Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2013-06-26 17:56:46
The Last of Us - Niggles and Imperfections
Naughty Dog's The Last of Us (PS3) didn't resonate with me as much as I hoped it would. I'm not one for buying into hyperbole, but the reviews weren't just high for The Last of Us, as is standard in the industry now for blockbuster games; they were ridiculously high, making me believe that it realistically deserved the praise. Now that I've finished the game, I have to conclude that while it is a well-crafted adventure, it isn't deserving of a 10/10 score. While it certainly did more things right than it did wrong, the following are a few of the things that stood out to me as breaking the immersion of the game and causing frustration. Before diving into criticism, however, I should note that I still consider TLoU to be a great game, and one that has frequent moments of brilliance peppered throughout. In addition, most of these points are subjective, and so I fully understand if other gamers disagree with my evaluations (beware of possible spoilers below).
Niggle #1 - Combat Areas Are Clearly Defined: While the areas in which the player engages with enemies are quite varied and, in certain cases, expansive enough to not feel linear, throughout the entire game it is easy to predict when a shoot-out will occur. If you enter an area and find conveniently placed objects that you can take cover behind dotted around, you can guarantee that a fight will follow soon after. The problem is that the game makes such efforts to ensure that its world feels real that these generic gameplay tropes stick out like a sore thumb. While the world feels vast and interesting, environments are dotted with typical gaming assets that feel comparatively artificial. You don't fight enemies in the same organic world that you explore; you engage with them in closed-off mini-areas that feel isolated from the rest of the world. In some cases, you can only move on when a requisite amount of enemies have been killed. By falling back on tried-and-testing 'gaming' formulas (kill 'X' amount of enemies), the natural immersion of the world is diluted.
Niggle #2 - Too Many Blocked Stairways: Maybe expectations are too high when playing The Last of Us, but that doesn't stop the disingenuous use of random environmental items blocking your path from feeling a bit lazy. There are multiple points throughout the entire game where stairways are blocked off by randomly placed furniture. Outside buildings, there are things like trucks parked across the roadway to prevent you from going out of bounds. In a game as clever as this, though, these obstacles break the immersion of the game by feeling too much like obvious roadblocks. For every clever use of a collapsed bridge that no one in their right mind would think of crossing is a mop and bucket lying across the stairs that cannot be crossed because the developers didn't design an area at the top of the steps. The result is that the game feels achingly linear at times, particularly near the end of the quest.
Niggle #3 - The Game Ends Up A Corridor Shooter: The final chapter of the game, set in Salt Lake City, has some cool parts to it. It also has some pretty generic parts, where you're in a hospital navigating corridors while popping off soldiers. I understand that the developers wanted to make the game go out with a bang, but the final chapter rubbed me the wrong way; the survival-horror aspect of the title is sacrificed in exchange for running-and-gunning, especially after the player receives an automatic rifle weapon. Enemies receive body armour to boost the challenge and take too many shots to kill for it to be enjoyable; as another bland hospital corridor came into view and seven to ten more soldiers descended upon me out of nowhere as part of another scripted event, I wanted the game to end sooner than it did. Despite not being especially long, the ending still felt drawn out, and it's a shame that everything climaxed in the most uninteresting, grey area of the entire (otherwise attractive) game.
Niggle #4 - Combat Becomes Too Easy: Near the beginning of the game, The Last of Us is hard: Clickers instantly kill the player and resources are scarce. As the game went on, however, I upgraded my weapons and my character to the point that enemies were no longer a threat. I found that with a bow and arrow fully upgraded, I could silently dispatch huge waves of enemies without trouble. It's a shame, because the earlier parts of the game require some really clever strategies and every bullet does indeed count. As is the case with a lot of these types of games, though, after a while you become too powerful for the mechanics the game world has established to accommodate, and those Clickers (the only real threat in the entire game) can be killed with a simple quick-time event that barely causes the player any problems. Once the most challenging enemy in the game is a pushover, everything else stagnates.
Niggle #5 - It Isn't Very Scary: I'm amazed that I'm writing this, because I'm not the biggest fan of survival-horror. In fact, I still dread playing Resident Evil 4, because I have such horrific memories of the first time I encountered the rambling, tortured movements of Regenerators and Iron Maidens. In short, I'm a bit of a pussy when it comes to playing horror games, and I generally scare quite easily. That's why I'm amazed that I didn't find The Last of Us to be unsettling at all, really. The only scene that got my heart racing was the part where Joel and Ellie are separated, and Joel has to navigate a dark, submerged area and turn an electrical generator back on (which, of course, alerts the surrounding Infected). It was a genuinely intense moment, and one that was rarely touched on again. Even then, it wasn't the enemies that were scary as much as it was the dimly-lit environment. After seeing every type of enemy once, you start to realise that they aren't particularly fearsome to look at, and even their screams raise more shrugs than they do chills after a while.
Niggle #6 - The AI Can Be Really Dumb: While the AI of the Infected is pretty much spot-on (the way in which they respond to sound works really well, for the most part) the AI of the human opponents can be really bad. While human enemies can make intelligent decisions and sneak up behind you, they can also be standing right next to a dead ally without even noticing. You can fire an arrow into the back of someone standing right next to his buddy and the buddy will look on as if nothing happened. They also have a habit of forgetting things; I whacked someone with a baseball bat and then hid behind a wall, only for the guy to take two shots at me and then walk off in the other direction, lamenting, "Where did you go, you son of a bitch?". As the game goes on and the body count rises, I was amazed at how I could throw a bomb into a room, blow up four guys, only to have their friends a little way off not even break a sweat. It's sad, given how great the AI of the Infected is in comparison - if they heard a bomb go off, they'd come running.
Niggle #7 - Playing As Ellie Wasn't Enjoyable: This one is largely subjective, but I didn't have fun playing as Ellie. In fact, I found it quite annoying. Chasing the deer in the woods was one thing, but when the game put me up against a bunch of guys armed with shotguns and rifles and I had one gun with five rounds and none of my upgrades, I felt like a sitting duck. It wasn't that the game became too hard - I managed to get through these bits with only a couple of deaths - as much as it was that the game just felt like a neutered version of what came before. If Ellie had a different play-style, perhaps I would have warmed to these sections more. Instead, she plays like a re-skinned Joel with weaker punches and none of the weapons. The part of the game when you're out in the snow at David's camp and can barely see anything annoyed me, because I couldn't see enemies when they could see me. I eventually found that trial and error (running blindly in one direction, dying, and then running in a different direction on the next attempt) was the easiest way to get through this part. All in all, Ellie's section just wasn't fun to play, at least to me.
Niggle #8 - Repetitive Gathering of Items: I love it in games when I can collect things and upgrade my equipment. Collecting the hidden Firefly pendants and the comic books, therefore, were fun little diversions, as was choosing what upgrades to invest my hard-earned gears in. Acquiring those gears, though, eventually became a bit of a chore. Typical gameplay in The Last of Us boils down to entering a room, scanning every single nook and cranny for anything flashing, before moving onto the next room and doing the exact same thing. While gathering is part of the survival side of the game, sometimes it would be needlessly padded out - did we really need to find five 1-value gear pieces right next to each other, when it could have just been one 5-value gear? While I enjoyed using a shiv to open a secret cache of items and ammo, I found that the constant need to look everywhere at all times for items pulled me away from the experience. At times Ellie would be talking to me, but I'd be more focused on checking behind each and every crate for items than I was in paying attention to her. At other times she'd be pointing out awesome sights to me, but I'd be on the other side of the building looting a toilet bin and would entirely miss whatever was fascinating her. The constant need to search everywhere and everything pulls the player away from absorbing the environment and appreciating the world.
Niggle #9 - One of the First Story Pieces Falls Flat: While the main motivation for Joel looking after Ellie eventually becomes his desire to protect her, the story begins in a bit of an apathetic way. You're charged with protecting Ellie, at least at first, in return for some guns. These guns are so important to Joel and Tess that they are willing to risk their lives to get them back. I understand that in a post-apocalyptic setting guns are important, but both myself and the people I was playing with at the time could barely invest in the 'get the guns back' plotline (and, come to think of it, that plotline is eventually forgotten, anyway). It just isn't a very engaging way of starting the game off; having us go on a life-endangering quest just to get some guns back. I didn't feel emotionally connected to that cause, somehow.
Niggle #10 - The Story Isn't That Great: I don't want to be needlessly cruel, but I've seen players and critics alike lauding the story in The Last of Us as one of the greatest ever in video games. As far as I'm concerned, though, it was a fairly basic storyline brought to life with an above-average script and some great voice acting. Maybe I've been spoiled by well-written shows like Breaking Bad, but nothing in TLoU came off to me as being especially great at a storyline level. Joel, an older guy, is protecting Ellie, a younger victim. On the way he runs into various characters, including a guy and his brother, one of whom is eventually bitten and 'put down'. These are commonly used tropes seen in just about every 'zombie' flick I can think of. The entire plot is basically 28 Weeks Later, and no character was particularly memorable outside of the main two. I've certainly played games with more unique and surprising storylines, and in the world of fiction in general, The Last of Us is, if we're being fair, quite average.
Niggle #11 - I Never Bonded With Joel And Ellie: This is my greatest concern with TLoU. Perhaps I'm dead inside, but before playing a friend of mine told me and my girlfriend that the opening of the game would make us cry. The moment I saw Sarah, I knew that she would die. When she was dead ten minutes later, I didn't cry (and yes, I have cried because of video games before). She was a cute kid, sure, but I didn't feel any particular attachment to her, mainly because she was dead in the amount of time it took me to unbox the game and install it onto my system. With Ellie, though, who we spend the entire game with, I don't know why, but I didn't really bond with her, either. There were a couple of cool scenes that made me warm to her, such as when she wise-cracks while flicking through Bill's pornography, but otherwise I didn't feel as if I cared about her. Similarly, I didn't find Joel to be all that interesting; he was a guy with a dark past who started off gruff and stoic around Ellie and eventually grew into being her guardian. Joel was definitely serviceable, but I feel as if I've encountered his character in countless other works of fiction before.
With Ellie, I think the problem is that there is a subconscious degree of caring for her character based on what she is rather than who she is. She is a 14 year old girl, and so the paternal side of anyone above the age of 18 naturally comes out; we don't want to see a 14 year old face an apocalypse alone, especially not a girl, as all of the enemies in this game seem to be seedy male bandits who would likely rape her if they had the chance. Thus, we care about Ellie because of the type of character she is. We would feel the same way if the game cast us in the role of a man taking care of his injured dog; we would instantly care about the injured dog simply because it is an injured dog. We don't need to know anything else about that dog; we simply need to know that it is wounded and the necessary emotions are triggered.
The problem with Ellie, at least in my mind, is that I didn't care about her beyond the fact that I was supposed to care about her because she is a 14 year old girl. I don't want to say that she didn't have a personality, but I cannot say that her personality grew on me; everything she did seemed familiar and standard, and there were no surprises from her character throughout the story. Of course I cared about Ellie, just as I would care about protecting any kid in any video game, but outside of that natural display of emotion, I didn't care about her any more than I was supposed to. I didn't feel like protecting her any more than I felt like protecting Sarah, despite the fact that Ellie has far more screen-time. And, bar Ellie saving Joel's life, I just never really felt as if the two characters interacted in enough meaningful ways. Sure, Joel constantly makes sure that she's safe, but there wasn't enough back-and-forth banter to really expand upon their characters. I don't want to accuse the game of lacking heart, but I just couldn't find myself investing in these characters. If Joel or Ellie (or both of them) had died in the game's final moments, I wouldn't have really cared. While other players seem to have adored both characters, I, sadly, didn't really bond with either. Thus, when the credits rolled, I couldn't help but feel as if I'd missed something.