The Last of Us on the PlayStation 3, in my eyes, was a perfect game. I don’t mean to say it was my favourite game, the best game possible, or even the best game on its platform – just that it was a wonderfully elaborate realisation of a concept. Not a single flaw stood out to me while playing through the original release, and never an “it could be a bit better if…”. Every major plot point, down to every infinitesimal piece of detail, served a purpose; either immediately or to position the player for a later event. Even anything that could be construed as repetitive or overused was arguably only so to create a sense of comfort in doing the familiar, only to exploit the player’s vulnerability. Not the best, not the most fun, not my favourite, but perfect.
The reason I’m going to so much effort to explain these qualities of The Last of Us is because, unfortunately, I can’t say the same for The Last of Us Remastered. “But how is that possible?”, you’re probably wondering – “Isn’t it just the same game with improved visuals?”. Remastered is the same game, and no part of the single player has been altered any way but cosmetically, but I can’t say this is an improvement on the original release. The aesthetic changes seem less like layers added on the integral structure of The Last of Us, but a reallocation of resources, as if pieces were taken from the base to add to the more visible top. What results is a game that’s undeniably beautiful, but also noticeably unsteady. It’s still one of the best games of all time, it’s still a complete masterpiece, and I still love it, but unlike its PS3 counterpart, it’s flawed.
I’m sure you know what The Last of Us is about. Humanity is overtaken by the Cordyceps fungi, bringing an end to organised civilization and a global threat in the form of infected humans. This, and all aspects of the narrative are as they were. That is, one of the best stories I’ve ever been told; not only in a video game, but in a book, a movie – anything. However, The Last of Us uses strengths exclusive to this medium to remarkable effect. By having the audience ‘be’ the main character, a dynamic method of storytelling is allowed. Optional conversations, for example, may seem trivial, but they mean that you, the player can learn more about what you want to, and disregard anything you aren’t interested in.
“Being” the character has a much greater strength, though. Where reading about or watching a character do certain things might position you against them, forcing the player to be the one in those situations creates a relatability you wouldn’t expect. You’ll be forced to do things you’d never want to, things that you’d oppose in a heartbeat, but you always feel like you had to. This, when added to the dire situation the world is in, creates an interesting spectrum of morality. It’s hard to say what’s good and what’s bad anymore; rather, it comes down to the needs of few versus the needs of many. Everyone has to kill, and everyone has to weigh their own lives against others. It’s not about who’s good and who’s bad; it’s about who’s bad and who’s worse.
Of course, it helps that this inherently interesting world is inhabited by fittingly interesting characters, with each crafted so expertly. Joel and Ellie are amazingly constructed characters, but it’s their relationship that holds the story together. This is possibly the most organic, believable character growth I’ve ever seen. Through parallels from each character’s past, juxtapositions to their relationships with others and the sheer quality of the writing, there’s no stage in Joel and Ellie’s feelings for each other that is less than 100% believable.
Supporting characters are given less attention but are equally easy to appreciate. Admirably, LGBT characters are handled wonderfully in The Last of Us. A far cry from the token, often disrespectful, gay characters in modern media – The Last of Us handles these characters as they would any other. On my original playthrough, I didn’t even realise a particular character was gay; the information is there, but it’s not treated as relevant or like it makes any difference. There’s no revelation, just a realisation. It’s wonderful to see this kind of portrayal, and it’s great that a name as big as Naughty Dog is willing to create it – other developers would be smart to follow suit.
The Last of Us is a video game, though, and you do play it; however, how it’s played is largely up to the player. The vast majority of conflicts allow for a typical third-person shoot up, and stealthy approach of silently disposing of enemies one by one, or an even stealthier approach of sneaking passed and avoiding combat entirely. Whether you choose to play offensively or conservatively, gameplay is perfectly aligned to the narrative. Each kill carries significant weight; the violent urgency of murdering to stay alive, and the terrifying danger of staying hidden both reinforce how harsh this world is described to be. Death is handled as a serious thing. Where often in third person shooters you’ll mow down hundreds of guys and head forward like nothing happened, The Last of Us makes sure that you feel the repercussions of killing, and even punishes you for becoming numb to it. Playing The Last of Us is more about immersing yourself in an atmosphere and a situation than having fun, but this doesn’t limit how enjoyable the experience is.
Looting plays a role maybe even larger than combat. Supplies and collectibles are hidden everywhere, strongly encouraging exploration. Success in looting means better chances of success in combat – if you can collect enough materials to craft shivs, health kits and special weapons, you have a much easier fight on your hands. Conversely though, doing better in combat allows more collecting. Some doors can only be opened by using a shiv (a weapon only available by crafting with found resources which can only be used sparingly before breaking). So whether or not you need to rely on a shiv to survive a combat situation can decide whether or not you are able to enter a room full of loot moments later. This conservative mentality the game instills allows very punishing and rewarding situations. Certain conflicts are especially difficult without sufficient supplies, but when you have a fully loaded inventory, a feeling of complete confidence is a wonderful way to know you’re doing well.
You probably know that The Last of Us is a beautiful game. If it looked so great on the PS3, this improved version must look even better, right? Well, that depends on how you look at it. While there are plenty of amazing views and the overall visual presentation is honestly awe-inspiring, it’s not without it’s shortcomings. The Remastered Edition is riddled with visual bugs and flaws. It’s not enough to make the game look poor, by any means, but it’s more than enough to remind you that you’re playing a video game.
Playing the PS3 release, it was so easy to immerse yourself and get completely lost in the world – this isn’t the same. Just as soon as I felt completely submerged in the experience I’d clip through an NPC and bounce around, pat a dog only to have my hand go through its head, walk over a puddle that reacted like jelly, or most commonly witness an object pop in out of nowhere. At one point, my rifle continued to play a reload animation while on my back until the next cutscene. You expect these kinds of things from video games, but I don’t expect these kinds of things from a studio like Naughty Dog – one who create some of the most polished, intricate video games ever – especially in a rerelease of a game that didn’t suffer from these things in the first place. Maybe they were rushed to release the game, or maybe some things got lost in translation to the new platform. Either way, it’s a shame.
Outside of these flaws though, it is a genuinely beautiful game. From stunning environments, to amazingly believable facial expressions, to some of the best acting I’ve seen even outside of video games, it’s hard not to be impressed. The music provided by Gustavo Santaolalla is equally commendable. Emotional music played in such a minimalist way produces a score that couldn’t be more fitting for the overgrown environments and dramatic scenes. The Last of Us is an exquisite piece of art on either platform, just more so on the PS3.
It’s worth mentioning that Remastered Edition includes the Left Behind DLC, which is a considerably substantial single player offering, as well as extra multiplayer maps and the like. If you’d rather have all of this together (I think it’s probably still cheaper to get it all on PS3), then get this version. If you specifically want to play on the PS4, get this version. If you want the full, immersive, unflawed release, I have to recommend the PS3 version. If you’d like to know what we thought about the original release, you can read our initial review here, and the Left Behind DLC review here.
The Last of Us is one of the greatest games ever created. Joel and Ellie’s story is one of the most elaborately and expertly crafted narratives I’ve ever been told, and its emotional weight goes beyond most tales. A perfect marriage of gameplay and narrative, an intriguing world, fully realised characters, and tight mechanics result in an awesome experience. Unfortunately, though, minor bugs hold this release back from being the monolith its predecessor was.
Note: This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, and provided to us by Sony Computer Entertainment Australia.