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How I Think Naughty Dog Could Improve With The Last of Us Part II

Let's take a great game and make its sequel even better.

| Categories: Featured Posts, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, SideArc, Video Games | 11 Comments »

There’s no denying that The Last of Us is a beloved game. An honestly great game, one that is considered by many to be a masterpiece. Yet for me, as much as I did truly enjoy the game, there were flaws and inconsistencies that dragged the overall experience down just a notch.

Let me just emphasize for anyone who missed this part of the sentence – I enjoyed The Last of Us. I even replayed it a few times. I want to see the sequel be as good as it can possibly be. This isn’t a fanboy’s rant attempting to tarnish the reputation of something with near-universal acclaim. I just want to lay out the faults I found with the original in a way to try and point out how improvements can be made. I’m also not going to just go on about negatives, I will also do my best to provide alternative suggestions for the issues I found. I’m likely going to get a bit sarcastic and snarky here and there, but it’s all in good fun. You know, that thing that video games should be.

There’s very little known about Part II yet besides the fact that it simply exists and is in production, so I’m obviously going to be working on some assumptions here about how similar Part II will be to the original. Just stick with me though; I’m basing this article on my own impressions from the first game. As they say, hindsight is 20/20, and that’s exactly what I’m using here.

So, Naughty Dog. Let’s make The Last of Us Part II as good as everyone says the original is. OK? OK.

Ditch the “Magic Pills”

Quite possibly my biggest complaint about the original game is the way that it handled how you upgraded Joel. I understand that survival is about scavenging supplies, but this took things a step too far. It clashes with the overall feel of the game’s world that Naughty Dog was building, and even contradicted some of their own choices.

The biggest offender in this regard is the “shaky aim.” In my opinion, there is no defense for this mechanic because the game itself contradicted its own inclusion. Why would a toughened survivor like Joel have a hard time handling a gun in the first place? Why does taking random pills and medicinal plants suddenly give him better aim? It comes across to me as something that’s in the game simply to check something off of a feature list and to inflate its run time.

Another logical fallacy here is that these pills you collected allowed you to create stronger shivs that wouldn’t break after one use. (More on these guys later.)

Then of course there’s the standard enhanced health bar, enhanced Detective Mode Listen Mode, and the slightly-less-standard enhanced healing speed and crafting speed. These I have no problem with, besides the enhanced crafting speed being more or less useless in most scenarios.

“Maybe I’ll find some random plant back here to keep my hands from shaking for no apparent reason.”

How would I improve this?

First, I would simply remove the weapon sway and the limitations on shivs. (Again, more on that in a bit.) The rest could be provided by a simple, standard skill tree a la many RPGs. Earn XP for kills, stealth, story events, etc. Possibly even throw in bonuses for certain criteria, such as how Horizon gives bonuses for stealth kills and headshot takedowns.  For me, earning RPG-styled XP to improve my character’s abilities is a much easier pill to swallow. Pun absolutely intended.

That’s actually it. Just a small tweak that would feel more consistent and – in my personal opinion – more rewarding.

3 Ways to Overhaul and Improve the Combat Experience

OK, so this probably isn’t as drastic as I’m making it sound with that subtitle. With a few tweaks – some subtle and some more in-depth – this game could feel entirely different. And all for the better. These next 3 points can easily be summed up this way: Uncharted 4 borrowed from The Last of Us. Now The Last of Us should borrow from the Uncharted series in a way that makes sense to this universe.

Limit the roadblocks to your weapons

Equally egregious as the “Magic Pills” are the “Magic Parts” that allow for weapon upgrades. Somehow, Joel is able to take random bits of scrap metal that he finds and turn them into all sorts of enhancements for his weaponry. Faster reloads, larger clips, less recoil; none of these make logical sense with what he’s using to build these enhancements. He may as well be creating additional bullets to compensate for the limited ammo that’s available in the world. Again, much like scavenging for random pills this feels like pointless filler content intended to fluff up the game’s runtime feature list.

Edited to correct my thought. I missed that wording during my initial proofreading.

(And in case anyone is wondering: yes, I do dislike when other games do this, such as the Tomb Raider reboot.)

And if Joel is supernaturally gifted at making these upgrades, Ellie is practically a sorceress with how her knife never breaks. You mean to tell me that this teenage girl has an unbreakable knife, yet an older, more battle-experienced man like Joel hasn’t figured out that keeping a sharp and durable melee weapon is a good thing? I find that harder to believe than the Cordyceps fungus plaguing the world.

Remind me again why the little girl has a gun and I have to fight barehanded?

How would I make it better? Just do away with it entirely. We don’t need to improve our weapons, we don’t need to (constantly) be crafting shivs in order to survive. Just give us a balanced weapon set and let us figure out our own way. Easier said than done, sure, but much more satisfying to the player.

Allow for full stealth playthroughs

Stealth was immensely satisfying in The Last of Us. Adopting this into Uncharted 4 felt almost as good. Now it’s time to take things a step further and allow the player to make it through the entire game without (directly) killing a soul. Except perhaps for a good boss battle such as what happened in the Winter; aka the absolute best part of the game that was so good Naughty Dog had to lie about its existence before release.

This is pretty self-explanatory in itself, so I’m not going to spend much time here. Though this does lead into my next suggestion:

More Cordyceps, fewer bandits

The stop-and-pop gunplay was never as exciting or fulfilling as the tense sequences of contending with the infected. This would also let Naughty Dog get creative with a few more varieties of Cordyceps effects. It’s been some time since the original game’s story, having new mutations would make a lot of sense. (Ignoring that not having new enemy types would feel lazy on their part.) They could even be a lot more formidable to stealthy players, such as myself.

Heck, if I really allow myself to dream here, Naughty Dog should go all in and adapt enemy Cordyceps mutations to the way that you play; that would especially be fantastic for replayability. Do you focus on stealth? Start introducing mutations that are better at finding you before you kill them/escape. Do you go in guns blazing? The virus could adapt to create tougher skin and allow for more durability – perfect for ND’s tendency to introduce bullet sponge enemies – perhaps requiring you to even get up close and personal to deal the most damage. (Ideally I’d like to see melee combat be a viable option against the infected in the sequel due to the limited ammo, perhaps balanced out by requiring additional player skill to actually be effective in using it.)

“Hello, gorgeous…”

Also, while we’re at it let’s mix and match the infected and the bandits a little more when they do have to be around. Probably my favorite part of Left Behind is when you were able to get the “zombies” to attack the bandits that were searching for you. That moment was especially great because it was so unique. It would have the opposite effect to overuse this setup so caution would be needed, but I would still love to see more of this.

Just Because it’s a Video Game, Doesn’t Mean it Has to Do Everything a Video Game Does

Crates. Ladders. Floating wooden paletes. If I never put my character’s digital hands on one of these brainless time-wasters in a Naughty Dog game again, it will be too soon. In fact, I think I take back what I said about the “Magic Pills” likely being my least favorite part of the game. I could go on about this for too long. Suffice to say that I find this sort of insipid, pointless game design almost infuriating. It’s clearly only there to waste your time, and it’s not even remotely enjoyably wasted time at that. These roadblocks to progression need to be dropped entirely.

In its place, unless I’m solving an actual environmental puzzle I would suggest simply having everything where it needs to be for me to advance. If there needs to be a series of exposition and character-building, just give me a pretty “hallway” to walk through as the characters talk. I don’t need busywork as I listen to a conversation, I’d rather just get to where we’re going. Having long corridors of talking worked fine in Uncharted 4, so we should definitely see more of that here.

I’d much rather listen to an exposition dump somewhere like this than be forced to move one more slightly-inconveniently-placed ladder into the right position to make progress.

Speaking of Uncharted 4, it was a relief how Naughty Dog toned back on the number of extended shootouts in that entry. They no longer felt like a slog to push through, in turn slowing down the pacing of the game. They were just brief and just frequent enough to not overstay their welcome, and indeed left me wanting more at some occasions. Tied in with my point above, please keep this trend going.

One more thing…

Could we get some improvement in the partner AI? It looked completely ridiculous to have Ellie running around like a headless chicken, bumping into enemies that don’t notice her until Joel is spotted. I understand not wanting to needlessly give away the player’s position – which would be frustrating in itself – but this was just laughable.

Speaking of that Winter Section Earlier (Spoilers, Duh)

Holy crap. Please, somehow, find a way to pull off more of that. As simple of a touch as it was, Joel’s injury affecting how he controlled was a stroke of quiet brilliance. And then taking control of Ellie, simultaneously stripping the fluff off of the gameplay and distilling it to its core elements culminating in one of the best boss battles in gaming history… That section is easily among my top gaming moments ever.

If Naughty Dog could find a way to pull off another one of those without feeling like a rehash/repeat of these events, I will be one happy dude. It’s a tall order to fill, I just hope they can do it.

In Conclusion…

I dare say that the storytelling was the primary highlight of The Last of Us and that, outside of a few glorious moments where they worked hand-in-hand, the gameplay sometimes just got in the way of fully enjoying this game. These suggestions I made could very well elevate the gameplay to stand alongside the storytelling, shoulder to shoulder, working as equals.

I can’t wait to hear how objectively wrong I am about my subjective opinions regarding what I perceived as the negative aspects of this great game. (Edit – is this coming across as too hostile? I meant is as a joke. I’m genuinely interested in having a conversation.) Let’s hear what you have to say down in the comments below!

Note – Images from The Last of Us: Remastered are from the Playstation Store website. The Last of Us Part II header image is from the Playstation Blog.
  • Aaron Wilkins

    I like these ideas a lot. I’m most in agreement to having there be fewer bandits. The zombie-like enemies feel so few and far between in comparison. I’m assuming that was done to make their impact be more important when you do encounter one but all it really did was make you fight the most boring enemies in video games, humans.

  • Dub-Sempar Pa

    I want to play as a butch lesbian for once

  • I never played the game, but this sounds exactly like the sort of story-and-gameplay disconnects I want to see corrected in more games. Thank you for sharing this, Ryuuga. I thought this was a great article.

    • Ryuuga Hideki

      You’re most welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • GUN®

    Oh boy, time to put on my shining armour.

    “Ditch the “Magic Pills”

    While you’re right that it’s silly and unrealistic to expect pills to upgrade a character’s abilities and whatnot, this is still a game at the end of the day, in another game these would be experience points (though ones you need to find) and looking at it like that, pills/plants are more realistic than magical numbers that can be spent for new abilities.

    “Why would a toughened survivor like Joel have a hard time handling a gun in the first place?”

    True he’s a hardened survivor and it’s implied he was a hunter himself at some point, but it sounds like that was quite some time before Ellie arrived, meaning it’s reasonable to expect him to be rusty with firefights. We also know that ammo in that world is like gold dust so did Joel really put in enough hours at the shooting range, or was he more of a strangle/machete sort of man? Is it unbelievable to think that as he and Ellie had more and more encounters with enemies for nearly a year, his gun skills improved (even if we have to make him eat pills to see that)?

    As for the weapon upgrading…

    “Again, much like scavenging for random pills this feels like pointless filler content intended to fluff up the game’s runtime.”

    I think it adds a sense of progression and I wouldn’t look at it as pointless nor filler content. For one, it benefits the player which automatically gives it a purpose, also, though I’ve never done it, I’m pretty sure you can beat the game without upgrading any weapon and I really don’t think picking up a few items on the ground added any significant amount of time on my playthrough to warrant it being classed as runtime-extending. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to upgrade all weapons in a single playthrough anyway, I never did.

    I agree about expanding on stealth, to a degree, I think killing is something that defined Joel in TLoU (particularly vital to the end), to make it so that he’s a benevolent ninja in gameplay wouldn’t have rung true for me. Joel might be the most morally grey character I’ve come across in a game before. The coldness, the killing, the death is all part of him imo. That’s not to say I wouldn’t appreciate improvements to the stealth gameplay like U4 got (which made it very rewarding to clear out an area without being detected).

    “More Cordyceps, fewer bandits”

    Disagree, clickers, while nerve wracking, were pretty easy to deal with once you learned their behaviours, but I always found the human enemies to be the most dangerous, especially when you’re low on ammo and heavily outnumbered, they would charge you when they heard your gun was empty (something you could use to your advantage), they would flank you simultaneously and the melee combat with them was the most satisfying combat in any ND game vs the one hit kills of the clickers. But I’m on board with new types of infected and more Human Vs Infected scenarios.

    As for the Ellie being invisible thing that has been argued since day 1. After playing Fallout 4, Ellie being invisible is 100% the better option for me, I don’t care how much it takes other players out of the game. FO4 was aggressively annoying with that shit.

    I pretty much agree with all your other points. Though I think you missed out on the chance to talk about improvements to MP. Yes, I know ‘people only play ND games for story’ but you’ll find nothing but praise for TLoU 1’s MP mode. I loved it. One big thing I want to see from MP is for them to bring infected into the mix somehow. Either a separate mode or as environmental hazards on certain maps or like an ‘event’ that might happen during a match. There is great potential there.

    Anyway, great article, well written with a lot of thought put into it. Moar.

    • Ryuuga Hideki

      Thank you for the comment! I’m glad we had so much in common here. To start, I didn’t mention the multiplayer because I honestly never even touched it. Beyond that, PvP MP isn’t generally my thing either, so I didn’t feel qualified to even mention it. Integrating the infected into it does sound like a brilliant idea, I’d probably give it a spin just for that.

      “Is it unbelievable to think that as he and Ellie had more and more encounters with enemies for nearly a year, his gun skills improved (even if we have to make him eat pills to see that)?”

      Not at all, though that’s why I personally feel such a disconnect with the pills. I’m fine with using an experience system for upgrades like this, whereas picking up items to activate that effect just doesn’t really jive with me. Especially since ND was going for a more gritty, grounded setting – albeit still involving “zombies” – this feels like an odd dash of fantasy mixed in. Like if Drake suddenly shot a fireball out of his hand Mario-style. (OK, extreme example, but that’s a general idea of what it feels like to me.)

      “… I really don’t think picking up a few items on the ground added any significant amount of time on my playthrough to warrant it being classed as runtime-extending…”

      I do agree with you there, that was mostly a mistake and incomplete thought on my end. I meant more in that it was added in to the as another feature to check off on a list; as if someone in planning said “This story is great, but our game needs more ‘game.'” I’ll go in and clarify that thought in the article later. But my general thought process is the same as the pills; it feels too fantasy-based to me and just kind of clashes for me with the rest of it. Give us a set tool base to work with and figure out our way through with them, even if it ends up just as the bottom-level weapons. Or perhaps simply finding/stealing/corpse-looting specific upgraded parts. I could see Joel finding a better scope, a silencer, extended grip for more stabilization, stronger bow wiring, and etc. to get many of the same improvements.

      But, like you said, at the end of the day it’s still a game. While I’d personally prefer no progression in either of those areas compared to how they were presented in the original, I do see where you’re coming from.

      Regarding stealth, I also definitely see where you’re coming from and I will concede that I am likely projecting some of myself onto Joel and what I would expect or hope for.

      However, I’m not insinuating that Joel would be something of a “benevolent ninja” in the sequel. Rather, it’s just another way to get to where he’s going in the sequel. Assuming we play him at some point. Maybe with some hindsight he would even feel some guilt or regret over possibly/potentially damning the human race by his actions in the first game, and so would feel compelled to avoid taking unnecessary lives. Or whatever other story reason could be contrived. (Sam Drake, anyone?)

      I’d also like to speculate on this a bit, even though my own speculation/desire starts to lose its footing: https://www.polygon.com/2016/12/3/13830334/the-last-of-us-2-main-character-playstation-experience

      “Ellie is now 19 years old and fueled by hate, a major theme of The Last of Us Part 2, Druckmann said.

      Ellie will play differently from Joel, Druckmann said, but said that revealing any more about her ‘evolution’ was risky territory.” (I’m just going to ignore any sort of infection-related possibilities there for the sake of this discussion.)

      “Fueled by hate” sounds like she could tend towards violence, but here’s my take on it for the sake of wanting the option for more/total stealth.

      In the reveal trailer it was strongly implied that she killed those people when it could have been someone else. (Or, for the sake of discussion, lets assume an alternate outcome where the player went postal and we’re watching a cutscene right after the gameplay. Not all trailers are directly a part of the game, after all.) That girl had some severely messed up events in her past. Watching her best friend/crush turn after they were both bitten. Brutally murdering Nathan Drake David who was himself attempting to murder her for his group to eat. (Still hard to believe that character was voiced by Nolan North. He gave me chills.) Stuff like that is going to severely affect a 14-year-old, no matter the world that they grew up in. We don’t know much of her past before the prep school, so it’s possible that she wasn’t entirely exposed to how bad the world had gotten until the events in TLoU/Left Behind. And/or maybe she found out about Joel’s actions at the end of the first game. Whether a desire to make up for that action, or simply out of some form of revenge, she might want to act in a way to try and undo what he did in the first.

      I’m probably reaching a bit to try and make it work with what I want, but apparently some things are going to be different. I dunno. I’m sure the ND team could come up with some story justification for it if they decided to allow full game stealth like that.

  • Leon Evelake

    “Full stealth playthrough”

    Yeah it bugs me ( in this or batman or anything I suppose) where it’s really forced in… this is the shoot em up part, this is the stealth part

    • Beating Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory with only four (nonlethal) takedowns and one storyline-mandated death (minor villain) is still one of my favorite gaming accomplishments to this day. Likewise I think I was able to beat both of the new Deus Ex games with no non-mandatory takedowns.

  • Jacob Kellogg

    I am surprised, I have to agree on pretty much allof these. I especially grew tired of fighting humans all the time. I would rather fight the fungi zombs…But not Bullet sponges. ND bullet sponges are terrible.

    and PLEASE no more boxes, cans or planks….They are soo bad. The thing I’d like most is more open stealth, the first was very linear with its stealth. I’d like more options.

  • Adam York

    Henry just got in the way. That was really annoying.

  • NorthWest Eagle

    Eh, I don’t want to play another zombie game. Tired of zombies.