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The Last Of Us Remake Takes Its Post-Apocalyptic Setting To New Heights

The Last of Us is best when nothing is happening at all. Those quiet, peaceful moments when you're free to explore its stunning post-apocalypse at your own pace, on your own terms, with no pressure to hurry to the next set-piece. No clickers hungrily lunging at you, no gunshots echoing around your head, no fraught ambushes by desperate, aggressive survivors. Just a dead, broken world, overgrown and abandoned, as beautiful as it is devastating. If you loved the original game's incredible world-building, haunting sense of place, and palpable atmosphere, you'll love The Last of Us Part I—a lavish but faithful remake—even more. It takes all of these things to a whole other level, with richer ambient storytelling, vastly more detailed environments, and a general sense that this is what developer Naughty Dog always wanted its evocative setting to look, sound, and feel like, had it not been limited by the technology of the time.

The layout of the levels are exactly the same, so don't expect bigger maps or new areas to explore. The existing framework of the world has been left untouched, but within it a galaxy of new detail has been slathered on top. In the pizzeria in Lincoln there are now smiling photos of the owners on the walls in happier times, alongside awards they received for their pizzas. There's a brick oven in the kitchen, litter-strewn customer tables out back, and a smashed light is now surrounded by shattered glass. In the Capitol Building, the grand marble steps are visibly cracked, weathered, and overgrown. The museum now has proper exhibits and fleshed out backrooms. On paper these sound like minor improvements, but you have to consider them as a whole. This is just a tiny, random selection of thousands of extra micro-details—all of which combine to create a world of singular fidelity. This is a new high for Naughty Dog's army of environment artists.

Whenever I finished a level in the remake I went back to 2014's remaster of the original and played through it again to get a clearer sense of the changes. This really hammers home just how much better Part I looks in every respect. Crunchier snow, wetter rain, sloppier mud, rustier metal, and a huge amount of additional foliage overgrowth make every location feel much more dynamic and alive. Add to that improved lighting, more consistent colour grading, and thicker atmospherics (you feel like you could almost choke in spore-filled basements) and, well, you get the idea. The Last of Us Part I is a remarkable looking video game, but far from just being an expensive PS5 tech demo, all this extra detail actively serves the story by making the desolation of the post-apocalypse more absorbing, believable, and moving. This is now by far the best way to experience Joel and Ellie's story, whether you're playing for the first time or a returning fan.

As a fan of the original game, it's a delight visiting familiar locations and seeing how dramatically they've been made over. The Boston QZ—a military-controlled urban sprawl reminiscent of Half-Life 2's similarly dystopian City 17—feels bleaker and more hopeless than ever. Lincoln, Bill's town, is seemingly being eaten alive by rampant weeds, trees, and other flora, adding to its already potent mix of beauty and danger. In his church hideaway, warm sunlight streams through the stained glass windows and reveals motes of dust suspended in the air. In the flooded subway station, reflections in the water accurately mirror and distort the world around it. Even if you know these levels inside out, these embellishments make them almost feel brand new again. Every inch of every level, no matter how minor or fleeting, has been given an equally absurd level of attention to detail. Now the game looks like I thought it did when I played it on PS3 in 2013.

There are some new additions that don't really add anything concrete to the experience, but do make things somewhat more visually interesting. Upgrade a weapon at a workbench and you're now treated to elaborate, detailed animations of Joel tinkering with it. Spend scrap to reduce the kickback on the pump-action shotgun, for example, and you see him awkwardly pulling the old stock off and replacing it with a sturdier one—which you can then see when you use the gun in-game. This is the kind of perverse ultra-detail usually reserved for Rockstar games, and while it is a little self-indulgent, it’s also weirdly satisfying to look at. But was it worth the months of work it probably took for the programmers, animators, artists, and so on to put this all together? I don’t know. Sometimes The Last of Us Part I feels like a lot of money spent on not much. You could probably make several indie games using the budget that was spent on this system alone.

An unfortunate side effect of the remake's modern production values, however, is that it highlights how old the original game can occasionally feel. The inorganic way it uses notes and diaries scattered around the world to relay the story feels very 2010s. The largely linear, constricted flow of even the bigger levels comes across as outdated—especially compared to the larger exploratory spaces in the sequel. Sometimes progress is clumsily blocked by a barrier or a locked door in a way that is poorly hidden, that Naughty Dog would be much better at disguising now. This is the problem with near enough 1:1 remakes of games from a decade ago: the more time passes, the more it feels like a product of its time. Luckily The Last of Us is a good enough game that its strengths manage to outshine its weaknesses. But as you play the remake it'll occasionally dawn on you that, despite the dazzling 2022 visuals, you're still very much playing a game from 2013.

I have to mention the new 3D audio engine, because it's easily the best implementation of the tech I've heard on PS5 yet. I played through the remake with Sony's Pulse 3D headset, and I've lost count of how many times I stopped just to listen. Walk through the ruins of Boston in a rainstorm and you can hear droplets tapping on the rusted metal carcasses of the cars. In the half-collapsed skyscraper (which is, somehow, even more menacingly atmospheric than it was in the original), blinds rattle in the wind and thunder booms. In a firefight you can hear bullets pinging around, and being trapped in a room full of clickers is terrifying. The sound design is sensational—and functional too. It's accurate enough to let you play with your ears, keeping track of enemies even when they're in another room. It's like you have your own version of Joel's in-game sonar system. After experiencing this, I can't imagine playing the game without 3D headphones now.

I've talked a lot about the world, but that's because, for me, it's the real reason to play this version—and to even consider spending $70 on it. In other ways this remake is very much that: a remake. It's the game you remember playing in 2013 and 2014, but with some relatively minor improvements. Naughty Dog has remained almost entirely faithful to the original experience, so if you're expecting a wildly different game I’ve got bad news for you. It's the same mix of stealth, gunfights, melee combat, exploration, and the occasional light environmental puzzle. Features from The Last of Us Part II, like dodging or going prone, have not been implemented. Character movement is weightier, animations have been improved across the board, the combat is crunchier, and the new haptic feedback makes interactions feel nicely tactile. But deep down this is basically The Last of Us as it always was—which will undoubtedly disappoint some people.

The AI definitely feels sharper. In the original your allies would often run around like headless chickens—even with clickers around, making a mockery of your efforts to quietly sneak past them. They'd never actually alert them, but it just looked stupid. This, thankfully, has been dealt with. Non-infected enemies seem generally smarter too, intelligently flanking you, shouting orders at each other, and reacting to how well (or badly) you're doing. They don't refer to each other by name like they do in Part II, but they still feel more like actual people than just people-shaped obstacles. You can shoot clickers' legs off and watch them crawl horribly towards you, though. However, as with most non-audio/visual things in Part I, it's an incremental upgrade. The overall flow and feel of the action set-pieces is not radically different. Any play style you used in the original will work just fine here, which might make some people rightly wonder if that $70 price tag is really justified.

It's clear Naughty Dog spent a fortune on this thing—including redoing all of the cutscenes in-engine with new animations and character models. But, surprisingly, this is one aspect of the remake that I didn't find that transformative. Joel's daughter dying in his arms in the original was already a powerful, emotionally charged, and hard to watch scene. Having a few more creases in his face, a more realistic tear dripping from his eye, doesn't make it any more so. Unlike the dramatic and all-encompassing improvements to the world design, there's a sense of diminishing returns here. But there are a few scenes that do benefit from the enhanced animation, including a certain character's last stand. There's now a palpable and emotion-stirring look of fear and uncertainty in their face, where previously they just awkwardly winced. It's nice to have these new cutscenes, but I was disarmed by how little impact they ultimately had on me.

But a mark this remake did leave on me is a reminder that, yes, I still love this game. Joel's hard, world-weary cynicism and Ellie's wide-eyed wonder as she discovers the larger world is still a perfect combination. The beguiling but sinister beauty of a collapsed civilization being slowly reclaimed by nature remains utterly haunting. As does the sense of being lost in a desolate world littered with melancholy traces of the people who once lived there. I still love the twists and turns of the story. The way the narrative is spread across different seasons. The constant variety of environments and the near-perfect pacing. The satisfyingly brutal combat. The sheer, pulse-pounding terror of being inches away from a roaming clicker. The Last of Us Part I might just be The Last of Us again with prettier visuals and new bells and whistles, but I've come to realise that I'm fine with that—simply because I'm such a huge fan of the original game.

But once again we have to consider that divisive, discourse-triggering price tag. $70 is not cheap—especially for a game that isn't entirely new—and that's gonna be an immovable barrier for some players. Even a few die-hard Last of Us fans will have their doubts about it, despite their loyalty to Naughty Dog. Having played it myself, do I think it's worth it? Sorry if this sounds like a cop out, but I sincerely have no idea. It all depends on who you are, what you value, and whether that's a large amount of money to you or not. It depends on how much you love The Last of Us, or how much you want a completely new experience versus a familiar retread of something you already know. There are simply too many factors at play, so instead I'm just going to outline a few reasons why a person might want to buy it, and why they might not. I'll just sit here on this fence and let you figure it out for yourself. It's your money after all. I can't tell you how to spend it.

Why you should buy The Last of Us Part I

– You really love Joel and Ellie's end of the world odyssey and you want to experience it again with modern visuals

– You love atmospheric game worlds and you want to spend time in one of the most incredible post-apocalypses ever built

– You want a great showcase for the PS5. Haptics, 3D audio, visual power—The Last of Us Part I makes the best of it all

– You don't mind spending $70 to have essentially the same experience you've had before, albeit with vastly superior visuals

Why you shouldn't buy The Last of Us Part I

– You want a dramatic reimagining of the original that implements major gameplay improvements from The Last of Us Part II

– You want completely redesigned and expanded levels that are bigger, have new areas to explore, and new secrets to find

– You have a fundamental moral objection to spending $70 on a hyper-faithful remake of a game you played back in 2013

– You never really liked the original Last of Us in the first place. It's very unlikely that playing this remake will change your mind

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