene early on shows that despite all their aspirations not everyone at Naughty Dog understands how cameras and editing really work. It can be seen in this clip about 10:55 in:
In that clip we have Joel’s brother save Joel from a zombie and blood splatters on the camera lens. Then the cut scene switches to an angle from inside the overturned truck and the blood splatter is still on the camera lens. That isn’t how it works. That would be a different camera and it wouldn’t have any blood to be splattered on it in that exact same way. Now, it could be argued that because the blood fades quickly that this was not a misunderstanding of how camera angles work but it was distracting enough that I remembered this scene from early on in the game and I even took the time to find a clip of this scene to make sure I wasn’t misremembering it.
Regarding cut scenes, I think the choice of what to cut out in the cut scene was also frustrating for me because I found the cut scenes tended to cut from combat to combat (or puzzles where Ellie has to get onto a floating platform again) and I would much rather have had more of the moments where they were just driving or walking down the road. I guess I wanted more of a The Road feel (even though I really hated a lot of the movie so much and I’ve resisted reading the book). One of the parts I liked the best was the part where you play as Ellie hunting down a deer. It was such a nice quiet and methodical scene that I wished that there was more things like it in the game. Now, I don’t want to turn the game into Big Buck Hunter but, like the parts where you are going through drawers in abandoned houses, I wanted more exploration and self-paced scenes.
The last thing I want to write about is the end.
“Apparently, there’s no way to extricate the parasite without eliminating the host. Fancy way of saying we gotta kill the fucking kid.
Oh noes! They want to kill Ellie!! Who could have ever predicted that? Except for anyone that really thought about it, I mean.
So the scientists wanting to kill Ellie was really cliched. It would have been more interesting if, like the college, there wasn’t anyone there. But that isn’t the worst part.
The worst part is that the reason they want to kill Ellie makes no sense. Because people turn when they get bit, they have established that the fungus that causes people to turn is in body fluids. So whatever prevents Ellie from turning has to be in her blood too. So they could just look at her blood. Even if it is in her brain why do they have to kill her? Can’t they do a biopsy? When someone has brain cancer they don’t just kill them (and there is also the fact that the fungus is not a parasite.). While you could argue that this is an extreme situation and they don;t have the facilities to operate, the very least Naughty Dog could have done is put in a line like that.
OK, so trying to kill Ellie doesn’t make any sense. Fine. I also really hated that I didn’t have any choice as to how I reacted to the news that they were going to kill her. I really didn’t like the fact that the game didn’t allow me to choose whether or not I would allow Ellie to die. That would have been a much braver game design choice.
There’s a post over at Polygon.com where they try to argue that it is a good and powerful storytelling choice to not allow the player to have a say in how Joel reacts because the player is not Joel. In the post Chris Plante wrote:
I like to think of the player as the driver on a road trip and the hero as the person riding shotgun. The player can steer the action, but ultimately the hero thinks and behaves on his own. And the player and hero are having a conversation, reacting and responding to one another, over the course of the journey.
I believe that if the player has complete control of the story — and I’m talking exclusively about big, cinematic games — then the writer has no control. Forcing the player to shoot the doctor is an elegant way of explaining this via action. You’re a participant in the story, but it is not your story to tell.
Personally, I disagree. For me the character is me and I am the character. I play a game because I want to control things. If I want to experience a person whose thought and behaviors I can’t control then I’ll read a book or watch a movie or tv show. I don’t want to ride shotgun. I hate rail shooters and this line of reasoning makes all games into rail shooters. If I can’t make the big decisions about how to behave in a certain situation then why should I make the small ones about who to shoot (and to write that who to shoot is a smaller decision than anything else in games is, of course, a commentary on what games do and don’t value. Not to mention that Joel has killed literally hundreds of people but balks at killing one more to save everyone… (and why does the game give you stats on the number of people killed at the end? Is it trying to make a statement or is it just some stat that we are meant to try to improve in the future?)).
Then there is the very end which I don’t really know what it means. I don’t mean Joel lying to Ellie. For me that was overshadowed by the choice to have Ellie be the playable character at the end. In the beginning of the game Joel’s daughter is the first playable character. Then when Joel is sick, Ellie is the playable character. Then at the end the player controls Ellie as they walk to the town where Joel’s brother is. Why? What does it mean that we are controlling Ellie and not Joel? Is it to make some kind of symmetry between the beginning and the end? Is it a symbolic handing over of the reigns to Ellie? Was it just a design derision so that the game could more easily show Joel lying? In an interview the designers talk about it a bit but it still seems like an odd choice to me.
Despite all these criticisms I liked the game a lot. I like it despite these criticisms because I think if these things had been addressed more satisfactorily for my tastes then the game would have been so much better. Maybe it would have won three hundred game of the year awards instead of just 200 or something…
Six thumbs up.
love zombies. I hate them here.
That’s award worthy…