The Last of Us was developed by critically acclaimed developer Naughty Dog and received over 240 Game of the Year awards in 2013, but were those awards deserved, purely from a gaming perspective? The Last of Us was a pioneer in storytelling in the medium, telling a beautiful story and is one of the most cinematic experiences in all of gaming. That fact aside though, it does not make a great game. Ultimately, it all comes down to gameplay, and this is where The Last of Us truly falls short. I personally love the game as an experience, but that can only take it so far; The Last of Us is not a great video game.
The Last of Us revolves around an anti-hero named Joel, who lost his daughter in the midst of a virus outbreak which turns humans into zombie-like creatures. Cinematically, the opening is both stunning and shocking. There are literally scenes that feel like they are straight out of The Walking Dead. The prologue ends on a tragic note, and we flash forward approximately 20 years into the future. Civilization has been devastated, and it is at this point that the gameplay and mechanics of the game are revealed. Your first encounter is with a couple of bandits. The over-the-shoulder perspective when shooting pales in comparison to other third-person shooters. While the aim isn’t steady, it’s not supposed to be; this can be upgraded over time. But the fact is is that it takes multiple playthroughs to actually level up all of your attributes. The game follows a typical formula of discover a group of bandits or Infected, throw a bottle or a brick to draw their attention away from you, and then stealth attack them. It is incredibly basic. With Clickers, you should have a Shiv equipped, but the formula is the same. You can’t even take proper cover behind desks and whatnot besides crouching behind them, which is very frustrating and hard to maneuver.
There are some puzzles that you solve throughout your journey, like where to put what latter where, finding a raft and using it in order to get your partner, Ellie, across across a body of water, etc., but they are all incredibly basic. There is one gameplay element that is really cool, and that is Joel’s super hearing ability, which helps you locate enemies, but this is never explained and while it is useful, it is the only truly unique gameplay element in the game. You can level up a number of different attributes, along with your ability with guns, but a lot of them require multiple playthroughs to truly max out. The game simply feels so repetitive and looking at it purely from a gameplay standpoint, it’s really not that impressive.
There is no doubt that The Last of Us was a pioneer in cinematic storytelling in video games. It introduced us to a fascinating world with wonderfully dynamic characters, but that doesn’t excuse lackluster gameplay. It was awarded so many accolades because of its story, but if you stripped away the cutscenes, would the game still be held in such high regard? In the end, it’s the core game that matters, as this is a video game. While some claim that the game is survival-horror, if anything the game is an action-adventure game, taking you to place to place in an incredibly linear fashion. The game never gave off a frightening atmosphere even once.
This begins a whole other conversation, which is what is a video game? Can a wonderful story and fantastic cutscenes craft a masterpiece, or is there more to it than that? Are we to the point in the industry where we are neglecting the game part of a video game and trying too hard to focus on the artistic aspect of a game? There are plenty of games which tell wonderful stories and have a wonderful presentation yet at the same time they have exceptional gameplay. The Mass Effect Trilogy is one such example; it’s storytelling at its finest in gaming and incredibly immersive. Batman Arkham Knight had a very dark story to tell, but did so in a highly artistic way in an open-world environment and delved into the psych of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way not even Christopher Nolan’s films did. Yes, the Batmobile was a pain at times, but the overall gameplay and mechanics were second to none. Does The Last of Us get a pass simply because of its extraordinary story yet mediocre gameplay, or should it be held accountable as a good, but not great, game?
Make no doubt about it: The Last of Us is a good game. It’s just not a great one like everyone wants you to believe. The music is wonderful, the presentation is extraordinary, and the story and characters are superb, but, the gameplay experience leaves a lot to be desired. It is definitely not the kind of game, in my opinion, worthy of over 240 Game of the Year awards. Nevertheless though, this brings us back to a fundamental question, especially in this day and age: what defines a great video game, and is the cinematic factor becoming more important than the game factor? What should the balance be? This is an incredibly important question for the game industry moving forward.