The peaks and valleys of their friendship are Naughty Dog's most affecting story beats, its desperation-inflected combat and exploration expert lessons in linear game making, but all its many pleasures don't change the fact that The Last of Us is relentlessly grim. Darkness, ugliness, and authentic brutality haunt every hour of the game Joystiq dubbed its favorite of 2013.
If you've already played The Last of Us and its downloadable chapter "Left Behind," it's not an essential purchase on PlayStation 4, though it does have its merits. If, however, you're among those newfound PS4 owners who skipped out on PS3 and you're willing to brave an emotional abyss in search of catharsis: The Last of Us: Remastered is the best game playable on the console for a variety of reasons.
The Last of Us: Remastered (08/01/14)
Just to make sure those new players are up to date: The Last of Us is about a man named Joel traveling across the continental United States with a 14-year-old girl Ellie who is not his daughter. Their relationship is strictly platonic, so don't worry – it's not weird or anything. What is weird is that their odyssey takes place 20 years after a fungal outbreak transforms most people on Earth into slavering, monstrous cannibals. Humanity's survived, but society has completely collapsed, leaving survivors and those born after the epidemic to live in a civilization that's part tribal, part nomadic pastoralist, and part The Road hellscape. Joel is under your control as you tour through ruined cities like Boston, sneaking through crumbling buildings, nature-reclaimed suburbia, and raw wilderness fighting off the infected and ruthless people alike.
If that scenario sounds overwhelmingly familiar in the modern pop landscape, that's because it is. The 21st century has seen a veritable flood of post-apocalyptic fiction across every medium, and mushroom-ed up or not, the infected here are still just zombies. Plus, the mix of shooting, sneaking, and clambering over stuff between high-quality scenes of computer people talking to each other was already well covered by Naughty Dog in its Uncharted series. What distinguishes The Last of Us from its peers?
The quality of writing, the humanity of its performances, and the balance of its challenges elevate it in a crowded field and give each scene in the game a propulsive urgency. Pushing forward in The Last of Us is often not fun. Helping Joel and Ellie survive isn't just a reward for surviving combat, but it's a wrenching imperative as you come to care for them, which is easy to do since they're so fully drawn. Flawed, lovable, sometimes disappointing people the both of them, as are the other principal characters you meet on the way.
If the combat weren't any good, the drama could carry the game, but The Last of Us does an admirable job here as well. Resources are scarce, adding a sinking fear to each encounter, but control is precise so you rarely feel any of the frustration common in horror games that milk that low-ammo cycle for tension. All the action remains identical in Remastered, for better and for worse. It was excellent to begin with, but it would have been nice to see Naughty Dog enhance the sometimes inhuman artificial intelligence of human enemies.
In fact, Remastered adds very little beyond spruced up visuals and audio options. Previously released multiplayer maps and the Ellie-centric Left Behind side-story are welcome inclusions in the package, as is the director commentary available during cutscenes, but otherwise it's the light spit-and-polish on the game itself that may draw in fans of the PS3 version. The back-of-the-box perks like improved character models, native 1080p resolution, and "targeted" frame rate of 60fps are noticeable, especially during the game's cutscenes, but they're not game-changing differences compared to the original. In no way is that a knock against Remastered, it simply demonstrates that The Last of Us was a spectacular looking game in the first place. But a spectacular looking PS3 game is still just a PS3 game, so players shouldn't expect a graphical showcase on the scale of Infamous: Second Son. Not that they don't have anything in common: Naughty Dog has also added a neat photo mode to the game.
The important takeaway with The Last of Us: Remastered is that its technological presentation is secondary to its humanity. No matter what machine you play it on, Naughty Dog's story is well worth experiencing. Remastered may not be an essential purchase for people who played the first one, but even for all its darkness, it is an essential game.