Saturday 20 January 2024

The Last of Us: Part I

Twenty years after a fungal parasite devastated humanity, killing billions and transforming millions more into mindless animals, Joel and his partner Tess are surviving in the ruins of Boston, working for and amongst other groups to get by. When Joel is contracted by a freedom-fighting group known as the Fireflies to escort a 14-year-old girl, Ellie, across the country to a research base, his first instinct is to refuse. Convinced to undertake the mission, Joel and Ellie find their journey to be arduous, difficult and beset by betrayal and dashed hopes.

Originally released in 2013, The Last of Us became one of the torchbearer games of its generation, arguably the last classic game released for the PlayStation 3. It was later remastered for the PlayStation 4, turned into a critically-lauded HBO TV series, and it's now been fully remade in the same engine as its successor, and (finally!) given its first release on PC. So how does the game hold up in 2024?

For the most part, reasonably well. The Last of Us: Part I (as this edition is now known) is an effective game combining a linear, narrative-driven adventure with elements from the survival, horror and action genres. The game is played in third person and sees the player controlling Joel - and, occasionally, Ellie - as they traverse each level. Levels can vary from being very tight and linear to more open, with more choices of what routes to take and what side-areas to explore for supplies. Ammo and materials are in low supply throughout the game, encouraging thorough exploration, but some areas are also extremely dangerous, with huge waves of enemies threatening to attack if you linger too long or make too much noise. The Last of Us is an effective game of choices and trade-offs.

Still, those used to the dominant open-world genre of the present day may find the game confining. Although you can go off the beaten path a little, it's not long before a locked door, surprisingly dense hedge or inconveniently-crashed car stymies all progress in a particular direction and you're forced back onto the exact path the game wants you to take. As someone who's occasionally railed against the often-needless bloat of open-world games and felt nostalgic about more directed game experiences, I did find the lack of choice in the game quite old-fashioned. Of course, the game is almost a dozen years old at this point, so it's hard to entirely hold that against it.

The game's combat and stealth systems are fairly robust. It's possible to fully stealth most missions, and this can turn the game into a very tense game of cat and mouse as you study enemy patrol routes, sneak up on them from behind and take them down without anyone else realising they're gone. There's some awkwardness in how this is done - you can force enemies at gunpoint to relocate to an area where their body will not be located, but you can't carry their dead bodies around - but it is an effective and tense way of picking enemies off without alerting the whole lot. However, once you realise that combat is rarely loud enough to attract enemies from more than a couple dozen feet away, the temptation is go in all guns blazing. The game accounts for headshots (and sometimes tries to stymie them with armoured helmets) and close-range weapons like shotguns can take out all but the hardiest enemies with one shot.

The weapons roster is robust, with pistols, shotguns and hunting rifles sitting alongside knives and the stealthy bow. Depending on the situation (indoors or out), weather conditions and enemy (human, animal or cordyceps), your weapons shine in different situations. The only awkward fit is an assault rifle, which is not very fun to use and shows up so late in the game that they might as well not have bothered.

The narrative is pretty solid, although I found the experience of having watched the TV show first did make the game narrative less tense: obviously the show spoils the general direction of the story and also has time for much more dialogue and in-depth characterisation, which can't help but leave the game's story feel a little undercooked in comparison. It's still a pretty solid story, but does not land as well as it did in 2013. The Left Behind DLC - included here at no extra charge - has better writing and a more refreshing, original structure. The voice acting is, famously, excellent throughout.

The game's status as a remake does create a rather schizophrenic feel. Graphically, it looks amazing with some of the most well-detailed environments you can see in a current video game (only the fantastic Alan Wake II reliably outshines it, with moments bordering on the genuinely photorealistic), and some terrific lighting and weather effects. However, movement and animation can both be clunky, and human characters look decidedly uncanny-valley-ish (the care lavished on Joel, Ellie and a handful of other characters is not shared by the random mook enemies or NPC allies). The suspicion here is that 2023/24-level textures have been dropped onto 2013-era level design and maybe even models, creating a weird duality that doesn't quite work. Don't get me wrong, it looks great and is preferable to playing the OG 2013 version, but the illusion isn't as sold as well as it could be. It also doesn't help that the game's original PC release was blighted with technical issues. These have mostly been resolved, but the game is fairly punishing on modern hardware.

The Last of Us: Part I (****) is a very solid, enjoyable game which tells its story with skill. It's no longer as fresh as it was back in the day and the remake doesn't feel as cohesive as it could, but it's still a thoroughly engrossing gaming experience, with some excellent set-pieces, vistas and voice acting. The game is available on PC and PlayStation consoles now. A sequel, The Last of Us: Part II, is available now on PlayStation 4 and 5, with a PC version expected a couple of years down the line.

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