Revisiting The Last of Us – Part II

Editors Note – this is Part I in a two-part series. To read Part I, click here.

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The characters stood out on a second playthrough, but what about other aspects, such as level design?

In Part I of this series, I discussed my thoughts after revisiting The Last of Us, a game that was universally praised, but I found to be flawed in some respects. I compared my initial thoughts on subjects such as character, story, gameplay and combat. In Part II, I want to start of with another element that received praise – the level design and resource management aspects.

Level Design and Resource Management – Initial Thoughts

The settings in The Last of Us always frustrated me, because it highlighted clearly how talented the team at Naughty Dog truly is, yet there were enough times where they just missed the mark that I left the game with a sour taste in my mouth. For example – Naughty Dog created detailed, stunning environments that I marveled over, and left a lasting impression on me. They also used colors to organically guide players through those environments – if something is yellow, chances are it’s drawing the player to where they need to go. It takes an expert development team to use the color yellow in an organic, natural way.

But the layout of these vivid, detailed worlds left much to be desired – the action often moved forward in a straight, albeit it beautiful, line. The world felt artificially closed off at times, and though I do not expect Naughty Dog to let me wander around a fully-realized digital version of Pittsburgh, some stray paths would be nice and help break up the monotony. Eventually, set pieces blurred together, and as I tried to recall the sequence of events, I couldn’t exactly remember where Joel and Ellie had that emotionally-charged conversation, or where they were when Joel’s partner Tess was taken out (it felt like Pittsburgh, but actually happened in Boston). One could argue that, after enough decay, every city would look the same, but Naughty Dog could have done a better job highlighting the differences between a city in which the army (and some semblance of civilization) still remained, such as the case with Boston, and a city completely past the point of no return, as was the situation in Pittsburgh.

Adding to the linear nature of the levels was the abundance of resources to collect. Even if there were multiple paths to explore, there was never any reason to do so – everything Joel needed to protect Ellie was just lying there on the street. This was my biggest gripe with the game – in a world supposedly as run-down as this one, where every bullet counts, how come it’s so easy to find materials to make explosives, first aid kits and smoke bombs? I would often find myself going out of my way to use a bomb just so I could create more of them, which would free up inventory space and allow me to pick up the prerequisite materials that were lying at my feet. Again, for as beautiful as the levels are, it’s a shame that they were presented as little more than city-long hallways in which the player could find so many resources they were practically swimming in them.

Level Design and Resource Management – Revisited

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As beautiful as the levels in The Last of Us are, they are surprisingly linear.

Considering that my second playthrough occurred on the Playstation 4, there were many moments where I simply stopped playing to just soak in the world around me. Because of my newfound approach to combat, I wasn’t nearly as nervous about randomly stumbling onto a group of enemies, which had a nice unintended effect – I explored the world much more frequently, even if it wasn’t practical. The levels still come across as being very linear, but after spending my time searching every nook and cranny and finding notes left behind in the hopes they would reach lost loved ones, the linear nature of the levels became less of a negative. I wasn’t worried about finding every hidden path, and instead could just appreciate the artistry on display.

I was hoping that in the remastered version Naughty Dog would possibly tweak the resource management aspects, but sadly the game still provides more than enough rolls of duct tape and bottles of alcohol. It’s still very unbalanced in areas, such as when I found the flamethrower at the end of the Summer section. I laughed as Joel quietly walked through Eastern Colorado University, with a pistol, a sawed-off shotgun, a rifle and a flamethrower all visible and easily accessible. At times he looked like he would fit better in an 1980s action film rather than a gritty post-apocalyptic wasteland. That said, my guess is that if Naughty Dog does make a sequel to The Last of Us, this area will be one of, if not the biggest, areas of improvement, and history backs up this claim. In Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, the first game in the Uncharted franchise, the pacing of the combat in the final act was beyond relentless and monotonous, and through the entirety of the game, all story was handled in non-interactive cutscenes. Both of these flaws improved dramatically in the following games, and it’s not much of a leap that Naughty Dog would improve this aspect of the game in a potential sequel.

Left Behind

Shortly after the release of the Playstation 3 version, Naughty Dog released a story-based piece of downloadable content (DLC), titled Left Behind. Since I wasn’t able to play this the first time around, I played it after completing the remastered version on Playstation 4. Even in the remastered version it’s still a separate, stand-alone piece, but after learning more about Ellie’s background, I wish it would have been included in the game from the very beginning.

Left Behind accomplishes two necessary tasks – the aforementioned history of Ellie and how she became infected, and the validation of my idea that, were Naughty Dog to do a proper sequel, it would be far more balanced in terms of combat and resource management.

In the original game, it’s only mentioned in passing that Ellie was training with the military, and because that history wasn’t explored any further, I always found it a tad odd that this fourteen year old girl was so skilled at fighting. But after seeing her origins, it makes perfect sense – she was being trained from childhood to be a killer. As the events of Left Behind progress, the player gets to see just how skilled Ellie is at fighting off infected and navigating the world, even if she ultimately does get bitten. Most characters in this world would have died long before she was bit, and this mistake on her part also shows that, despite being a capable individual, she still has much to learn.

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Left Behind proves that, should developer Naughty Dog make a sequel, it will improve in every area that The Last of Us struggled.

That’s the brilliance of this piece of DLC – chronologically, the events take place right before the Winter section (with flashbacks to her time in Boston before the events of the main game), meaning the player now has the capability to experience Ellie’s evolution from start to finish. If this section were inserted into the remastered version, in a similar way that the stand-alone DLC for Deus Ex: Human Revolution was added to the director’s cut re-release, it would go a long way in showing how Ellie became an equal to Joel, instead of being something Joel has to spend almost all of the game taking care of.

The gameplay is also refined – the DLC switches between the present day, in which Ellie needs to take care of a severely wounded Joel, and flashbacks to when she was infected. During the present day portions, supplies are scarce and enemies rarely spawn out of thin air. This leads to a much more intense version of the run-and-gun stealth play, and if the entirety of The Last of Us worked like Left Behind, it would surely hold a much more revered spot for me in video game history (which is my way of saying – please make a sequel Naughty Dog).

It Can’t All Be For Nothing

Revisiting The Last of Us was definitely worth my time, as I now have a clearer understanding of Naughty Dog’s vision with this game. It also helped me better understand one of the top developers in the industry, which is handy considering their highly anticipated conclusion to the Uncharted franchise is due in Spring of 2016. Although many of the problems I experienced during my first playthrough remain, The Last of Us is still worthy of study. It’s an expert class in attention to detail and character development, and the combat is enjoyable to the point that I wouldn’t be upset if other developers started borrowing from Naughty Dog.

Perhaps the most important lesson The Last of Us teaches is that games can be at their most powerful during the quiet scenes that slowly play out between explosions and gunfights, scenes that shine brightly because of the attention to detail. Toward the end of the game, Joel and Ellie are walking through a decaying building when Ellie spots a small herd of giraffes, and she immediately forgets about all of the terrible things that have happened to her and Joel, and she marvels at the beauty still left in this world. The emotion in the moment is subtle, and there is little for the player to do other than stare at the animals, standing alongside Ellie, but I never wanted that moment to end. To experience those moments, and to have them stick with you long after you’ve put the controller down, show just how tremendous an impact video games can have, and that impact is brought to life through the details.