Endure. Survive. Remake.
Nine years. It’s been nine years since The Last of Us hit the PS3, with Naughty Dog providing an absolute masterpiece to give Sony’s third console a fitting send off. With a remaster and a sequel already in the bag, the studio that’s produced technical magic time after time bring their book of spells to the PS5 for the first time, with a full remake of the seminal title. With rebuilt assets, and a ton of power to throw at it, the question remains: “Is it worth the asking price?” Well, yes, but also no.
For those who have been living under a rock since 2013, allow me to catch you up. The Last of Us gives witness to the birth of a deadly pandemic through the eyes of Joel. After one of the most unforgettable opening sequences in gaming history, it snaps forward to a relatively normal life in a massively abnormal world. “Infected” humans swarm over the landscape, sniffing out humans to tear apart and devour, a result of the cordyceps based sickness that’s swept the globe. Dotted across the US are groups of survivors, ready to do whatever it takes to endure and survive in this bold and frightening new world. It’s established that Joel is a smuggler, and his latest job is to transport some human cargo across country, in the form of Ellie. A fourteen year old girl with an immunity to the plague, she’s billed as the last hope for humanity in the hope that they can find a vaccine.
In a nutshell, that’s the plot. Of course, there are a million and one intricacies that come into play, with all sorts of narrative elements taking centre stage. As the tale progresses, the nature of humanity, the nobility of lying and the necessity for violence all come to the fore, with the hardened nature of Joel as a survivor slowly eroding as he forms a bond with Ellie throughout the game.
At this point, though, there’s not really too much else to say on the story of The Last of Us that hasn’t already been said. It remains one of the most highly rated games of all time, and its impact cannot be overstated, having pushed forward the way that gaming narratives are not only crafted, but regarded as well.
So what is there in this package that’s new, for people who have been invested in this world since the original? Well, truth be told, not a great deal. At least on paper. There are no new story elements to speak of, no new sequences, no new cut scenes. This is as faithful a remake as you could hope for, for better and for worse. What is brought to the table though, are a new “permadeath” mode, giving you one shot to get through the game, and a speedrun mode, which will time you on your playthroughs if you want to truly test yourself. Both of these are unlocked after completion of the story once. There are also some cool new unlockables, featuring a model viewer, and some extra skins for Joel and Ellie for subsequent playthroughs. Also included here is the excellent Left Behind DLC, as well as the “Grounded” documentary, much like they were in Remastered.
However, the meat in the pie comes in the form of the technical enhancements. First and foremost, I played through the entire game in the performance mode. During my entire run, I didn’t notice a single point at which the frame rate dropped. This is with the enhanced resolution that the PS5 has to offer, with “Dynamic 4k or 1440p” being targeted throughout. The Fidelity mode present a native 4k with a locked 30fps, if you’d prefer to have that option. There is an option to unlock the framerate entirely if you have a TV capable of VRR or a refresh rate above 60Hz as well. When this is enabled, the Fidelity mode switches to 40fps at a native 4k, much like Ratchet & Clank and Spider-Man did in their performance RT modes. From the testing I’ve done on my LG CX, fidelity mode sticks to this like glue, with performance mode taking advantage of the unlocked frame rate, ranging anywhere from 80 to 100fps, showing that there is still headroom available well above the 60fps mark.
The obvious, and immediate, improvement though comes in the visuals. Those who have played Remastered will have already had the treat of running the game at a solid 60fps, but the new graphical overhaul is simply phenomenal. If you weren’t aware of this as a PS3 or PS4 game, you would immediately put this up in the top tier of visual spectacles on the current generation. Of course, the fact the game is fundamentally designed around an older architecture gives the artists and graphics teams an enormous amount of headroom to truly push the “wow” factor of what you can see. Starting with the character models, the level of detail that is on display here is nothing short of mind-boggling. The skin of characters stretches as they grimace and emote, fabric becomes visibly heavier as it gets wet, and dries off in real time. Faces of enemies are so frighteningly detailed that you can truly see the light go out behind their eyes as you attack them from the shadows and choke them out. When a game is this dark in tone, the depictions of violence and the macabre really start to hit home even more. Of course, there’s been some discussion around the redesign of some of the characters, Tess in particular, but they’re changes that work, and fit in so much more with the world that Naughty Dog have created.
The Last of Us is nothing without its environmental design, and with this remake, they shine even more. While Remastered ran at its higher frame rate and resolution, it was only taking the original game’s assets and slotting them into that larger pipeline. With Part 1, almost everything has been meticulously reconstructed. There is more overgrown shrubbery, more decaying wood, more dusty buildings, and coupled with the higher quality of asset comes a previously unseen level of destructibility of them. If you happen to attract the attention of a foe, hiding behind cover results in bullets ricocheting off surfaces with damage left on them. Walls crumble to dust under automatic weapon fire, desks have their contents spilled, and barriers break as you try to escape. The outside world has never felt more lush and vibrant while simultaneously feeling muted and oppressive.
Enemy encounters take on a new feeling as well here. Expanding on the AI improvements found in The Last of Us Part 2, Part 1 expands on the flanking manoeuvres and enemy behaviour, making previously straightforward encounters feel a bit more fresh, tense and exciting. For the most part, the infected will still run at you head first, but the human enemies definitely have more about them. Even during a section that I dropped down to the lowest difficulty to speed up my playthrough, they were flanking and coming up behind me much more than I remember them ever doing in the original. It adds another layer of dynamism to the gameplay, and will definitely be a treat for long time fans of the game. Unfortunately, the dodge and prone mechanics from The Last of Us Part 2 are conspicuous by their absence, and I definitely found myself wanting to hit circle to dodge out of the way on more than one occasion, but I suppose this makes sense given that Joel is an older protagonist here than Ellie is in the sequel.
The final thing to mention here is the suite of accessibility options available. Much like The Last of Us Part 2, Naughty Dog have gone all out to make sure that everyone can play this game. Whether it’s the high contrast mode, which provides outlines of everything against a grey background, to the audio descriptive cutscenes, or the ingenious addition of allowing dialogue to be felt through the DualSense’s haptics, this is probably one of the most accessible titles on the PS5 for anyone with a disability.
I could go on for hours about the myriad of other subtle improvements that the game has nestled under its belt, but playing through this story once again had me feeling waves of nostalgia. See, The Last of Us was the first preview I ever wrote. It was my first real experience of going hands on with a game still in development, as opposed to a final build of something that’s awaiting review. It’s a game that’s stuck with me for the past nine years. The final scene is seared into my brain, with that “Swear to me” discussion occasionally finding its way into my memory. It’s a game that had so much of an impact on me personally, that I named my cat Ellie. And seeing the work that had gone into it to bring it to life on the PS5 made me appreciate it all over again. Like watching your favourite movie on a pristine 4K HDR disc after seeing it on DVD for all those years, or listening to an album from your favourite band re-issued in stereo after only hearing it from the original mono cassette recordings, The Last of Us Part 1 was the kind of experience that feels all-too fleeting in the current times we live in. A comforting dose of familiarity in a world of uncertainty and fear.
That brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to whether the game is worth picking up for the full-price tag that has been slapped on it. With Remastered being available on PS Plus’ Extra tier, the question will really be “Is it worth £70 for some new graphical assets and AI?” and ultimately, I can’t answer that question for everyone. What I can say though, is that between this and the upcoming PC version of the game, The Last of Us Part 1 is the best way to play an absolutely essential title.