In preparation for The Last of Us Part 2, I recently wrapped up a replay of The Last of Us and its DLC Left Behind. It was, I believe, my fourth time through; my last save file on PS4 was apparently from 2014—itself a strange time capsule, just one year shy to my first internship in the games journalism business. Back on PS3, I played through it twice. Once on Normal difficulty, later on the more tense Survivor.
My appreciation for The Last of Us stems from the sort of books and movies I loved when I was in college. Post-apocalyptic, often. Dour tones. Rich character studies. To me, The Last of Us had all that. It fueled some of my earliest "critical" discussions surrounding games. ("It's only really good on harder difficulties," was a common refrain from me. "Because it better captures the desperation of survivin'." Baby's first real criticism.) Playing it again in 2020 was a particularly interesting trip back, because while its story remains just as impactful, it's everything else about it that's aged unkindly. It is both the pinnacle of the PS3 action-adventure that Naughty Dog helped to pioneer, and a relic. But the PS3 action-adventure didn't die with the PS4. It just got shinier.
From PS3 to PS4
Naughty Dog's segue from platformer to action-adventure started way back on PS2, with the open-world 180 of Jak 2. Jak 2 borrowed ideas from the then-newly popular Grand Theft Auto games from Rockstar. It introduced guns, driving, and more to the series, which was once just a 3D platformer with a lot of attitude; its grander hub world the closest thing it had to an "open-world." On PS3, Naughty Dog ditched cute characters for a realistic art style, but it retained its sense of humor. Nathan Drake, and Uncharted in turn, were born.
The Uncharted series was praised for its cinematic angle—a comparison that I've always seen as quite empty, both in its positive and negative capacity. What made the Uncharted series resonate wasn't that it was like an Indiana Jones movie, but rather that it put us into one. Uncharted isn't a fun game to watch—it's a fun game to play, plainly, whether we're scaling giant ancient architecture, shooting the shit with Sully, or running away from one of its many impressive setpieces. It can be called cinematic, sure, but Uncharted was built on the strengths of being interactive. Where every action-adventure in the PS3 era started chasing Grand Theft Auto's open-worlds, Naughty Dog saw another route.
Nonetheless, The Last of Us, despite looking solid on PS4, very much feels like a PS3 game. The combat and stealth is clumsy; sometimes by tension-building design, mostly in just being seven years old at this point. Combat encounters are sometimes arbitrarily thrown in, and feel like they never needed to be there in the first place. In one circumstance, Joel and his brother Tommy go looking for Ellie, who ran away with a horse, and are forced into an out of nowhere encounter mid-gallop. It's a brief roadblock that serves no purpose.
It's also something of a hallway game, a phrase that was cast at the likes of Final Fantasy 13 during the PS3 generation. It was when a lot of games were the opposite of immersive sims, featuring heavily detailed, mostly narrow environments, but with little in the way of interaction. The Last of Us, at least, played with the interactivity of its environments slightly more than Uncharted's—you could open drawers, for instance, and find nothing inside. The AI could also be distractingly dumb sometimes, like Ellie standing in clear view of an enemy while Joel was carefully hidden behind waist-high cover, an element endemic to the seminal cover shooter series, Gears of War. By the current console generation, this general formula has gotten tired. Uncharted 4, for all its improvements in action, told a lackluster story amidst its wider-than-usual spaces. Its much-better standalone, The Lost Legacy, tried to open things up (literally) at least.
Still, these sorts of faults are relatively minimal when in the throes of playing The Last of Us. At its best, its action feels as desperate as it looks. The story remains more engaging, at least for me, compared to most action-adventure games that have released in the past decade. So what is it that The Last of Us did so right, when stacked up against other PS3 and PS4 games?
Pacing, Pacing, Pacing
For one, it has remarkable pacing that remains breezy, but varied. Divided by seasons, it's been compared structurally often to a TV show over the years, a comparison that remains apt today. It never falls into too comfortable of an encounter, exploration, cutscene formula. At times, it even messes with expectations, like the scary sequence with Joel hanging upside down as Ellie frantically cuts the counterweight to drop him as he shoots zombies, or the acclaimed detour about two-thirds of the way through, when we take control of Ellie as Joel recovers from a near-fatal injury.
It's relatively short too, though longer than its Uncharted counterparts that largely fall under 10 hours. It's a callback to when big budget games could comfortably be "short." A large part of that is the genre's seismic shift to open-worlds. Nowadays being under 15 hours is a luxury left to single-player shooters or indie games.
As a result, a lot of modern big budget games fail at pacing in their pursuit to cram in as much in as humanly possible. In God of War, I recall hitting multiple points where I thought surely the game was coming to an end, and yet, it kept going. That mountain felt like it'd never be reached. Likewise, Death Stranding and Horizon Zero Dawn had points of no return telegraphed too, upon which... there were still a dozen more hours to follow. Red Dead Redemption 2, perhaps, is the only triple-A, open-world game that stands out in recent memory as being both long and well-paced, but even Red Dead had a way-too-long epilogue.
Most games nowadays are bloated; sometimes in earned ways (The Witcher 3), but in most cases, in exhausting ways. The Last of Us, by contrast, doesn't relish in that sort of padding. When Joel and Ellie finally roll up on Salt Lake City, it is very much close to the end as one might expect, with just one extended infected encounter, and then the brutal, uncomfortable trek through the Firefly hospital. It's an hour. Tops. It is the end, as it should be.
Today, two genres tend to prevail in the triple-A space: action-adventure games and shooters. The former have typically themselves found themselves divided by linearity and open-world exploration. Some have just flirted with the latter, like Yakuza; others have leaned so heavily into RPG mechanics that they've lost the action part of its adventures. Regardless, with the likes of Marvel's Spider-Man, Horizon Zero Dawn, Uncharted 4, God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, and more, there's no denying that the action-adventure has been one of this generation's most beloved genres, just as it was in the PS3 generation.
Ultimately, the development of the classical action-adventure has been more about evolution than revolution this generation, but the genre has nevertheless seen incremental improvements that I hope to see effect The Last of Us Part 2. The line between cutscenes and gameplay, for instance, has become increasingly blurred. In some games, I can't even tell the difference between a pre-rendered cutscene and gameplay. For other games, the transition from cutscene to gameplay is so seamless that the slight, noticeable difference hardly matters. In God of War, this technique is used to great effect, barely breaking away from its single shot camera.
Developers have put more of a focus when it comes to combat, too. God of War added much-needed literal weight to Kratos, leading to satisfying, if lumbering, combos amidst arena encounters, despite the lackluster enemy variety overall. The Tomb Raider reboot series, which bounced from last-gen to current-gen, was described by many as "Uncharted, but with good stealth." While the tone of many of the most popular games of this generation were a bit one-note—jokingly decreed as "sad dad games," a.k.a. the transition of game developers becoming parents and making games to reflect that life change—in most cases, they matured in action while also aiming for prestige. Mostly, though, they just added annoying environmental puzzles. Oh, how I loathe arbitrary puzzles.
Structurally, games in the triple-A space have barely budged forward—which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The Last of Us, in its time, was daring in how it twisted the familiar linear action-adventure formula, and it's something that I hope gets shaken up further in the sequel.
I hope The Last of Us Part 2 finally ushers the genre ahead. Given the incredibly strict embargoes surrounding its conversation, it's hard to gauge if it does take that extra step, like the original once did. As of now I know it's unfortunately longer, though it could earn that length, like some RPGs and action-adventures of this generation surely have. When I previewed it last year, I praised its tenser, more nimble stealth action—something that in replaying the original, I forgot was severely lacking. Even presumably playing the preview on a normal difficulty, it did feel tougher, which to me is a welcome change. Now, time will tell if it has learned the other lessons of this generation of action-adventure, and if it has any new paths to pave in the process.