Design Review: Last of Us

I just finished “Last of Us”, or as my wife likes to refer to it, the “Dumpster Moving Simulator”.  It is good — very good — but I found it short of the accolades that I had heard about it so far, which were all along the lines of ‘we should stop making video games, because it’s been done now.”  There, I would beg to differ.

Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of the game which are very well designed.  The characterizations of the two driving characters are both excellent, especially Ellie the girl.  There’s a grim horror going on, and yet the writing still does the good job of reminding you that she’s a teen, struggling with teen problems and feelings, while all of this horrible shit is going on around her.  Naughty Dog did a marvelous job here, and there are definitely lessons that Bioware could learn.  That being said, I have some quibbles.

First off, my overall happiness with the game can be directly linked to how much I’m forced to wield a gun.  Now, I’m from the previous generation that believes that God intended for man to control his pixel-rendered shotgun with mouselook, so I always have trouble on the console. Despite that, my aim’s not THAT bad.  The end result was as if the game was trying to demonstrate a world where everyone is armed but gunpowder was ineffectual.  Maybe its just me, but it should take fewer than 3 shotgun blasts at close range to kill a normal guy.  Fortunately, molotov cocktails have the explosive effect of a portable nuke.

Stealthing was a far happier experience, and for the most part, much better done.  There were some obvious problems.  For example, as Ellie followed me, she seemed wholly unaware that the point of stealthing was to hide FROM the monsters, which meant that there were several panic-inducing situations where I’d turn around to find her standing at the feet of the enemy I was attempting to avoid.  Also, if you’re trying to sell me on ‘be so quiet you can’t even move quickly’, the illusion is quickly broken when your companions break the silence every 10 seconds with an ‘over here!’ or a ‘to your left!’ or even a ‘FUUUUUCK’ when I kill something.  Yo, girl, we’re still stealthing here!

The technical part of the audio design of the game leaves a lot to be desired.  A lot of the best color and characterization of the game happens in barks as you traverse the world, but the designers chose to make those barks happen in real 3D — which means that if Ellie’s AI starts to lag behind you, you’ll only hear about a third of whatever witty quip she voices.  At some point, I turned on voiceover captions, just so I could be sure I didn’t miss anything important.

The level design has a fair number of problems.  Lots of stealth levels with guys camped around blind corners, for example, so you have no choice but to fail once.  Lots of inconsistency with walls that you can climb and walls you can’t.  Also, I’m gonna take this girl out for a year, and never teach her to friggin’ swim?   All to manufacture some contrived environmental puzzles.

And then there’s the overall “Elysium Problem”, which is a new term I just coined.  In the movie Elysium, they did such a good job portraying human life on Earth as deplorable and cruel that I didn’t WANT these people up in my shiny clean space station — and when I come home feeling like I want to flip on Fox News, perhaps you’ve missed the mark.  Similarly in this game, you meet so few decent human beings throughout the game that after a while, you don’t WANT them to acquire redemption.  Ultimately, this includes the main characters, as you realize that you’re really no better than anyone else – bloodthirsty savages.  And hey, wouldn’t that ending have been much better with a Bioware-style choice?

Don’t get me wrong — it’s still a very good game.  Good story, good character, very natural inventory controls.  They even have a pretty good little crafting system in there.  I do think I prefer Uncharted, though.  I suspect it’s because I like solving Indiana Jones puzzles more than moving dumpsters.

This entry was posted in Design Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.