The Last of Us Review: A Story of Stealth and Scavenging
Worse, though, is that the game constantly encourages you to check every corner by throwing out notes, collectibles, crafting material, weapons and upgrade items, and that it includes lots of corners where nothing is waiting to be found. Naughty Dog also isn’t really great about distinguishing shiny bits of the environment from shiny bits of things you should pick up; as a result, a huge amount the experience of The Last of Us is wasted running around and checking corners under the guise of “exploring.” Sometimes all that scavenging even causes you to miss dialog, because of a neat but ultimately irritating bit of sound engineering that realistically makes other characters much harder to understand when you put a wall or too much distance between you and them. Joel can hear just fine, but not always the player.
Combat and stealth have flaws of their own, despite also being a lot of fun. They’re both almost always tense and exhilarating, with enemies patrolling or searching constantly. The knowledge that messing up an attack can get you overrun and killed is a powerful motivator to play things smart, but well-designed enemy patrols mean you’ll sometimes get into trouble before you’re ready, and those panic scenarios lead to some great moments. Joel is also kind of terrible at combat until you begin to upgrade him, which adds another layer to the experience.
The trouble is that there’s just so much of this stealth combat gameplay. By the end of the game, you’ll have faced down and defeated what feels like hundreds of different gun-toting soldiers of various bland factions, all of whom enter an area to search for you, fan out, and make the same dumb mistakes. There are more sequences in which Joel takes down eight or a dozen bandits with guns than in which he fights infected, but once you know the ins and outs of both kinds of fight, the scenarios begin to lose their deadly appeal.
And though the combat and the stealth are always good, the instances are just too similar too often. All of the fights are engaging, but taken together, it starts to feel like The Last of Us only has one formula in terms of gameplay. When you’re not sneaking, you’re scavenging. When you’re not scavenging, you’re walking around, looking at scenery. What light puzzle-solving there is in the game is highly simplistic.
A cross-country roadtrip through enemy territory would have seriously benefited from some non-combat scenarios mixed throughout. Maybe sometimes people don’t want to kill you for no reason, you know?
All that combat actually has a weakening effect on the story. Of course, like all zombie stories, The Last of Us has its heaping helping of “Humanity is the real monster!” But the game is filled with guys who stumble into combat scenarios against Joel, who by two-thirds the game is becoming a legendary figure as he cuts a bloody swathe through their ranks. Yet they continue to throw themselves into his path. “Well, we … we murder people — that’s what we do,” the pile of faceless bodies seems to say, hoping to justify yet another fight against 10 bloodthirsty survivors unconcerned with actually surviving.
And The Last of Us is full of some really brutal kills, too. Joel doesn’t choke people out, Sam Fisher-style: He actually strangles people to death as they flop, kicking and gurgling, in a panic.
The Last of Us does a better job with its characters than many other forms of media.
The level of violence is frightening, really, which plays in the favor of The Last of Us from a thematic perspective and fits perfectly with the narrative. You’re supposed to be a little shocked and dismayed that Joel is as bad as or worse than his adversaries. But ultimately, you kill so many people that even the fact you’re committing some really ruthless, painful murders of actual humans becomes uninteresting. The shock is lost through sheer volume and repetition.
Still, for those criticisms, it’s hard to overestimate some of the best parts of The Last of Us. Scavenging may get tedious, but the mix of weapons makes for great combat options, the stealth is competent and exhilarating, and the whole experience is gorgeous and gory, with a narrative that manages to tell a fresh and compelling story while toeing all the familiar genre lines. And Ellie is a great partner character, even if it’s because the game’s enemies treat her as if she’s both invisible and invulnerable.
I really can’t say enough good things about Ellie and Joel, or Johnson and Baker. As a game, The Last of Us does a better job with its characters than many other forms of media. We should be so lucky to have more games like this one, that emphasize story and character so strongly and to such great effect.
But over the stretch of the whole experience, the gameplay can become mechanical and a bit tedious; there’s often a disconnect between the fact that the game wants you to just hang out and spend time with Ellie, and the fact that there are two square miles of houses to check for crafting gear in each level. While everything about The Last of Us is competent and often fun, one can’t help feeling as though “competent” is underperforming for a game with this pedigree and this story. When Bandit Leader sends Bandit Henchmen 150 through 159 at you in yet another search-and-destroy formation toward the end of the game — well, Naughty Dog could probably have pushed the envelope a little more.