The Last of Us Remastered - Brutal Backlog
Widely considered to be one of the best games of all time, The Last of Us and its developer Naughty Dog broke new ground upon its initial release in 2013. A cinematic marvel and a lightning rod for discussion across the gaming industry, the last hurrah for the PlayStation 3 remains a firm favourite for so many all these years later, myself included.
I hadn’t revisited Joel and Ellie’s story since it first came out. I felt like I didn’t need to. My playthrough was my playthrough. Everything that happened during it was my story. However, with the impending release of The Last of Us Part II and with the remastered edition of the game dormant on my PS4’s hard drive for years, I decided that now was the right time to revisit a game that is easily in contention for my favourite of all time. Would I feel the same the second time around? Could The Last of Us possibly be toppled from the pedestal I’d set it on almost a decade ago? I was about to find out.
Twenty Minutes In
What a gut punch. Whilst I hadn’t forgotten the core plot points of The Last of Us, I had forgotten just how hard that intro hits. A cold opening to what is easily one of the most emotional scenes in video games still hits just as hard as it originally did.
The Last of Us is the story of Joel, a devoted father turned hardened smuggler. Twenty years after a world-devastating pandemic (I know, right?) he’s tasked with escorting a girl — Ellie — out of a Boston quarantine zone. It should be a simple job but, of course, it was never going to be. You might ask why I’m inclined to discuss story points before gameplay, but to boil The Last of Us down to it’s mechanics — a third-person action game with grounded gunplay, violent melee combat and a focus on stealth — would be doing it an injustice.
I first played The Last of Us when I was twenty-one years old and, despite knowing what was coming, experiencing that opening with a more mature head on my shoulders was much harder than before. As brief as it was, I felt myself connecting — or reconnecting — with Joel that little bit more.
One Hour In
My reaction to the intro really took me aback. I spent the remainder of the first hour in a sort of fog. I hadn’t quite remembered just how brutal this game could be. There’s one point early on as you head outside the walls of the Quarantine Zone for the first time where a recently infected man begs for you to shoot him. It’s these little moments where the tone of The Last of Us succeeds. They’re the parts I tended to gloss over when I thought about this game.
I slowly adjusted to the bleak and oppressive world and the gradual pacing of the game’s early encounters. Combat remains as grounded as I remember, albeit a little stiffer. Although not nearly as fluid as similar systems that would appear in other games later on, it still feels pretty good. It wasn’t long before I was taking out enemies with callous tact and re-learning the price of a bullet.
As well as The Last of Us still plays, it looks even better. Playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro in performance mode, animations are smooth and the lighting is beautiful. Seeing the sunlight bounce off the gold dome of the Massachusetts State House was when the nostalgia started to really flood back. After all, this is where the dynamic between Joel and Ellie really begins to blossom and The Last of Us really comes into its own courtesy of the incredible voice acting and performance capture from its principal cast.
Wanting to revisit Joel and Ellie’s story was my main reason for replaying The Last of Us. As it turns out, there’s a lot about the game that I had forgotten. Troy Baker’s performance as Joel is, for me, one of the best in video games closely matched, if not surpassed, by Ashley Johnson’s Ellie. The dynamic between the two of them is brillant. The frostiness of their early relationship made me smile and it was at this point I knew I’d made the right choice.
Three Hours In
If only that dynamism was reflected in the gameplay. Boosting Ellie over walls, fetching pallets to safely carry her over bodies of water, or sourcing other climbing implements is something I never want to do again. Not only does it break the immersive nature of the game by having no weight to the movement, it quickly becomes tedious. It’s in these moments that, arguably, The Last of Us felt most dated during this entire playthrough.
Thankfully this is such a small part of what is an otherwise expertly crafted game. Each new area was familiar, of course, and by this point most of what I was doing had become second nature, giving me time to appreciate the wider game as opposed to keeping a steely focus on surviving.
The environmental storytelling really begins to ramp up as we reach Bill. Bill is the first true ‘outsider’ we meet — a surly loner trapped inside a town he’s rigged up with traps to protect himself against clickers. It’s here that Joel and Ellie’s journey begins proper. Whilst the oppression of quarantine zones and military rule from the opening hour are harrowing in their detail — and feel just a little too close to home at the time of writing — seeing the impact outside of this, on people who aren’t a central part of this story, was harder again to take in this second time around.
I remember the idea of moving between distinct rooms, the first time I played. Scavenging for supplies, scouring every space, and the grounded stealth that goes hand-in-hand with the combat felt almost revolutionary at the time this came out. It’s still impactful today, even if the seams are showing ever so slightly.
Dodging through hordes of infected, taking out rampaging enemies upside down, fighting through the high school and dealing with the imposing (and annoying) presence of the Bloater at the end of this section was just as stressful as it was originally. It’s at this point I made a note to avoid Bloaters at all costs. I think I did that last time too.
I was pleased to have escaped.
Five Hours In
The cutscene immediately following Bill’s town is one of my favourites in the entire game. We finally see the two characters being real, laughing and joking, a reminder that this is a very human story. This is what I’m here for. It’s all too brief unfortunately, but that’s the carrot at the end of the stick — the thing that keeps you going.
After crashing into hordes of Hunters in Pittsburgh and fighting tooth and nail through each and every one of them, I feel like the justified depravity of The Last of Us really rears its head. We’ve fought as Joel before this point, but not quite like this. This is where the game first feels truly desperate. I’d forgotten just how much of an emotional rollercoaster the first half of this game is.
Peaks and troughs of combat and exploration punctuate the game more evenly from this point on. Naughty Dog really nails the pacing, giving you just enough respite before plunging you back into the depths again. Whilst the infected — particularly the fast-moving Stalkers and terrifying, fungus-headed Clickers — are bad, I always hated fights with human Hunters the most. Entering the hotel area and distracting and dispatching Hunters in a violent game of cat and mouse remained satisfying, and the dread of getting caught out and fighting for what really feels like survival is still a thrill.
The images of flooded and destroyed Pittsburgh weren’t ones that had stayed with me in the seven years since I last played. The density of human enemies here was quite high too and it was here where frustration kicked in the most. However, it’s also where one of the games most pivotal scenes plays out and it's these more tense moments between Joel and Ellie that I appreciate playing through the most before getting to play the sequel.
The end of this area feels like a bit of a blur, from Ellie covering Joel from above with a rifle — a first act of trust — to arguably the most ‘action movie’ segment of the whole game. Diving through alleyways, pursued by what is, for all intents and purposes, a tank is not how this game will be remembered, regardless of how fervent it is.
Seven Hours In
I felt like I’d gotten through that last section by the skin of my teeth. It bombards you with enemies from minute one and barely lets up. It makes the moment Joel and Ellie find a semblance of safety with Henry and his younger brother Sam — fellow survivors — feel like sweet relief. Another glimmer of hope. Another dangling carrot.
All good things don’t last long in The Last of Us. I’d played this game before. I knew that. And yet I still get suckered in. It wasn’t long after I was looking at easter eggs for Jak and Daxter and Uncharted — two of Naughty Dog’s other big franchises — that I was plunged back into the reality and severity of this game once again. That sounds like hyperbole, but in the moment that’s actually how it feels. This game, its world, its characters all draw me in like few others can.This isn’t only through great acting, a fantastic script and a well realised world, it’s through the little things.
One of the prime examples is the story of Ish. Ish is a member of a community of survivors driven underground. He’s a character the player never meets, but whose story and, ultimately, his fate is discovered through well crafted collectables placed throughout this whole section of the game. It’s a well rounded mini-narrative told entirely through notes the player collects — something many will have missed.
From uncovering this heartbreaking, completely optional, story to fighting the very community that Ish had sworn to protect — all of them now in various states of infection — shows the duality of The Last of Us, both in terms of storytelling and of gameplay. Humanity turned to uncontrollable ferity. Any developer that goes to the lengths that Naughty Dog does here, and other instances like this, deserves so much praise. All of this is encompassed within the short, core narrative arc, involving Henry and Sam. It’s one of the most intense in the whole game. Wave after wave of enemies finally concludes in a sense of calm. Exploring a suburban street offers up a glimpse at normality. The safety of watching Ellie and Sam interact — watching Ellie be a child and not an accomplice — is brilliant. Literally the white picket fence dream. Except it’s bombed out and covered in graffiti.
How does that old saying go? It’s the hope that kills you. I’m doing my best to write around any spoilers, so this is all I’ll say: These few hours might be my favourite. Not only do they help to strengthen Joel and Ellie’s bond, both through story and through gameplay, but also holds their story up to a mirror and offers up an alternative timeline, a way Joel and Ellie’s story could have played out had things gone differently. It’s powerful, shocking and whilst not quite as affecting as it was the first time, retains real weight.
Eleven Hours In
The way The Last of Us ebbs and flows is perfect. Harrowing moments are quickly — but not too quickly — met with rays of light and optimism. Naughty Dog are like master illusionists, performing incredible sleight of hand and shifting your focus away from the bigger picture to focus on the here and now. Playing a second time, and watching these moments of reconciliation, fear and regret play out with the foresight of what was coming next only added to the experience, as opposed to diluting it.
The story of the game starts to come full circle here. It’s the beginning of the end, but there’s a little more to do yet — as if Joel and Ellie could possibly go through any more. It’s also the point that The Last of Us has officially thrown (almost) everything at you from a gameplay perspective. There are no surprises, I’ve re-learned the best way to take out enemies whether they’re human or infected. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of challenges to overcome and simple puzzles to solve but at this point I’m an efficient crafting, quick-shooting, low risk high reward player. I’ve also upgraded Joel and his weaponry as much as possible with the few resources I’ve found. I’m probably a little too overconfident, actually.
That does make what’s undoubtedly the most bloated section of the game much more of a breeze to get through and it’s not like I can resist digging through every single drawer and cupboard in every single room in this destroyed university campus and deserted laboratory. I may be overconfident, but I’m not an idiot. Oh, and horse riding gameplay has come a long way in seven years. Thanks, Red Dead Redemption II!
A shift in perspective — again, no spoilers — does breathe new life into the game and certainly brings back the tension. Infected are far less of a concern here, but the humans are much more barbaric. The character of David bookends this section in a wonderfully menacing way, thanks to an understated performance by a familiar actor. In a game that proudly sits in a grey area, David (and by proxy his associates) is the one who most resembles a true villain.
Scouring this area for scant supplies and using tact and guile over brute force brings back the feeling from the beginning of the game. Ducking and diving behind furniture, picking your moment wisely before striking. It’s a reminder that The Last of Us really isn’t an action game. Joel’s true colours are also revealed here. It’s a version of the character that we think we have seen but is only ever discussed, and he’s hanging in the moral grey area by his fingertips.
That same stress and pressure ultimately dies off at the end of this chapter. A cat and mouse boss fight — employing mechanics that are never seen before or after this point — is not how I would have ended this. That feeling is even stronger the second time around with seven years of other games as a reference. However, the developer once again succeeds with a brutal and emotional payoff that, at the time, made me forget just how much I didn’t like it. Another classic Naughty Dog illusion.
Thirteen Hours In
I always thought The Last of Us is a special game, but now I know it is. There are things here, even in these final few hours, that I had never noticed (or perhaps paid proper attention to) before. At this point Joel and Ellie’s relationship is stronger than ever, and yet they seem worlds apart at the beginning of this scene. The simple act of combining subtle storytelling with the game’s most tedious mechanic — boosting Ellie up to find something to climb — is just perfect. Again, another reason I was so excited to be playing this again. That’s without the scene being turned on its head from despondent and sluggish to joyfully energetic and innocent. The giraffe scene — even if you haven’t played the game, you likely know the one — is another incredible crescendo, delivered out of darkness. What’s more, it’s another reversal of a trope seen throughout the rest of my time with the game.
There’s a feeling that everything is going to work out again. It’s a feeling you’ll want to trust. Everything from the excellent acting and bond between Joel and Ellie, to the hopeful tone of the beautiful Gustavo Santaolalla soundtrack is pitched perfectly. I cared for these characters all over again.
One final, huge, battle against infected follows — the biggest to date. I scraped through with barely a bullet remaining. Like so many of these huge sequences, I’d forgotten about them. When I think of The Last of Us these just aren’t the moments that spring to mind. In fact, the only huge fight that ever did was the one that came next.
The final section of the game required me to remember almost everything I had done to date. It’s the most alien of the sections in the game. Forget that section in Pittsburgh, this is the most action movie part of the game. It also feels designed to beat you. Whilst I’m sure there are easier ways to do this, I couldn’t find one. Finally, I reached the end of the game and watched the last of the pieces fall into place.
That’s all I really want to say. The final moments of this game will always feel special and will stick with me in a way that the story of very few games have ever managed to do. The Last of Us is one of the only games I’ve ever played that has gotten the sense of a ‘grey area’ right. That, for me, is what makes it extraordinary and a journey that everyone should undertake.
The Last of Us is a masterpiece. It’s the zenith of cinematic action games; a point which The Last of Us Part II, despite being released seven years after the original, may not even be able to reach.
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