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.

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17 Comments on The Last of Us Review: A Story of Stealth and Scavenging

robert

On June 5, 2013 at 11:29 am

The “Gameplay takes away from the story” thing seems to be a recurring theme this year

R.J.

On June 5, 2013 at 2:11 pm

@Robert

Yeah, I’ve noticed that, too. Perhaps seeing that often enough might get more devs to take a hard look at whether the same approaches to gameplay really serve the story they want to tell.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to this game.

Michael

On June 5, 2013 at 6:41 pm

Yeah Gameplay is bland. Stuff annoys me like vehicles and furniture that you cannot search. The combat is pretty dumb and frustrating. It really takes away from the horror and fun of the game like for example shooting at enemies and being seen is pointless. The crafting items is so confusing at times. Ah well. I’ll pass on this.

SweetPea

On June 16, 2013 at 6:58 am

Great review Phil! You’re probably the only one who wasn’t afraid to talk about the negative things and gave an honest review, not just just blindly praising the game to the skies.

Fart

On June 16, 2013 at 9:09 am

The mainstream outlets had already made their decision to award this perfect or near-perfect scores the moment it was announced, entirely due to Naughty Dog’s involvement. Had a lesser known developer released it, they would have had no qualms about criticising its weaker elements. It’s pointless even calling themselves ‘journalists’ anymore, they might as well call their magazines “Highest Bidder Monthly” or “Fanboys Who Schmoozed Their Way Into Cushy Industry Jobs Far Away From the Plebs.”

The game’s good but giving it 10/10 just because of what you WANT it to be is pitiful. Not as bad maybe as all the great scores given to recent Final Fantasy games because they legitimately suck, but still intellectually dishonest and analytically damaging.

larry

On June 16, 2013 at 4:56 pm

This SPAM site is on meta?? Did u even play the game head MS sucker

hisoka89

On June 16, 2013 at 5:02 pm

this review is very bad , tomb raider 92 , the last of us 80 , what the , how you want to be credible !

Dan

On June 17, 2013 at 5:23 am

This has got to be by far the best video game, let alone Playstation game, i have played. Period. The balance between story and gameplay was outstanding, the constant tension and subseqeuent relief after each scene was spectacular. The periods where you just get to walk around and take in the surroundings mean so much more after going through an intense battle, especially if you’re low on supplies. The Last of Us did live up to the hype, and then some.

Cunt

On June 17, 2013 at 9:40 am

The last three comments were clearly written by Sony/Naughty Dog staff. They don’t even seem genuine.

Raj

On June 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm

A fine balanced review. I agree with many of the comments over the scavenging aspects of the gameplay but the Story still wins me over. It’s pretty rare that you get something so compelling and real.

Ted

On June 23, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I finally finished the game. I did think the game play and the scavenging ran on being repetitive, but the story and Joel’s and Ellie’s interactions makes it worth it. I do wish in the story they gave us information to how the infection started, was it natural or man’s furthering tinkering with nature that caused the infected.

Hudson

On June 25, 2013 at 1:06 am

I find it a bit unfair that Tomb raider did get a higher score and they have pretty much the same cons except for in tomb raider they left out the
•So many human enemies to fight (and kill) during the course of the game that it gets ridiculous and undermines the narrative — despite emphasis on story, like every other game, you’ll still shoot scores of random, faceless nobodies as the central mechanic
also I thought The Last of Us had a great sound track and left me wanting more, which I love in games!

Phil Hornshaw

On June 25, 2013 at 10:06 am

@Hudson

It’s tough when people bring up comparisons to other reviews. I reviewed Tomb Raider several months ago, and of course, all the circumstances of that game and its release were different from The Last of Us. It’s impossible to compare every game to every other game, and every moment in which a game is reviewed is unique. Instantly, when I review a game, I’m weighing it against every other game I’ve ever played. Everything changes with each new review.

So the point is this: there is no comparison between Tomb Raider’s score and The Last of Us’ score. If I were to play the two games back-to-back and directly compare each one, it might work. But it’s impossible to do so. Maybe if The Last of Us had come out first, it’d have the higher score. Maybe not. Maybe Naughty Dog is expected to do amazing things and Tomb Raider was a surprise. Maybe not. But from my point of view, Tomb Raider doesn’t fail for having huge numbers of enemies, where The Last of Us does. The two games are attempting fundamentally different things, and that explains a big part of why what might ostensibly be called the same problem is more forgiveable in one situation than another.

Anyway, how I feel when I play a game, about that game and what it’s trying to do and whether it accomplishes that thing, is a solitary moment. So it’s really hard, and even problematic, to say, ‘well, this game got this score and that game got that score and that’s a travesty.’ If you’re looking at the scores over reading the reviews, you’re wasting your time.

Nub

On July 8, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Good review. I think what most people like about the game, me included, is just the general atmosphere of it all. It was done well, and that’s what kept me going. The actual gameplay was an afterthought. I had fun with some of the stealth, but for the most part I just wanted to hear the next conversation or see the next cutscene. I didn’t give a crap about the gameplay, and only crafted stuff so I could kill things faster so I could see the next cutscene. You can’t really “rate” a game like this, because I love the game for the reasons I wanted to love it (atmosphere) and didn’t give a crap about the other sections (gameplay) that I didn’t really want to care about in the first place.

asdfjkl

On July 14, 2013 at 5:33 am

How dare you give your honest opinion!!! You are supposed to give it a 10 no matter what otherwise you are uncredible! 8 /10? more like Hate/10 you horrible critic!

Jordan

On January 29, 2014 at 10:34 pm

I agree with the mechanical feel but if you were to think about if the apocalypse ever were to hit like this in scenarios that are gone through in the story, most if not all WOULD be violent. it is one of the saddest truths of humans, when it comes down to it, there are more violent people then there are peaceful. Now sure you would find a couple along the way BUT the odds of that would be against you and that is part of the reason they did that i believe. I must say though…In my opinion the multiplayer is rather hideous. Having a scattered objective type atmosphere was just to much of a stretch for me.

Phil Hornshaw

On January 29, 2014 at 11:24 pm

@Jordan

That’s fair that violence would be something of the norm, but what The Last of Us lacks is variety. It’s never “Our tense encounter with a random group goes bad,” or “We inadvertently invade the space of paranoid-but-peaceful survivors (like in, say, I Am Alive).” It’s always running across the marauders, who are especially evil and without nuance.

In fact, as far as the violence is concerned, I’m not sure I buy that it would necessarily be quite the norm in most situations One has to assume that while most survivors have the expectation of violence, avoiding violence is almost always in everyone’s best interest and would be a general goal for most people. Every violent encounter runs the risk of injury that leaves you vulnerable to future attack or potential infection or sickness, and that means even a relatively small injury can result in death in a world with limited medicine. Add to that the scarcity of bullets and the like, and just the risk of losing, and fights become something best avoided. You can also look at human history for examples — there are plenty of periods with fewer laws and overarching governments in which violence was more of a part of life, but it wasn’t the ONLY part of life.

So from that standpoint, I think there’s potentially just more that could be done here. Fallout might be a good example, really; you encounter a wide range of people who have a wide range of motivations and methods of dealing with you, and one would think the same would be true in a game like The Last of Us.