(NOTE: All Ready, Set, Play! reviews contain spoilers for game storyline and mechanic reveals. Occasionally, specific puzzles and level design elements are talked about in detail. Story reveals are kept to a minimum since most story element issues are discussed more readily in FYSMT segments.)
Finally, finally, after waiting for a short eternity, I got my grubby little hands on a digital download of The Last of Us: Remastered for the PS4. And if you’re wondering if it was worth the wait, the short and simple answer is yes.
With that said: it’s not a wholly unqualified yes. I have to be honest — there was some seriously frustrating and problematic stuff going on with the game. Despite being fun, intuitive, and difficult in the best of ways to play, there were some clunky and frustrating AI quirks, game pacing hitches, and — the true laurels of the game — the story, while at times almost taxingly immersive, had one of the most problematic endings I’ve dealt with in a while, cross-media.
For the uninitiated, in the Last of Us, your primary playable character is Joel — white, handsome all-American mesomorph, complete with an uncanny affinity for violence, crotchety “get off my lawn” attitude, and the accompanying age bracket (grey hair and opening sequence informing us Joel will likely never see the sunny side of 40 ever again). His partner in crime, Tess, is his female ideological and moral twin; the two romp around sunny post-apocalyptic Boston crushing heads, both human and zombie, and smuggle shit from militarized zone to militarized zone. One such contraband item happens to be 14-year-old Ellie, who, as anyone with any genre familiarity can guess almost instantly the second Ellie is introduced in-game, is immune to the zombie fungus. The game to get Ellie to the rebel camp (and apparently the only surviving effort to find a vaccine? Good job FEDRA, no freaking wonder no one believes their gov’t wants to help them, wow) is on. The majority of the game is played focusing on Joel and Ellie’s interactions.
The game and level design are — for the most part — not only flawless, but genre-leading examples of intuitive steering through sandbox maps and conflict resolution for action/adventure gaming. The difficulty settings for the game are pretty standard easy/normal/hard differentiation (i.e. sliding player health, enemy AI more spongy to bullets, way fewer resources — and often times, you have to spend resources to get access to the only areas that contain resources in higher difficulty levels making it a ouroboros of pain to rely on resources), with the notable difference being instant access to the “grounded” level of difficulty in tLoU: Remastered, which is a significantly different experience and covered under unique game mechanics later on in the review. The pacing of the game defies the concept of premeditated climax, and — a lot like real life — some of the hardest challenges come when you least expect them, both in terms of room puzzles and combat/stealth. The passage of time is described in seasons — you leave Boston in the summer, and the game ends in the spring. Summer is easily the longest and hardest season to get through (partly because most of winter is covered in the “Left Behind” DLC), which achieves an interesting effect of disquieting tension during the rest of the game — I found myself stuck waiting for the other shoe to drop, which, to be honest, with the exception of once really harrowing moment in Salt Lake City (yep, the bloaters in the tunnel, which I just freaking walked into like a total asshat), it never did. During the first play-through, this odd, almost random, “real-life” pacing element served the atmosphere of the game, but I’m not positive it’s really great for replay, as the overall effect is actual player exhaustion. You are fully capable of empathizing with Joel and Ellie’s fatigue because you feel almost as strung-out yourself. (B+)
Combat is smooth and simple, so is item crafting, and experience/leveling is handled by an item collection mechanic that allows you at select points during the game to make your weapons easier or more effective to use. There are weapons as simple and as paleolithic as a shiv, brick, or recurve bow, and some as satisfyingly awesome as flamethrowers. What’s not simple or satisfying is ammo and supply rationing, and the numbers odds you face which are often triggered into swarm by the sounds of weapon use. Stealth is the game’s favored mechanic, a principle that’s beaten into you early on by game prompting. There are some intelligent enemy AI choices — such as an awareness of absence, randomized patrol paths, hypervigilence — which make stealth harder the direct conflict in terms of execution at times, and there are some frustrating AI glitches. Clickers — the zombie form that cannot see, are hyper lethal, and use echo-location to move and find your characters — can be beaten with redirection (using bottles, bricks to create noise in another part of the map), higher level crafting items, or sneak attacks, but can also be bypassed by walking very softly past them since they are meant to be unable to hear you (i.e. know where you are) if you are utterly still or walking very softly. There are clickers at key points that seem to walk directly towards you even if you are standing stock still. Your friendlies’ AI also flip back and forth from staying in stealth (and are, according to Naughty Dog, supposed to be invisible to enemy AI until combat is activated by the player despite their bodies moving and talking) to actually initiating combat at times when you are trying to remain stealthy. There are some interesting ways to bypass levels as well due to micro-level check points that exist in abundance in some zones, and are practically non-existent in others with no discernible reason. The puzzles are almost all standard room/map navigation puzzles, some of which become redundant in how they’re solved. To the game’s credit, the dialogue between Joel and Ellie often pokes fun at the puzzle redundancies — but doesn’t actually make an effort to make the puzzles less redundant. (B-)
The biggest change to tLoU in the Remastered version for the PS4 was a total overhaul of the graphics and frame-rate, and the result is damnably gorgeous. The towns and cities you travel through are moderately sandbox-y and a joy to explore, the weather, time of day, particle animations, they’re all superb and lovely to experience. The soundtrack, by , is really lovely and unassuming, and most of the time appropriately in the background of your game-play experience serving to haunt you in the resting moments of your play time. There are horror elements to the game — most notably anytime underwater, under ground, or in spore-infested areas — but it’s almost all atmospheric horror and suspense. There are a few jump scares, but if that’s what you’re looking for — just not this game’s selling point. (A-)
The story of the game is a bitch in all the best and worst ways. Because it’s hard, unpredictable work getting your characters from point A to point B, the linear nature of the story which would normally yoke some player-character attachment is a non-issue because you absolutely cherish every small clearance in a hotel full of hostiles, or a school full of clickers and runners; the affinity you feel for your characters is fostered by above average survival elements, less role-playing. The story does a great job of illustrating a true moral grey, as you just aren’t given the option of talking anything out with other rational humans — reducing them to nothing more than a complex version of the zombies you’re already hunting. A part of this is the implied dog-eat-dog of the postapocalyptic world outside of Quarantine Zones, but a part of the necessity to kill and steal comes from Joel himself. He famously comments in Pittsburgh on his reason for understanding the cruelty and methodology of Ish’s hunters as stemming from having been “on both sides” of hunter ambushes before. The narrative also focuses on both the pitfalls and rewards of being selfish, playing Ellie’s desire to be selfless with her body (and her ensuing life or lack there of if she’s experimented on for a cure) as naive at best, demonized as being a fulfillment of her fears (being alone for the rest of her life) and Joel’s (of losing another daughter figure again) at worst. And while Joel’s choices are ultimately understandable in the context of the game, they’re progressively difficult to play through, culminating in the ending with Joel betraying Ellie’s trust in telling a practically transparent lie, and refusing to admit to it when she directly asks him if he lied. The trust and empathy cultivated by survival is betrayed by the very character you play who undermines the entire survival you’ve just endured by acting entirely in the self-interest of his sanity and daddy-daughter fantasies. It’s not a nice way to end the game. (B)
The most interesting game-unique mechanic is the ability for Joel (or Ellie, if you’re playing Ellie) to crouch and “listen.” The world turns black and white, and anything making discernible noise within a certain radius turn bright white so you can track it, even if said AI is in a closed room that you yourself are not in. This “survival skill” is something that you can level up (along with things like total health, crafting speeds, better shivs) with collected bottles of pills and higher levels offer a widening listening radius. The aforementioned “grounded” level of difficulty, immediately available in the Remastered version, along with entirely eliminating your HUD (so you can’t see what you have equipped, how much ammo you have left, how much health you have) which in all other versions only disappears when you are in designated non-combat parts of the game, kills your ability to “listen.” It also makes a joke out of resources, and is a definite recommended try for any survival masochists out there, and worth a run through once for everyone else just so you can see how hard a zombie-apocalypse survival game really should be. (B)
There is an online multiplayer for tLoU: Remastered, identical to the one offered in the regular game. I prefer third-person shooters as a player, so I quite enjoy the maps and feel of the shooter offered by the game’s multiplayer, but it’s nothing to write home about. There’s a lot of DLC to modify your characters with shit like masks and hats, different animations for different kinds of kills, so if that’s your thing, it’s there.
There is a DLC episode for single-player that is included in the PS4 Remastered edition called tLoU: Left Behind that details Ellie’s back-story and survival of winter without Joel. I will be doing a separate review of that DLC.
GAMEFEELS: I had lots of them. Almost all of them were the right kind. (A-)
THE OVERALL GRADE: B+, or totally play this game, dude.