A scathing review about the video game "The Last of Us: Remastered."
The Last of Us: Remastered (LoU:R) is a videogame in the action genre that was released for Sony PlayStation 4 in 2014. The story outlined in The LoU:R is a mix of the premise of the film 28 Days later (Boyle, 2002), wherein some type of infection runs rampant through the world causing people to become insane and attack one another, and the television series Z Nation (Engler and Schaefer, 2014-), which is a less dramatic The Walking Dead (Darabont, 2010-) with the added bonus of hope for a cure. LoU:R begins with the main character, Joel, attempting to escape the quarantine zone of the initial outbreak with his daughter and brother. Though he and his brother escape the ordeal shaken but relatively intact, his daughter dies of a gunshot wound inflicted by one of the military personnel trying to keep the inhabitants from escaping. The game then skips to twenty years later, during which the world has become a horribly impoverished drug-infested slum that relies on government-granted rations to survive. After agreeing to escort a teenage girl out of the militarized city of Boston to a base of rebels in Pittsburg, Joel learns that the girl, Ellie, was bitten by an infected person three weeks prior and survived without any sign of infection. The goal of the rebel group, known as the Fireflies, is to get her to a laboratory outside of the city where top scientists believe they can make a vaccine from the mutated parasites within her. Joel and Ellie form a strong surrogate father/daughter bond as they make their way across the United States, from Boston to Pittsburg to Salt Lake City until they finally find the Fireflies. After learning that Ellie will die in the process of removing the parasite from her brain for study, Joel whisks her away from the facility and tells her that there are many just like her and that a cure cannot be made, a blatant lie that ultimately dooms humanity to bleak future of fighting off the infection and struggling to survive.
I feel like calling this piece a "videogame" is a little unfair to people who create games that actually utilize gameplay to tell most of the story. Sometimes, they even make the story able to be changed or different endings able to be achieved by means of playing the game differently. LoU:R feels a lot more like an interactive version of what should be static media, which panders to the masses who cannot handle the challenge of the game. If it is meant to be an interactive movie, then just make it a movie. If it is meant to be an interactive narrative, then write the novel. The gameplay portion of the game, which is rather sparse throughout the first quarter of the text, has no bearing on the story itself. For a game that takes roughly sixteen hours to complete, the idea of trudging through four hours of cut-scenes with small segments of lack-luster action in between is pretty daunting. Meanwhile, the other three quarters of the game are spent waiting for cut scenes to end so that the player can kill or avoid a few zombies and continue on to the next area, where there is another cut scene waiting for them. Toward the end, the action picks up a little but since the ending of the story became pretty transparent about halfway through the game, it is not even enjoyable because I had already been muttering "Are we there yet?" for hours.
This has reportedly been a problem with other games made by the same developing company, Naughty Dog. According to Inverse Entertainment, the Uncharted videogame franchise, also made by Naughty Dog, is famous for having a very cinematic style like LoU:R, touting that Uncharted 3 was a "playable popcorn movie" (Inverse 2016). The head of the project seems like more of an aspiring director who cannot get his ideas heard in Hollywood than he is a game designer. Using videogames as a medium to circumvent the critics in the film industry seems like dishonesty and dirty tactics to me. While it is not uncommon for many types of games like platformer games and role-playing games (RPGs) to employ a style of gameplay that has little or no effect on the storyline surrounding it, the gameplay in these two types of videogames is essential to the continuation of the plot, often feeding the player small pieces of the story throughout the gameplay experience. The LoU:R takes the opposite approach, often parading beautifully-animated cut scenes before the player, each several minutes in length, which when connected can tell the entire story of the game and revealing very little during the actual gameplay portions of the game.
The creators of LoU:R seem so unconcerned with gameplay, they did not even see fit to incite in-game consequences for poor gameplay. About three hours into the game, one of these small patches of gameplay presents itself and arguably, some players might find this sequence quite challenging. There is a large, dark room in the basement of a decrepit building one must pass through to continue working through the very linear predictable story. It contains five blind zombie-like infected referred to as "clickers" that can hear the player's every move and only be killed with certain weapons and two newly-infected, fast-moving creatures called "runners" spread throughout the room. After several attempts at sneaking through the room, one quickly realizes that dying is an inevitability, but also that it does not matter anyway. If the player dies in the instance, they simply start the mission over from the beginning. You can play the mission over and over until your hands bleed without suffering any in-game penalties, a change in story, or aid. I mention "aid" because in recent years, some videogame creators have seen fit to temporarily increase the size of the player character's health bar by a small percentage each time the player character dies in order to aid the player in passing through the parts of the videogame that he has difficulty completing. Gaming developer Vigil's Darksiders 1 and Darksiders 2 both employ this method with great success. Also, once the segment is over, some videogame creators deem it necessary to reward the player with some type of useful in-game item or a piece of storyline that connects what the player just did with the over-arching plot of the game. As a player, this makes the time and energy I put into completing the segment seem like it was worth it, even if the gameplay itself was frustrating and time-consuming.
The non-action gameplay segments are mind-numbingly boring. The players find themselves walking, sneaking, and performing menial tasks to get to the next cut scene. While sneaking around in other games might be fun, it is actually an awful chore in LoU:R. The artificial intelligence of the non-player characters is awful. I cannot count how many times I wished I could smack Ellie out of my way with a lead pipe because she kept creeping in front of me and then stopping, which hindered my movement while I was trying to avoid enemies. The good news is that when she did move out of my way and ran around in circles a few times before hiding elsewhere, it seemed that she had no effect on the nearby enemies. In this instance, I was happy to fore-go the realism that her antics should have drawn the attention of a lot of enemies and gotten me killed a great many times. You can have terrible AI or you can have realism, but having both would have been cruel.
During these stints of gameplay, the player is often "challenged" with the task of finding the way through crumbling, decrepit buildings using only what the player can find lying around. It ebbs and flows between a walking simulator and answering the ever-looming question: How do I get up there? The good news is that there is always an empty, moveable dumpster or fallen ladder nearby that Joel can move into place with little effort to allow himself and the non-player characters in tow to pass through the area. I have seen this in other games. Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver utilizes a lot of puzzles involving moving boxes to the correct locations to be able to reach higher planes or even using boxes as keys to open doors, provided the box is facing the correct direction. However, there is no puzzling involved in LoU:R. The ladder or dumpster is almost always within sight of the intended route, a wasted opportunity for the game developers to weave some form of critical thinking into their story. Adding such content can give an otherwise under-whelming game the illusion of being difficult and fun at the same time, which makes completing the game feel like a much greater achievement. Sadly, there are no riddles to answer, no moral qualms to ponder, and the puzzles are about as stimulating as one of those little cans that moos like a cow when you turn it upside down.
While there is a "sprint" button which urges the character Joel to increase his stride from a stiff, cowboy-esque walk to a light jog, but many segments of gameplay turn this feature off, forcing the player to walk at a pace that could rival the slowness of gore dripping down a wall freshly painted with zombie blood and buckshot. Meanwhile, the characters have a conversation, often about the events of the story they are in but occasionally about seemingly un-related topics and events, such as Ellie teaching herself to whistle. No amount of button-mashing could free me from the agony of listening to Ellie sputter and spit while Joel coldly hurried her along to the next area. Once again, I am so thankful that realism does not play a very big role in this game because in the event that I was on the run from someone, or in this case a lot of people, I would not want to be stuck walking alongside someone else who thinks that doing something out in the open that draws attention to our location, like whistling, is a good idea. Also, this is what I like to call "filler." It would seem that the creators of the game may have realized that there was not enough gameplay in their game and thought they might throw the players a proverbial "bone" by letting them control the main character while major plot points are revealed, giving the illusion of play and furthering the story while avoiding inserting another cut scene into a videogame that already relies so heavily on its motion picture-esque style. In-so-doing, they robbed the player of the opportunity the choice to skip the plot and get to the next fragment of gameplay action. Other games, like Red Dead Redemption, have made use of the dead-air, non-action parts where one must walk, run, or ride on horseback to the next location to disperse little tidbits of storyline and points of interest while giving the player the freedom to choose how far into the conversation the characters delve before the player reaches their destination. Admittedly, I have forced the main character, John Marston, to walk in circles around a location because I wanted to see where a conversation with a non-player character was going and if it had anything pertinent to reveal. Had the creators of LoU:R given the player the option to listen or not, creating miss-able content, I might have found the conversations within the story to be more valuable and less of a millstone around my neck weighing me down in my quest for fun.
Getting back to my point about being a cinematic game and the illusion of playing through the plot points, I think I need to clarify something about LoU:R: It is a zombie game. There are zombies or zombie-like creatures that cannot be reasoned with and they need to be killed before they can kill you and stop you from getting to your goal. I love zombie games. More than half of my collection of PlayStation 3 games, both hard-copy and downloads, are zombie games. None of them are heavily cinematic or have a strong narrative presence. That is because zombie games, like Dead Island and the Resident Evil franchise tend to be hard-core, gory, action games with lots of shooting and skull-bashing and only enough cinematic content to tell you that something has mutated into something bigger and it wants to eat you. Because I never exposed myself to any information about LoU:R, I did not know this was a zombie game until several minutes into it. Now, there is something to be said about the popularity of zombie games and, separately, the popularity of zombie movies, but I am entirely surprised to find out how well-received a zombie-movie game is because it does not fit the niche that previous zombie games have fulfilled for their loyal players. By replacing much of the zombie-killing action with beautiful cinematic cut scenes, it felt as though the game creators had made the zombies, or zombie-like creatures, of the zombie game a moot point. Adding that seemingly unfulfilled promise of action and adventure to the confines of only being able to move my character in the direction of the next location but only as fast as the character can walk and without access to my weapons, made the entire experience of the game feel forced and unsatisfying, the opposite of what the illusion of playing is usually meant to create.
Whilst trudging through what turned out to be the final two hours of the game, I found myself wondering, "Who would like this game?" I chose this game because it was recommended to me by word of mouth by several experienced gamers that I know personally, and when I asked why they thought it was worth playing, I received a resounding and not at all plot-spoiling tale about a game that was difficult and heart-felt with violence to boot; a new kind of game. So, why did I not feel the same? What was I missing? It occurred to me that while I saw LoU:R as shattered bits of a movie with what experienced gamers might call a very predictable storyline sprinkled over some simple gameplay mechanics, a plain cake with a single candle sticking out of the top, others were looking at a three-tier thickly-frosted work of art with sprinkles and sparklers fizzling all around it. Other gamers had long awaited the release of the game after reading synopses and glowing reviews like this one from GameInformer magazine:
"In exchange for a cache of weapons, Joel and his partner Tess are tasked with delivering Ellie to a group of revolutionary survivalists who believe she holds the key to a possible cure for the disease. It ends with one of the most complex conclusions I've ever seen in a game. In between, you experience a survival adventure that features both quiet beauty and brutal violence in abundance (Helgeson 2013)."
And who could blame them? Expectant gamers had seen exactly what the developers wanted: A zombie game (which are popular in their own right) with stunning graphics (movie quality, in fact) originally released for PlayStation 3 and remastered for PlayStation 4 (come to think of it, my PlayStation 4 came with a copy for free) with a simple yet reliable storyline that is tried and true in zombie movies and shows, and there is absolutely no room for difficulty or thought, a digital safe place for people who normally would never try a game that looked so much like those puzzling survival-horror games. I do wonder if the inclusion of LoU:R with the purchase of my console is a statement about how well the remastered version sold after the initial release of the original PlayStation 3 version. Considering the lack of replay value and the availability of the extras LoU:R came with as DLC, it would make sense that it might not sell well. After all, no company would offer something for free that they could make money on.
More so than pretty graphics, it is far more important that a game is fun, stimulating, and rewarding in some sense that makes the time invested in playing the videogame seem like it was worth it. LoU:R had a lot of potential to be that game players could not put down, a revolutionary new type of zombie game with deeply-ingrained storyline to go along with the action-packed zombicide that experienced gamers like myself have come to expect, but with little action to back up that story and no replay value, the game has fallen short of being much more than a decent novel that will sit on many players' shelves for years to come, gathering dust. Plus, with graphics having little to no room for improvement, enjoyment is absolutely paramount in the future of the videogaming industry. So, even after playing through the game in its entirety, I find myself wondering why I wasted those sixteen hours on it. Having nearly quit three different times throughout the ordeal, I feel as though finishing should have provided me with some sort of satisfaction, but alas I am robbed of any feeling of achievement because it was not enjoyable.
According to Johan Huizinga's Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon, "Play is superfluous. The need for it is only urgent to the extent that the enjoyment of it makes it a need." (p.103) Because the gameplay segments lacked a lot of the elements that I have come to expect from games in general and, even more so, games that have a linear storyline and need action to fulfill a players' need to be a part of whatever is going on and feel like they are driving the story in some sense, it felt like the gameplay was forced. Rather than feeling the joy of getting to do away with a batch of infected people for some over-arching cause that I was somehow but not really a part of, it felt like cattle lined up for the slaughter. There was no hunt, no heart-pounding excitement, no deep emotional bond with the characters or the story of the game. I was a tiger ready to hunt and then the zoo-keeper dropped a nice, big hunk of meat that had already been butchered into my enclosure. It was not enjoyable; it was necessary to keep doing these tasks and press on so that I could eventually get to the end. I need the action and the drama of critical thinking. I need the feeling of "the win." It felt like work. Had this game been a free phone game, like The Walking Dead by Telltale games, I may have found it to be mildly entertaining and enjoyable within the confines of what it is to be an episodic graphic adventure on the phone. But I cannot recommend LoU:R to anyone who plays games for mental or emotional stimulation or even for the thrill of finding out how it all ends. My advice: Wait until they make the movie, and then wait a little longer for it to go to Netflix. Then watch it. Assuming the movie would be one and a half hours long, this will save players fourteen and a half hours or so of gameplay and frustration, as well as the cost of a movie ticket to see the copy-and-paste job somebody did with the already-existing material.
Haske, Steve. "We Already Have Four 'Uncharted' Movies." Inverse. Inverse, 03 Nov. 2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
Helgeson, Matt. "The Last of Us Review - Naughty Dog's Grim Masterpiece." Game Informer. N.p., 05 June 2013. Web. 10 May 2017.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. Boston: The Beacon Press, 2009. Print.
Naughty Dog (Developer), Druckman, Straley (Directors). (2014). The Last of Us: Remastered.