The Last of Us: Part 1 review: A discussion

Joel, from The Last of Us Part 1, capturing using the game’s photo mode.

PlayStation released the original The Last of Us, from developer Naughty Dog (Uncharted, Crash Bandicoot), in 2013, telling the story of Joel and Ellie, two unlikely people thrust together in a post-apocalyptic America, stricken with a pandemic caused by a mutating fungus that turns its victims into shambling, zombies.

The game was critically acclaimed, becoming one of the best-selling video games of all time, selling over 1.3 million units in its first week and 17 million by April 2018. It garnered numerous awards and in 2014, a remastered version was released for the PlayStation 4, followed by The Last of Us 2 in 2020. I sat down with game writing colleague Dylan Burns for a virtual chat about our time with the newly remade The Last of Us Part 1, which is out on PlayStation 5, on 2 September.

Dylan: I’ve played through The Last of Us many times. It must be five or six. I have the trophy for Survivor+ on both the PS3 and PS4 version. It’s safe to say that I’ve had a lot of The Last of Us in my life. Consequently, I found it difficult to find much enthusiasm for this remake. I thus entered my time with Part 1 feeling cynical. Why does this need to exist? Are we just going to remake games every handful of years from now on? And while I can’t say that I will actually finish Part 1 (I have played the opening few hours to get a sense of the changes), I have come around to an appreciation of the effort that has gone into this remake. I can confidently say that this is an essential purchase for anyone who owns a PS5 and has not yet played The Last of Us. Such players may be few and far between, but Naughty Dog’s market research must have shown they exist. Whether or not it’s worth triple-dipping for existing fans is a tougher nut to crack. 

The thing is, my memories of what The Last of Us is, and how it looked to me as I played it, are so ingrained that it does not matter whether it ran at 60fps or with real time reflections or updated character models and animation. The core gameplay is solid regardless of the foliage density. All that said, I could not help but be impressed at the sense of intimacy that comes from the higher framerate, improved lighting and reflections, and even the more subtle aspects such as tweaked camera shakes and changed angles during story scenes. There is no doubt that this is a labour of love and for that a lot can be forgiven. What this remake does is pull it into line with The Last of Us 2, creating a title that feels like it was released for this year, and allowing players to experience both Part 1 and 2 in a seamless way. What are your thoughts, Gerard? Were you a cynic like me, or did this come as something you have been looking forward to?

Gerard: My relationship with The Last of Us is a little different from yours, Dylan, as I haven’t played it as many times as you have. I  played through the original on my PlayStation 3 and still have fond memories of that play through. I’ve always loved the games and worlds Naughty Dog  have created and I felt that The Last of Us was a step up  in terms of the narrative and world building and it was, frankly, quite brutal in its depiction of life in a world decimated by a viral plague. 

For some reason, I didn’t go anywhere near the remastered PS4 version nor did I play The Last of Us 2. I don’t actually know why that was, if I’m being honest: I really need to get around to it. So, I actually went into this PS5 version with no preconceived expectations on what it would be like and so far what I’ve played has impressed me. 

As I progressed through the new version and heard the unmistakable guitar soundtrack, I had faint recollections of my first play through flooding back. I don’t want to spoil it for any PlayStation gamer who hasn’t played it but the game impressed me back then and so far I’m loving what I’m seeing.

It’s as you said, Dylan, this remake has brought the original game more in line with current games, at least visually from what I’ve played so far.  I’m not far enough through yet to gauge whether the gameplay has improved significantly but visually, yeah, it’s a massive improvement. It’s little things that I’m noticing the most: Like explosions and facial animations and character models. I also noticed how much more realistic something as simple as the burning barn not far from the start of the game is: It looks like a burning building, which is a vast improvement on the original which was clearly hampered by the technology of the time.

As you said earlier, it could be a little harder to convince those who have played it several times already to fork out for it again, but from what I’ve played through at time of writing shows a lot of work has gone into this remake, especially in those little quality of quality of life aspects, as well as visual improvements, of course. Can you see yourself playing this through to the end again?

Dylan: Honestly, probably not right now. Having played the opening hours of Part 1, I’ve now got in my mind the thought of one day replaying both games on PS5, but I’m net yet removed enough from the harrowing nature of TLoU2 and its unavoidable connection with the whole COVID pandemic to feel ready to do so. I can, however, see myself being pushed over the edge to include Part 1 whenever I do have the time and headspace to do so, when before I likely would have just rolled with replaying Part 2.

There’s also the fact that there have been even more tweaks to parts of the game that I deeply enjoy, such as the photo mode. I have a collection of snaps from the original that I treasure as documentation of my time with the game, and I can see myself getting hooked all over again with the added lighting options and just higher fidelity to frame and capture.

The accessibility options are also deep and customisable, and while not something made for me specifically, I often enjoy testing them out just to see if they help or enhance my experience. The addition of spoken description for each story scene, as well as all the other visual tweaks available for all manner of players, means that a whole new audience of previously locked-out gamers will be able to experience this. I think this is what draws me away from cynicism, because they didn’t need to add such broad accessibility. It is obviously respectful to people of all abilities and for such an iconic title to spend the time and effort on embracing those with perceptual hurdles  into this world will hopefully mean that other large studios hold this stuff up as mandatory for their own titles, and then build on it.

Tess from The Last of Us Part 1, captured using photo mode.

Gerard: The more I play, the more tiny little details I’m picking up. Things like more life-like facial animations and more “human” looking humans and more nuanced lighting that impacts much more on the game world than the original ever did. It has also reminded me how brutal the combat was too, especially the stealth kills. Also, if anything, this new version of The Last of Us has made me now want to play The Last of Us 2 even more. It has also reminded me what great world builders and storytellers Naughty Dog is. Sure, this is a brutal and harrowing tale set in a brutal world but it’s realised so well.

Dylan: I still don’t think this was needed, but the quality of what is here cannot be denied. I’m just wondering about the whole ‘full price’ situation. I cannot recommend people plonk down $125 for this, but there’s little doubt that sales will roll around and if you wait a while, it will easily be worth the $36 or whatever that EB games sell it for. Even the $98 ‘discount’ at Amazon is enough to tighten the bargain drawstrings and put your fingers in your ears for a few months.

Gerard: You raise a really good point, Dylan, on whether the game is worth full price, especially for those who have already played it in some form. I did a quick check of New Zealand prices and they range from $NZ108 right up to $139 so you’d have to be an extremely dedicated PlayStation fan to pay full price for a game that you’ve already played before, perhaps several times. That said, if you’re new to PlayStation and have never played The Last of Us Part 1 before, this would be the ideal entry point for newcomers.

Dylan: I think what you mentioned before has to be highlighted, though – how it is making you feel like you want to finish it and then move on to Part 2. This has to be one of the benefits of this approach, regardless of the obvious grasp at a resurgence in popularity as the television show hits (I still think everything we’ve seen of that looks pretty awful, to be honest). And, again, I also have to give Naughty Dog credit at pushing so hard for inclusive features. If nothing else, this is the main thing to be championed here, I feel.

A big thanks to PlayStation New Zealand and Australia for the early review code.

Left Behind: a story of two girls

Left Behind: We find out what happened to Ellie and Riley before the events of The Last of Us.

Left Behind: We find out what happened to Ellie and Riley before the events of The Last of Us.

The Last of Us was one of last year’s best games on the PlayStation 3.

Heck, it was one of the best games of the year on all formats.

Left Behind is the first – and 0nly – story-based DLC for Naughty Dog’s survival/horror (can it be classed as a horror?)  game and while it’s not long – I think it took me about two to two and a half hours to complete – it’s probably one of the most emotive pieces of DLC that I’ve played in a long, long time. If you like strong narrative and some tying up of loose ends from the main game, then Left Behind fits the bill <There could be some slight story line spoilers here so tread carefully like your wandering through an abandoned house full of clickers>.

First things first, though: If you own a PlayStation 3 and haven’t played The Last of Us I really recommend you do. It’s well, well worth it.

Left Behind is split into two tales, each intermingled. It starts with The Last of Us’ Ellie and Joel in an abandoned shopping mall. Joel is severely injured, caused by an earlier incident in the game’s Winter section. It’s alluded to in flashback form at the start of the DLC.  Ellie has to search the mall for medical supplies to stop Joel from bleeding to death.

The other story is that of Ellie and her friend Riley, her best friend from a Boston military school, and the months before Ellie met Joel. Riley is mentioned in the main story of The Last of Us but we never knew what happened to her (well, we know she died but we aren’t told how). Left Behind fills in the blanks.

Combat is less than in The Last of Us: This is DLC that is more about an emotive story than body counts but when there is combat it has a nice twist in that both human scavengers and infected  can be “urged”to fight each other, making it easier for Ellie.

In situations where you find both, if you  attract the attention of a group of clickers to where a group of scavengers are – say tossing a brick where two humans are. sending the clickers to the source of the noise – then  you can sit back and watch the two factions kill each other, often only leaving one or two of each faction to take care of.

Time to be young: Some of the most touching moments in The Last of Us take place in an abandoned shopping mall, where Ellie and Riley get to be teenagers.

Time to be young: Some of the most touching moments in The Last of Us take place in an abandoned shopping mall, where Ellie and Riley get to be teenagers.

Some of the most emotional moments of Left Behind are with Ellie and Riley in an abandoned shopping centre. They explore, they laugh, they take snapshots in a photo booth, they joke around in a Halloween-themed shop.  It’s a far cry from their reality since the infection, and while, things turn to custard  by the end,   Left Behind shows what masters Naughty Dog and its creative director Neil  Druckmann are (incidentally, I found an old newspaper clipping of an interview I did with Druckmann about the Uncharted series. This serves no purpose other than to tell you that I’ve spoken to him).

Left Behind is a nice addition to the foundations that The Last of Us built and shows that done right, video games can be the ideal medium for delivering compelling, emotive narrative.