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Analysing UX in The Last of Us Part II

Exploring (and hopefully improving) the experience around melee weapons and upgrades

The Last of Us Part II is an action-adventure game developed by Naughty Dog. It’s set a few years after the events of the original game, released in 2013. Whether you are new to the series or not, it’s worth mentioning that SUPERJUMP has covered The Last of Us Part II very extensively. Here are a few primers to get you in the mood, should you want to dive in further:

Okay, more than a few.

In this single-player game, players can use firearms, improvised weapons, and stealth to fight enemies (humans, dogs, and infected — essentially zombies). Players also interact with the environment by jumping, climbing, and navigating by horse or boat, all while using the environment to their advantage (either to gain the upper hand or to hide from danger). In addition to the weapons, there are a range of “distraction” items (like bottles or bricks) that create noise to lure enemies away from the player.

Weapons and items can be directly acquired from within the environment (e.g. you might find a weapon or ammunition in a cupboard for example). It’s also possible to pick up raw materials and then craft specific items as you go. This includes everything from health equipment through to arrows, silencers, shiv blades, and more. Crafting involves accessing the in-game menu, which is also where players can upgrade skills. Weaponry can’t be upgraded at any time through the in-game menu; it requires accessing a workbench (these can be found at various points throughout the game and are reasonably plentiful).

Difficulty settings play a role in terms of how frequently players will come across items in the environment. The higher the difficulty, the rarer these items are, requiring players to be far more economical in terms of consuming items as they go.

Before I begin a UX analysis of the game, I’m going to touch on my specific play conditions.

Play conditions

I played The Last of Us Part II two weeks after it launched. I was sitting in a comfortable armchair in front of my 37' TV. And I was about 1.5 to 2 metres away from the screen.

I sometimes find it difficult to see things on screen while playing modern video games (bear in mind I have no diagnosed vision problems). This is especially true for PC games. This actually forced me to get up to read the instructions and some dialogue on Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales.

The Last of Us Part II did not force me to get up to read the text, but most of the UI is very minimal and semi-transparent. I understand that the idea was to make the experience as immersive as possible and to try to hide UI elements. But the loss of visual information frustrates me, which ironically impacts my immersion even more, taking me out of the experience.

There are numerous examples of this. But here’s just one: right at the beginning of the game when the environment is filled with snow. Can you find the crosshairs in this picture?

Image 1: A lot of snow in the environment hide tips and UI elements.

What feature would I improve?

This is a game where you need to have every tool at your disposal to survive. It’s important to always be aware of the tools at hand, especially if you need to react to sudden attacks. The weapon slot and crafting menus are amazing from a UX perspective. But I do take issue with the UI around the melee weapon and its upgrade.

Melee weapons are fundamentally different from every other weapon type. In all cases except melee, weapons can be acquired and then used right through to the end of the game. Melee weapons each have a strict usage limit. Once the player picks up a melee weapon, they can only use it a specified number of times before it breaks.

The limit is actually visible if you have a melee weapon with you (the small dashes inside the yellow circle on image 2). Players can extend this usage limit (and damage) by crafting an upgrade.

Image 2 (left): Player can see the weapon has 4 uses, and it’s not being actively used. Image 2 (right): Player can see the weapon has 5 uses, and it is being actively used.

Why target the melee weapon and its upgrade?

The above images clearly articulate two different states. The image on the left depicts the melee weapon when it’s on-hand but isn’t actively being used. The image on the right depicts the melee weapon when it’s actively being used. The flow works well when you have a melee weapon with you in your inventory.

But it becomes slightly confusing if you either don’t have one with you or you have an available upgrade. In both of these cases, the relevant information either isn’t available or is hard to read/interpret. I found that frustrating at times.

No melee weapon

So let’s start with the first case, where you don’t have a melee weapon in your inventory at all. As you might expect, if I don’t have a melee weapon on me, then I won’t see information about it on the screen.

Take a look at image 3 below. The blue circle on the left indicates I have no melee weapon. If I dive into the crafting menu, it states that I have no available upgrade (green circle on the left).

Image 3: No melee weapon available.

Confusion sets in

So far, so good. Now let’s say I actually go and select that melee upgrade card (green circle on the left) to go into it. This takes me to the right hand side of image 3. When I go here, I can see the components/materials required to upgrade the melee weapon (green rectangle on the right).

However, if you take a look at the green circle on the right, it appears that I can craft 1 upgrade (thanks to the 0 | 1 indicator). And yet the collectible item slot above (green rectangle on the right) clearly indicates that no upgrade is available because I don’t have all the required materials. In my view, this 0 | 1 counter seems erroneous.

There is an inconsistency with this indicator versus other similar ones, too. For example, take a look at the ammunition counter (blue circle on the left). It’s clearly telling me that I have 7 bullets loaded into my gun now, but zero left after that. The 0 | 1 counter could therefore imply that I have 1 melee weapon available but 0 equipped/in use right now.

Players need to remember slightly different design patterns so that they don’t make erroneous comparisons or assumptions. This is an unnecessary overhead for players.

What happens when you actually have a melee weapon?

For starters, the information displayed on image 2 is always on screen if you actually have a melee weapon in your inventory. Remember that image 2 conveys two sub-scenarios (I have a weapon and I’m actively using it, versus I have a weapon but I’m not actively using it).

Now, enter the crafting menu (image 4, below). You can see a new icon appear on the weapon upgrade card (yellow circle on the left). Okay, this is exciting! Now we can craft something. Activate that card (which takes you to the right hand side of image 4) and notice that the collectible item/materials slot shows I have the required materials to perform an upgrade (blue rectangle on the right). The weapon upgrade card (yellow circle on the right) is telling me that I can make up to 1 upgrade.

Image 4: Craft a melee weapon.

I need to remember this behaviour in this “success” case when I actually have a melee weapon.

It’s worth noting, too, that the game doesn’t pause when I’m in these menus. That’s a slightly separate question, but it isn’t helped by the confusion that could be caused by the UI design here — especially if it takes a few seconds to actually grasp what’s going on. Yes, I did get attacked during one of these moments.

So, is my melee weapon upgraded or not?

Let’s say you’ve now upgraded your melee weapon. There is a bit of an information gap here too. See the yellow circle on the melee weapon in image 2 below:

Image 2: The weapon has been upgraded.

You’ll see here — if you squint — that the weapon has scissors around it. This means the weapons has been upgraded. But you’ll need to remember — and notice — the difference between the standard icon and the upgraded icon in order to know this.

What’s the impact? It’s a small piece of visual information on a small icon that can easily be missed. It can mean that you think you should/need to upgrade only to find you can’t do so because it’s already done.

Image 5: In the bottom right, you can see the hammer without an upgrade. With upgrade would have a small visual indicator on the head of the hammer, a piece of minimal and little information that can be easy to miss.

No melee weapon, no upgrade — no info. Rule or exception?

Let’s take a look at image 5 above. The weapon quick-select menu is open. You can clearly see that the smoke bomb isn’t available (that is, you don’t have any in your inventory). But notice that the melee weapon doesn’t have a place on this menu — rather than showing a faded icon, there’s simply no icon at all.

In general, weapon information is always available on this quick menu (even if the weapon has no ammunition). The point, of course, is that no weapon, no info is not applied as a general rule, but an inconsistent exception, where the melee weapon and its upgrade are the most obvious examples.

What would I do?

The starting point was to think about consistency, and how this very problem has already been solved in the game when it comes to other equipment. I created a small proposal over the top of the existing crafting menu and quick weapon select as a way to illustrate these ideas (see image 6 below).

Image 6: simulation of suggestions.

Specifically, here’s what I’m proposing:

Crafting menu

  1. Keep all collectible item slots visible at all times (blue rectangle on image 7 below).
  2. Display information about the item crafting state without forcing the player to actually move to the slot (yellow rectangle on image 7).

How do we achieve the second point? For starters, the wrench is now always visible. It’s white if you can craft, and red if you can’t. The numerical indicators are also changed now and they always remain in place — the larger-sized number is for the amount owned and the smaller is for the total amount that can be owned. The colours reinforce this. Red means there’s no item (which will also be a zero), but it’ll change to white if you have 1 or more.

On image 6, you can see:

Health kit: wrench, white +1 big + 2 small. Possible to craft 1, max 2.
Smoke bomb: wrench, red + 3 big + 3 small. Not possible to craft. 3 items, max 3.
Silencer: wrench, white + 0 big red+ 3 small. Possible to craft, no item, max 3.
Melee Weapon upgrade: wrench, white + 0 big red + 4 small. Possible to craft, no item, max 4.
Blade: wrench, red + 0 big red + 3 small. Not possible to craft, no item, 3 max.

Image 7.

Weapons slot/indicator

  1. When the player doesn’t have a melee weapon or blade, the item should be red (yellow circle on image 7). I’d prefer to use the criss-crossed hammer/axe design found on the collectible item area (blue rectangle on image 7), but it takes up a lot of space. So instead, I’d suggest displaying the last melee weapon used and colouring it red to indicate you don’t have it.
  2. When the weapon is upgraded, the icon (shown in image 2 above) could be more explicit, perhaps displaying a different colour (maybe the scissors that hold the hammer could be yellow, for example, to make it more obvious).
Source: Sony.

Final thoughts

I really loved the UI/UX in The Last of Us Part II. It’s actually the overall quality of the UI that caused me to notice the melee weapon inconsistency — so much so that I couldn’t forget about it. I appreciate the immense effort that went into reducing down the UI to the bare minimum — it helps us feel like we aren’t in the game, but are actually inside the world of The Last of Us Part II.

However, there is crucial information that we still need to know. Whether it’s about the absence or presence of something important, we need to know so that we can make decisions. Do I strike the enemy first or run away? Do I hide in the first instance? What I don’t have is as important as what I do have when I need to survive.




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Maria Meireles

Maria Meireles

Hobbit living on the 2 floor 🐢

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