the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Last of Us

The Last of Us

Review in Brief
Game: A third-person action-adventure game with stealth and cover-based shooter elements set 20 years after a zombie apocalypse.
Good: Remarkable consistency and loyalty to an underlying theme; phenomenal stealth-based gameplay; compelling improvisational combat; incredible level design; excellent difficulty curve; incredible stories; mature gameplay, story, and themes.
Bad: Too many prototypical gameplay tropes; non-intuitive weapon-select system; weak overall plot arc.
Verdict: An absolute masterpiece; the strong individual pieces complement each other beautifully to form a spectacular overall game.
Rating: 9/10 – “Outstanding – very enjoyable and engrossing, almost perfect.”
Recommendation: A must-play for sufficiently mature audiences.

“The pieces are strong, but the assembled puzzle is a masterpiece.”

A lot of good things have already been written about The Last of Us. Some have praised the game’s mature and thought-provoking story. Some have praised the story-telling of the game and the unique, personal ways in which it gets its tone across. Others focus on the gameplay and the hectic, chaotic, beautiful combat system. Others focus on the overall mood and tone of the game. Others emphasize simply the graphical beauty. The game has a lot of great pieces by anyone’s account.

But the true strength of The Last of Us comes not from any one of these pieces, but from all of them, and not from their strength as a random collection of miscellaneous features, but rather through the puzzle that they assemble together. That is the true beauty of The Last of Us. Each individual feature is excellently-implemented on its own, but it is the sum of all these pieces that creates the remarkable whole that is the best game of the seventh video game generation.

The Last of Us is an open challenge (or invitation, depending on how you choose to view it) to the rest of the video game industry: this is how you do it. You start with a central premise, then you let everything else in the game grow from and be dictated by that key, guiding central premise. You let that core gameplay idea dictate the plot, the story, the gameplay, the character development, the combat, and the structure of that game. You stay consistent and stay true to the game’s underlying essence, ideals, and fabric. Sprinkle in a dedication to quality that is nearly unmatched in the video game industry, and you have the recipe for one of the greatest games ever created.

The Game
The Last of Us is set 20 years after a zombie apocalypse. Around 2013, a fungal infection emerged that turned people into mindless zombies. Communicated either through airborne pathogens or through mouth-to-flesh contact, the world quickly fell to the disease. Now, you take the role of Joel, a survivor in this post-apocalyptic version of America just trying to get by in a world dominated by mindless zombies, ruthless hunters, and corrupt governments. You are entrusted with the life of a young girl named Ellie, born years after the infection began, who might hold the key to humanity’s survival. Your goal is to transport her to a militia that knows what to do with her.

In terms of gameplay, The Last of Us is a third-person action-adventure game with significant elements of cover-based shooting and stealth. The structure of the gameplay is, in many ways, prototypical third-person cover-based shooter, but the arrangement of resources and items heavily changes the structure of the game. Resource scarcity means that stealth approaches rooted in melee combat are essential to survival. Two different kinds of enemies await you: armed humans and ruthless zombies, each with very different tactics, tendencies, and weak points. Between battles, you must also scavenge for resources and find items to use to craft new tools to help you in battle.

The Good
I’m fairly certain that I’m actually going to forget several good things I wanted to say about The Last of Us. The game does so many big things well that it almost isn’t worth talking about the little things it does well, but the attention to detail on the little things is what allows the big things to shine so brightly. All taken together, though, the most incredible strength of the game is the way everything fits together into a nice, cohesive whole. The individual pieces are strong, but it’s the assembled puzzle that’s a masterpiece.

The heart of the mastery that is The Last of Us is in its consistency. The game starts from a simple and overdone central premise: a zombie apocalypse. According to Wikipedia at least, there have been 27 zombie-themed games in the last two and a half years, as well as countless movies and at least one television show. Zombies are well-trodden territory, so it might seem surprising that a company as respected as Naughty Dog decided to retread such a well-worn path. But Naughty Dog is a company with its own remarkable standard to live up to, and as such, when they do zombies, they do them differently.

For The Last of Us, Naughty Dog seems to have started from that central “zombie apocalypse” premise, but ignored everything that any other franchise has ever had to say on the subject. Instead, they examined what being in a zombie apocalypse would really mean. How would governments respond? How would people respond? Where would the virus come from? What would its prognosis be? How would it develop?

The result is a magnificently consistent motivating central theme that informs everything else that the game does. Naughty Dog’s decisions about these central, basic ideas dictate the factions present in the game world, the gameplay itself, the overarching story, the locations, and the characters.

Without spoiling anything, let’s look at some of the ways that central theme motivated the game. In the event of a zombie apocalypse, where will people get goods? Odds are, they will have to craft them out of whatever resources they can find lying around, and sure enough, crafting makeshift tools is a significant part of The Last of Us. When the factions inevitably break out, what weapons will they use? Guns are sure to be a high commodity and bullets an even higher one, so there’s certainly to be a lot of scarcity, and sure enough, The Last of Us distinguishes itself from other shooters by making ammunition so scarce that you’re hesitant to ever use it at all. In a world where it’s every man for himself, what is fighting going to be like? You’re most likely to fight with whatever you can get your hands on, and even regular people are going to have to fight to survive; sure enough, the combat is exactly the kind of fighting you’d expect from people that weren’t raised to be zombie hunters.

But the fact that these strengths flow from the central underlying theme is only one part of why The Last of Us is so excellent. To continue the metaphor, the picture that the puzzle depicts is beautiful, but the pieces fit together flawlessly, too. It’s not just about the central idea of a zombie apocalypse motivating the story, gameplay, and structure of the game; these pieces also fit together perfectly themselves. For example, the resource scarcity of the game incentivizes a stealthy, resource-lite approach, and the game’s execution of a workable stealthy approach in turn enables resource scarcity to be a challenge rather than a frustration. The improvisation available in the combat system demands levels that lend themselves to multiple approaches, and the level design complements the combat system by providing infinite ways to pursue every encounter. The realism that the story attempts to portray demands a battle system that doesn’t glorify its protagonists as superhuman, and the improvisational, natural battle system in turn enhances the game’s realism even further. The improvisation of the combat system demands a low cost of death and an incentive for experimentation, and the game’s auto-save system responds by preserving the flow and minimizing the negative effects of losing.

In the rest of this section of this review, I’m going to be discussing what makes each individual piece of the puzzle so strong, and those are critical elements: if the individual pieces aren’t strong, there’s no benefit from them fitting together nicely. But the fact that the strength of the individual pieces is enhanced even more by the way those pieces subsequently fit together. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Stealth Done Right
I never saw The Last of Us billed as a stealth game. It might have been marketed that way in some places, but not that I ever saw, and that certainly didn’t seem to be the cornerstone of the game’s genre claim. If anything, I’ve mostly seen the game misrepresented as another third-person cover-based shooter, a successor to Uncharted and another entry into that overcrowded genre.

Perhaps the reason for that, though, is that The Last of Us does stealth the right way: it doesn’t outright tell you to be stealthy. Rather, it balances the game in such a way that stealth just happens to be the best way to go about many of the sections. This comes from a wide variety of gameplay dynamics. Resource scarcity, first of all, makes run-and-gunning an unsustainable way of going about things; if you try to win every battle in a firefight, you’re going to run out of ammo, and enemies are going to already be aware of you making it difficult to finish the fight off with melee combat. Part of it comes from the artificial intelligence; once the enemies are aware of you and your position, they’re very apt at swarming and surrounding you, making blasting your way out very difficult. Part of it comes from the strength of the stealth gameplay itself: it’s a feasible, workable, engaging way of going about things. The game manages cover in a way that perfectly transitions between cover in a firefight and cover as you sneak around the battle field.

The stealth in The Last of Us is perfect because it feels like the natural option. To use a comparison, let’s compare it to a series that originally billed itself as being stealth-oriented, Assassin’s Creed. In Assassin’s Creed, stealth was incentivized in two ways: by requirement, which was frustrating, and by marketing, which was ineffective. Some missions require you to be stealthy and fail you if an enemy notices you; that’s just annoying, especially when you feel like you could have fought your way out if you tried. Other missions don’t even require you to be stealthy, but rather just give you a stealth-oriented path that you might choose to use because you want to be faithful to the game’s premise – but hey, you don’t have to. To expand this survey, let’s include Batman: Arkham Asylum in this, too: it incentivized stealth by just making enemies so powerful that if you don’t stay hidden, you’re screwed. You can’t win in melee combat against armed enemies. That approach is slightly better, but it still feels somewhat artificial.

In The Last of Us, the name of the game is balance. Stealth is never mandatory, but it’s almost always a sufficiently better option that you’ll choose it anyway. If you get caught, the melee combat is more than sufficient to get you out of a scrape, but you’re not going to want to choose it regularly. Enemies are smart enough to swarm to you and take you out quickly if you stay revealed for too long, but it isn’t the instantaneous death that we see in Batman: Arkham Asylum. There’s certainly no outright penalty for it, but between the diminished rate of success and the scarcity of your resources, there’s plenty of implicit penalty.

This way of framing the stealth goes even a step further, connecting with the game’s consistency. It’s not just that you choose stealth because stealth is the better gameplay option; stealth also makes far more sense in the context of the game world. Resource scarcity, the main character’s lack of military training, and, for the sections where the zombies are the enemies, the enemies’ game-justified AI all make stealth a sufficiently better option. Choosing a stealth approach is just the natural decision following from every element of the game’s structure, from the gameplay to the story. At the risk of trivializing it, it just feels completely natural, like no intentional design had to go into it at all. It works the way you’d expect it to work if this story had actually happened.

This naturalness of the game’s stealth is further enhanced by one of its features, called “focus hearing”. I’ve seen this feature criticized in some places for being an analogue to Assassin’s Creed‘s “Eagle Vision” and Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s “Detective Vision” and thus breaking the realism of the game, but “focus hearing” is actually a very realistic feature. As the main character in the heat of battle, you would have the ability to be extra-sensitive to sounds: who is talking, who is walking, where footsteps and gunshots are coming from, etc. Without full surround-sound, a game cannot recreate this audio experience, so “focus hearing” recreates it instead visually. It is a simple, natural way of giving you, the player, the knowledge that the character themselves would have.

The final icing on the cake for stealth being done right in The Last of Us is that, unlike almost every other game I’ve played with a stealth element, stealth actually can be the total solution. In many games, stealth is a way of taking out enemies, but in The Last of Us, stealth is the art of staying undetected. What that means is that there are areas that you can pass just by staying undetected, without killing anyone at all. In fact, most areas of the game are like that; the goal is to get to a certain spot, and if you get there you can move on, regardless of how many enemies you took out on the way. That’s the true essence of stealth: being able to remain completely silent and undetected through an entire area, without even killing anyone, and still being able to move on in the game. And again, this element melds seamlessly with the game’s other strengths; the zombies’ specific backstory and prognosis makes them perfect matches for a stealth approach.

Improvisational Combat
So what happens once you’re out of stealth? Does the game default to a typical third-person shooter? That’s largely the way Uncharted works, allowing you to stay undetected at first but completely reverting to a cover-based shooter once an enemy detects you. In The Last of Us, though, it’s all about the improvisation. The combat is so varied, so flexible, and so fast-paced that there’s really little chance to get into a rhythm with it. In Uncharted and other cover-based shooters, you can get into a bit of a pattern of when to duck, when to shoot, and when to move, but the pace, AI, and resource scarcity of The Last of Us make that kind of rhythm impossible. Instead, the combat of The Last of Us is characterized entirely by its improvisational nature. You do in the moment whatever you have to do: you mash the melee button, you turn heel and run, or you whip out whatever gun is equipped and fire madly. Sure, there are times when you can be strategic, but there are also significant times when improvisation and flying by the seat of your pants are the only ways to go about this.

What’s actually interesting, though, is that in many games, I would criticize this feature. Gaming is supposed to be about getting into a rhythm, a flow, and figuring out how to succeed, not consistently feeling like you’re just getting by. But the reason The Last of Us excels with this type of combat system is that it actually matches the plot. We know the protagonists aren’t seasoned fighters. We know that resources are scarce. This type of schoolyard brick-throwing is what we would expect from this game world. The system also works because, well, it works: you can succeed. In many games, the moment you find yourself without an answer to what to do next, you die, but in The Last of Us, improvising actually works much of the time. The game lets you go with your first instinct and usually rewards you for it, just as it would if you were actually the character in the game.

This improvisational combat is facilitated by several different elements of the game. The artificial intelligence of the game is masterful in this regard: enemies swarm you in such a way that you can’t get into a cover-based shooting rhythm, but they also swarm you in such a way that you can find a way out. The flexibility of the combat system also plays a role, giving you lots of ways to go about things, such as throwing bricks in enemy’s faces. What arguably makes it most feasible, though, is the game’s cover system, which, for the first time of any game I’ve played, features non-sticky cover. If you’re kneeling behind cover, you’re considered by the game to be “in cover”; no more of this “press Triangle to get in cover” garbage. It’s a much more natural way of accomplishing the system, and it allows the player to seamlessly transition between play styles at the drop of a hat.

Of course, not all of the combat is fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants improvisation. There are plenty of areas, especially when you’re undetected, that you can be far more strategic. However, even in these instances, the game rewards improvisation. You have lots of ways of going about any given encounter, and you can choose your approach again and again throughout the game. Say you come up to an enemy patrolling one way; you throw a brick to get him to look away from you, then sneak up behind him. Another one, you lay a bomb down that explodes when he gets near. Another, you just follow him until the opportunity to take him down arises. All of these approaches are chosen in the heat of the moment, preserving the game’s improvisational nature, yet all are comparably effective. What this also means is that even when you die, you don’t play the encounter the same way twice; you might learn some broad ideas about where enemies move, but you don’t have a script by which to beat the encounter the way you do in other games.

To put this all in a nutshell, it never feels like the game is specifically advocating or demanding a particular approach. You can improvise your own approach, and when your approach fails, you can switch to something else. Of course, what makes this possible is also the level design, and it’s made even better by the fact that this is a realistic approach to the game’s structure. It all ties together.

Realistic, Minimalistic, and Natural
Like I said above, in many ways it’s easy to trivialize the game’s excellence because so much just feels so natural; we forget that someone had to specifically design every inch of the game to make it actually feel natural. Yet one of the hallmarks of The Last of Us is just how realistic it is, in a wide variety of ways.

An enormous part of this realism comes from how minimalistic the game is. It isn’t quite as minimalistic as Uncharted, but the head’s up display is still barely visible compared to the systems used in other games. It disappears when out of combat, too, allowing you to focus on the beautiful world of the game and, simultaneously, temporarily forget that you’re even playing a game. This sort of minimalism is what makes most of Naughty Dog’s games so compelling: the game stays out of the way of the gameplay, instead allowing a relatively simple control scheme and set of concepts to dictate a dynamic, vibrate experience.

Beyond that, though, the realism and naturalness of The Last of Us exists in both the combat and the game’s non-combat gameplay. In combat, the first notable feature, as mentioned before, is the non-sticky cover-based combat; the game treats cover as a natural byproduct of the ability to crouch rather than something you have to specifically press a button to enter. That keeps the controls out of the way of the gameplay more substantially and simplifies the overall approach. The game integrates quick-time events into melee combat with regularity, another strong point that answers the usual criticism of those annoyances. Melee combat is also heavily context-sensitive, rarely generating those collision errors characteristic of such systems and often leveraging the environment in the animations. Both your character and the enemies react realistically, too; your character actually falls back, grimaces, and reacts when shot, and enemies only react to you when they actually see you. You can sit, crouched, near an enemy, but until they actually turn and look at you they don’t notice you, unlike other games that assume proximity is a sufficient determinant for visibility.

The combined effect of all these things is a combat system that’s realistic on another level. In other games, when you find yourself faced with countless enemies, the reaction is often to take them on. In Assassin’s Creed, rarely do you get the impression that it’s the number of enemies that is actually going to determine your success, and that’s problematic and unrealistic. In The Last of Us, even being outnumbered two to one is a challenge. There isn’t this sense of your character being hilariously stronger than the enemies they’re facing. They feel like equals, and your job is to find a way to beat them anyway.

Outside of combat, the realism is preserved. The game is spectacularly cinematic in painting a picture of the areas, but stops short of being indulgent or overly proud of itself. The beauty is simply there to be appreciated rather than thrown in the player’s face. The game supplies the same excellent hint system as the Uncharted series (even with the same sound effect, a disorienting connection), a simple button press telling you where to go next if you’re stuck. Ally movement is remarkably executed as well. In combat, allies can be a bit frustrating and get in the way a bit too much, but outside of combat, their movement is phenomenal. It never feels like they are moving about prescribed paths; rather, it feels like a collection of characters themselves discovering the world around you just as you do. They never get “dead face” syndrome, waiting motionless for you to reach the next waypoint. They actually feel like characters.

Perhaps nothing summarizes the realism of the game better than this: when you’re in cutscenes, you actually find yourself trying to shush the characters because they might attract enemy attention. Enemy reactions are so realistic that you almost think they’ll notice you even during events that you know are scripted such that enemies won’t interrupt. That’s how engaging and immersing the gameplay is: you keep playing the game even when you’re not playing it.

Incredible Level Design
As referenced a couple places above, the level design of The Last of Us is one of the things that makes the overall game truly remarkable. The level design complements many of the other features of the game brilliantly: its flexibility allows for the improvisation of the combat, which in turn facilitates the compelling resource scarcity of the game, and thematically the level design is responsible for setting the tone of the game as a whole and telling many stories on its own. The level design is the perfect complement to the rest of the game.

However, analyzing the level design in and of itself unrelated to the rest of the game, it still remains incredibly well-executed. Every level in the game feels open. In my reviews, I write a lot about the illusion of non-linearity: barely any video games are truly non-linear, the question is in how they disguise their linearity, and The Last of Us disguises its linearity beautifully. The areas are huge for this genre of game, leaving lots of paths for exploration. During combat, this design leaves lots of different approaches and angles, leaving the player to feel like there is no prescribed “right” way of going through the level.

Even more than that, the levels feel totally realistic. At different times, you visit hotels, neighborhoods, power plants, universities, hospitals, and other locations, and every single one of them feels like it’s been plucked right out of the real world. There were several locations in the game that I actually fully believed were plucked right out of the real world and animated for the game, a la Savannah in The Walking Dead: The Game. They don’t feel at all like they are levels designed for a video game, but rather like they’re real locations treated with 20 years of post-zombie apocalypse mayhem. Like the gameplay, the levels are so well-designed that they almost don’t feel intentionally designed at all.

Excellent Difficulty Curve
Chances are that if I hadn’t just finished playing both BioShock games before playing The Last of Us, I wouldn’t have commented on this, but the excellence of those two games reminded me how difficult it is to establish a good difficulty curve in a game. In games, you’re typically improving the player’s raw strength through their weapons and abilities while the player themselves also gets better at the game, and yet the game is still supposed to get more challenging as the game goes along (or at least sustain its challenge). That’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike: on one side, you might make the game far too easy late in the game when the difficulty is supposed to be the highest, but on the other, you might make the game frustratingly hard or rely too much on artificial difficulty gimmicks.

The Last of Us somehow manages to execute this steadily-increasing difficulty curve flawlessly. Unlike many games, the difficulty curve in The Last of Us increases along the same spectrum: you’re still using the same skills to which you were introduced at the start toward the end of the game, just with far more precision and delicacy. Enemies get stronger, but similarly, they get stronger along the same dimension: they require the same tactics, just executed better. Even though your weapons get better, they get better in a way that only helps if you already have the tactics to utilize them. The latter portions of the game are more challenging, but not through any artificial gimmicks like the sudden introduction of body armor or just more enemies thrown in your direction, but rather through a careful application of level design, artificial intelligence, and resource scarcity.

In many ways, it’s hard to even pinpoint what makes the latter portions of the game harder, which is an excellent achievement: the player is never really aware of what the game is doing to make itself more difficult, they just know that it’s gotten harder. Even when The Last of Us pulls some stunts that in other games would be considered gimmicks, like stripping you of your inventory, it actually makes sense in the context of the plot. This goes back to, again, the symbiosis between the various elements of the game. Perhaps nothing illustrates the strength of the difficulty curve better than this: throughout the game, you fight armed human enemies and zombies, each with drastically different AI. In every encounter, I found myself wishing I was facing the other kind of enemy, because every encounter was more difficult than the previous one.

Incredible Story
Later on, one of my minor criticisms of The Last of Us is going to be the plot; the game actually has a somewhat weak plot, but it tells several remarkable stories. The difference between a plot and a story is crucial. To me, the plot of a game is the actual series of events that take place, what the players’ actual goals are, and what the destination is. The plot drives the game, and the story emerges from the plot.

The Last of Us has several incredible stories. One of my first notes while playing the game was that the game told a better story in its first ten minutes than most games do in their entirety. There are actually several stories in the game, though. I won’t spoil any of them, but just at a high level, the main stories are the story of the relationship between the game’s two main characters and the story of the world as a whole. The former story is told through their dialogue, which is some of the most compelling and powerfully acted dialogue I’ve ever seen in a video game. The latter story is told more subtly, through the visual level design, the assumptions in the dialogue, and clues you find along the journey. Through these subtle hints, you learn the story of how the entire world fell to a fungal virus that no one saw coming.

The stories are compelling in their variety, their scope, their internal power, and their exposition. Through the game, you witness stories of various different people and how they reacted to the infection: families, individuals, orphans, grieving parents and widows, and any number of other individuals. Through their notes and eyes you look at what has befallen the world. The scope is enormous: you see everything from the response of the world as a whole at the government level to the response of individual families. The power of these stories is breathtaking; on multiple occasions, you have to stop and appreciate just a small side-story that the game tells that has no bearing on the plot, but reveals an enormous amount about the world in which the game exists. The exposition facilitates all this beautifully: stories are told not just in text and dialogue, but just in images and level designs. You encounter homes, arrangements of bodies, and destruction of property that wordlessly tell entire stories of what has befallen the world.

All of those changes are mere complements, though, to the main story, which is a story of the two main characters and their relationship. I have never witnessed as powerful a story in a video game as the story of Joel and Ellie. The acting, the motion capture, the writing, and the exposition unite beautifully to tell a story of these two lost individuals. The role reversals, mutual respect and discovery, and genuine appreciation the two develop for one another makes them two of the best-defined characters in video game history. The stories told by The Last of Us are among the best stories told by any video game and represent the culmination of the type of narrative gaming that gaming has been building toward for years; and what’s most remarkable is that despite this accomplishment, it’s only a minor footnote compared to all the other things The Last of Us does well.

Flow-Maintaining Auto-Saves
All of the above points are broad, far-reaching elements of The Last of Us that make it a solid game. These next two are actually far more minor, but they play key roles in defining the flow and originality of the game.

The first of these is a feature borrowed almost wholesale from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. Granted, it isn’t quite as well implemented as it is in that series, but it’s well-done nonetheless. In every game, there is a cost of failure. Most games revolve around a player character who has the ability to die, and the cost of failure is what you lose if you die. In some games, like Pokemon, there is a literal currency cost. In most modern games, though, the cost of death is just a return to the previous checkpoint. How high that cost is depends on the frequency of the checkpoints and the duration of the reload time. In Spec Ops: The Line, there is a very high cost of death because dying can cost you as much as 15 minutes of battle time on top of a full minute of reload time.

The structure of the auto-save mechanism in The Last of Us is such that there is nearly no cost to death. The game auto-saves frequently enough that you rarely lose more than a couple minutes of progress when you die, and the game reloads in under 10 seconds, thrusting you right back into the action. The best element of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is its ability to create the psychological state of flow, and one key element of that is to avoid breaking the flow. The auto-save structure and quick reload time in The Last of Us help facilitate the maintenance of that flow throughout the game, which in turn helps keep every other element of the game compelling. Moreover, the improvisational nature of the combat only works because there is such a low cost of death: if the cost of death was high, then the player would quickly grow frustrated at their inability to plan an approach that does not result in death.

Fresh Re-Imagining of Zombies
Zombies have been done to death, no pun intended. As mentioned above, there have been over thirty original franchises based around zombies in the last three years alone, spread across movies, video games, television shows, and books. The market for zombie-related media is oversaturated. How, then, did Naughty Dog create a compelling game based on such well-trodden territory? Lots of this comes from the above strengths, but a major part of this is also the fresh re-imagining of zombies.

Lots of different franchises imagine zombies in different ways. Some are slow, like Night of the Living Dead, while some are fast, like World War Z. Some franchises say zombie infections are spread by bites while opt for zombies from hell or other origin stories. Eating flesh is a fairly consistent zombie feature, but some differ over whether biting is just to spread the disease like a vampire or whether it’s actual consumption for food. With all the different variations on zombies, it is already a bit difficult to re-imagine them in an original way, yet Naughty Dog pulls that off.

It starts with biology: in The Last of Us, it is revealed very early that zombiehood is endowed by a fungal infection that eats the host’s brain. That on its own is already a richer biological explanation of what it means to be a zombie. This cause, though, carries through to other areas of the game. This means that different zombies may have differing degrees of zombiehood, depending on how much the infection has penetrated their brain. It also means that at later stages of infection, zombies lose their sense of sight or ability to talk. Instead, they listen for their prey and communicate via clickers, giving them the in-game name “clickers”. In later stages, the fungus completely consumes their body, making them far more armored and resistant to attacks.

What’s remarkable about this reimagining of zombies, though, is the way it plays into and facilitates the gameplay. The differing degrees of infection give a great variety to the enemies, explaining the different behaviors of different zombies you might encounter. Their audio-centric nature facilitates the game’s stealth setting beautifully, allowing the player to ignore sight lines in favor of slow movement and deliberate, planned assaults. The fungal infection preserves the role of biting in spreading the disease, giving it a chance to enter the bloodstream, while also allowing for plot events that depend on the slow turn from human to zombie. The idea of a fungal brain growth lends itself to a very interesting visualization that itself justifies the zombies’ lack of sight and speech while also giving the player a clear indication of what they’re up against. Lastly, the fungal overgrowth transitions seamlessly into a later plot point about the disease. It’s all remarkably consistent, well-imagined, well-defined, and unique compared to the zombies of all those other countless franchises.

The reason this final section exists is because with all the praise I’ve heaped on The Last of Us above, it still doesn’t quite tell the whole story. A game could have equally solid gameplay, compelling stories, and cohesive central themes, and still not be as good as The Last of Us. The final icing on the cake is the game’s maturity, and I don’t just mean that in terms of the M rating on the box. It takes gameplay and story elements and elevates them to a new level of artistic expression.

The story is easy to see in this way. The stories that the game tells, the character development that we witness, and the world that the game paints stand shoulder to shoulder with any analogous creations from any creative medium. The Last of Us truly is the Citizen Kane of video games, telling a story that could compare to any other form of media. It’s a game you use to prove to people that games can be art. What’s remarkable, though, is that many games in the past have shown that games can tell artistic stories: BioShock, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Metal Gear Solid have all demonstrated the quality of stories told through video games. Games like Shadow of the Colossus and, again, BioShock equally demonstrated the beautiful worlds that games can create.

What’s remarkable is that The Last of Us extends artistic expression and maturity into even its gameplay. The resource scarcity of the game is itself an act of maturity. The immature, normal gameplay approach is to run into an encounter with guns blazing and win on the sheer manly strength of your trigger finger, but that’s a rather immature gameplay dynamic. That’s the gaming equivalent of The Avengers – there’s nothing wrong with it, but its entertainment value is clearly on the surface. Most games go for the same kind of appeal, going for thrills and spectacle and ignoring nuance and subtlety. The Last of Us, however, is different. Even the gameplay is dripping with maturity, asking the player to carefully consider their approach and their resources and giving them all the incentive to do so. The mature plotline, the realistic character development, and the compelling world are all remarkable achievements, but what is truly remarkable and mature is the way the game resists the temptation to be just another cookie cutter cover-based shooter. It’s an open challenge to the rest of the gaming industry: this is what gaming should be for the modern, mature audience.

The Bad
With so much good going on in The Last of Us, my critiques are going to seem like nitpicks. In many ways they are; none of my criticisms approach the scope and significance of the game’s strengths. In some ways, that’s a testament to the game’s strength itself; it’s like criticizing a wedding reception for the amount of salt in the main course’s dish. Every good game, though, deserves to be thoroughly analyzed, and these three things are the minor, tiny little elements that stood between The Last of Us and a perfect score.

Too Many Unnecessary Gameplay Tropes
The first of my three criticisms is a strange one, if only because it’s something for which I’ve praised Naughty Dog before. Many games include what I consider unnecessary gameplay tropes simply because they think they’re expected to. Currency systems to buy in-game items, upgrade systems based on scavenged items, and health point systems instead of the more modern “automatic healing” system are all examples of gameplay stereotypes that shouldn’t be used haphazardly. That’s not to say they don’t have their place, but in many games, they’re used and they just do not make any sense.

The Last of Us is one such game. First of all, the game includes an HP system defined by an HP meter restored by using health packs. For a modern game like The Last of Us, the idea of HP is itself something of a travesty. It’s an outdated mode of representing health that doesn’t fit with the realism of the game at all. The game would have been much better off using Uncharted‘s self-regenerating health system, even if it extended that system to entire battles rather than simply finding cover.

The more egregious problem, though, is the existence of systems to upgrade your weapons and skills. Throughout the game world you can find “parts”; they aren’t given any more detailed a name than that. Then, at a work bench, you can upgrade your weapons using these parts. You can, for example, increase your shotgun’s ammo capacity, or increase the firepower of a flamethrower, or build a new holster for a rifle. All of these things can be accomplished by trading the right amount of “parts” for these upgrades. That just doesn’t make any sense; how do the same tools and parts used in different ways result in both a weapon holster and an ammunition chamber? Sure, other games do things like this, but other games don’t try to be nearly as realistic otherwise as The Last of Us does. And perhaps most frustratingly, the weapon upgrades are barely even necessary. Upgrading one’s weapons really doesn’t add a lot of power, so the system could have been dispensed with altogether. It reeks of a system included just because other games do things like that, too.

The same can be said for the system by which Joel upgrades his own abilities. Throughout the game world, you find “supplements”, depicted as pills. You can trade the right amount of supplements for different skills or enhancements. Eat 50 supplements and you get an extra bar on your health meter. Eat 75 and you can counter-attack zombies with your knife. How does it make any sense that, after randomly popping 75 pills, you’re suddenly able to do something with your knife you weren’t able to do before? And how is your body supposed to know, “Oh, those 75 pills were supposed to go to how fast I can construct a health kit, not how far I can hear”? Again, it’s something many games do, but it doesn’t mesh with the hyper-realistic world of The Last of Us; and, more importantly, it wasn’t necessary. The game would have been fine without these upgrades ever being available. These aren’t poorly-implemented systems, they’re altogether unnecessary systems, and what is most shocking is that the absence of similar systems in Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is part of what makes that series so strong.

Non-Intuitive Weapon Select Interface
Now we’re really nitpicking. The weapon-select interface in The Last of Us is very non-intuitive and difficult to use, especially in the heat of the game’s chaotic, fast-paced, improvisational combat. Weapons are selected using the D-pad. To the right are pistols, to the left are rifles, up is health packs and bombs, down is your current throwable item, Molotovs, and smoke bombs. Press on the D-pad in the given direction the given number of times to switch to that item.

If that’s actually the way it worked, that’d be fine, but unfortunately, it really isn’t. Once you press the D-pad in one direction, you’re locked into that portion of the select wheel. If you press up, then pressing up and down iterates between the health pack and the bomb, but you have to go all the way back to the bottom to get to the bottom part of the wheel. For guns, you can alternate what gun is in what slot, but only by first selecting the slot, holding it selected, then holding down X to bring up a menu of other weapons that can go in that slot. If you do the same thing for health packs or other consumable items, though, you instead craft that item.

Melee weapons are a bigger challenge here. At any given time, you can carry a melee weapon like a board, a pipe, or a machete. If you melee attack while you have a melee weapon, you’ll use the weapon; if you do not have a weapon, you’ll use your fists. However, sometimes you can also use a brick or a glass bottle as a melee weapon. Even after beating the entire game, I’m not sure when this happens, but the game does not make it easy to know how to switch to having your default melee weapon equipped rather than your brick or bottle. Similarly, the game does not seem to include a way to put weapons away, which can just be a little disorienting.

Overall, the biggest problem with the weapon select system is that it tries to do too much in one interface. It tries to marry the quick-select interface with the weapon-assignment interface and the item-crafting interface. It would have been better to separate these out: use a radial menu to select from one of eight potential items (just like the eight that are available anyway) using the control stick, and have a separate interface in the menu to assign items and weapons around that wheel. Don’t worry about allowing crafting and switching from the menu itself, that doesn’t happen enough to worry. The result of doing it the more complicated way is that, in the heat of battle, it’s very difficult to get out the weapon you want quickly.

Weak Plot
I referenced in earlier that there is a difference between story and plot. A plot is the sequence of events that actually takes place around you, while the stories are those narratives told in the dialogue, the setting, and the mementos that you find lying around. In The Last of Us, the stories are remarkably strong, but the plot is actually surprisingly weak.

About 90% of the gameplay is driven by one overall goal. The fact that that goal really doesn’t change much, except to move a little, makes the game feel a bit slow at times. The slowness is exacerbated by the fact that even within the context of that goal, new information is barely ever revealed. We witness a lot of character development as the characters march endlessly toward that goal, but the fact that the goal doesn’t change represents a pretty weak overall plot arc. The events occurring in the immediate vicinity of the characters are usually compelling, but there isn’t an overall plot arc to tie them together.

The plot also skips large portions of seemingly relevant information. Over the course of the game, the characters cover thousands of miles of travel, yet we only see little bits of it. The space between destinations is covered by a black screen announcing that time has passed followed by dialogue expositing the new location, but it feels unbelievable that so much could happen in a short span of time in some places while nothing happens for thousands of miles of travel in others. There is also a weakness in character development here: even after what appears to have been an unseen several-month trip, the characters seem to be at the exact same place they were previously in their relationship. Character development quickly follows, but there is not nearly as much development implied as one would expect in such a long trek.

Finally, the plot does sometimes seem to fall into the trap of making firefights and battles just obligatory. On multiple occasions, zombies turn up somewhere with little plot relevance or human soldiers stage an ambush with seemingly no objective. These events kind of come out of nowhere, and they feel like the writers said, “Oh, shoot, we haven’t let the player play in a while. Ok, let’s send some enemies in.” At times they can make the game feel a little artificially-structured, but fortunately, that only becomes notably distracting in a couple places.

The Verdict
The Last of Us is great on three different levels. First, the individual features of the game are brilliantly implemented. The combat is engaging, immersing, and flow-inducing, and the way it rewards improvisational behavior and encourages multiple approaches should be envied and replicated by all other third-person shooters. Its incentive for stealth gameplay is perfect and should serve as a guiding document to other games that purport to be stealth-oriented but fail miserably. The stories of the game are breathtaking, and the storytelling is downright literary. Graphically the game is beautiful, it settings are remarkably created, its voice acting is superb, etc.; all the usual default good things one can say about a game are true for The Last of Us.

But the individual pieces don’t tell the whole story; The Last of Us derives its quality from the way they fit together. The different strengths of the game themselves enhance the game’s other features. The game’s brilliantly-implemented resource scarcity helps play a role in incentivizing the stealth-oriented combat, and the effectiveness of the stealth combat in turn helps keep the resource scarcity a challenge rather than a frustration. The chaotic gameplay demands flexible levels, and the level design responds by giving numerous different approaches to every encounter. Every element of the game complements and is complemented by other elements of the game.

The first level shows that the pieces of the game are strong; the second level shows that the pieces fit together well. The third level of excellence in The Last of Us is the overall picture that emerges. In The Last of Us, we see a central motivating theme that informs every single element of game design. The gameplay, the story, the structure, and the characters of the game are all dictated by a consistent, cohesive underlying fabric, resulting in one of the most unified gameplay experiences ever. The result is almost ironic: the entire game is designed so brilliantly to fit together and create one phenomenal whole that you almost forget it had to be designed that way in the first place. The game seems effortlessly natural, like it was filmed rather than constructed. Every bit is exactly as one would expect, with every piece fitting together perfectly to create a beautiful overall picture.

My Recommendation
The best game of this generation and one of the best games ever. A must-play for sufficiently mature audiences.

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