This opinion piece contains major spoilers for The Last of Us. Do not continue reading if you haven't completed the game.
In an effort to refresh my memory and feel fully caught up with events, I've been replaying The Last of Us Remastered. It's something you too may be doing as the launch of The Last of Us: Part II draws ever closer, and since it's already one of my favourite games, I was looking forward to this trip down memory lane. However, there was one niggling thought in the back of my brain -- what if it doesn't hold up? What if it feels so dated that it becomes tough to play? It's been seven years since The Last of Us launched on PlayStation 3 and the industry has come a long way since then so I feel like my fear was fairly legitimate. But I needn't have doubted Naughty Dog. With its sequel just days away, The Last of Us can still be considered a masterpiece.
And yet it's during gameplay where this point is both proven and debunked. The PS3 swansong's combat is as gritty and intense as ever, but puzzle-solving has not stood the test of time. Largely restricted to placing ladders in the right place and helping Ellie cross bodies of water upon a wooden pallet, it is perhaps The Last of Us' most unimaginative aspect. Once you've solved one brain teaser, you've cracked them all. It simply becomes a case of finding the object within the environment. The game largely drops the mechanic for the second half of the game, but it's a flaw you really start to notice a generation later. However, if anything, I think Naughty Dog recognised that during development and worked it into an actual story beat at Tommy's hydroelectric dam. It's where Ellie says: "I know, step on the f*cking pallet." The mechanic is used just once more henceforth.
Nobody has topped Naughty Dog's brutal, unrelenting combat system though. It is talked about time and time again how gory this post-apocalyptic US setting can get, but seven years later, The Last of Us still feels like it doesn't pull any punches. I think it's the weight which comes with gun combat that does it. Any and every weapon feels like a stone-cold killer in the hands of Joel, even when you haven't purchased the upgrades to reduce weapon sway. The handgun comes with a kick unlike any other while the shotgun could probably be heard for miles. It's about as powerful a DualShock 4 controller could possibly make you feel.
Which, in combination with ruthless, bloody death animations, is enough to turn even the stomachs of teens who grew up on Hostel and Saw. Melee strikes from a customised 2x4 with scissors strapped to the end are sure to leave a mark and gory dismemberment should make any thug with half a brain think twice about messing with the gruesome twosome of Ellie and Joel.
I think the combat encounters are starting to show their age, with clearly telegraphed points of cover and obvious optional paths for stealth-minded players. As such, rarely have I stuck to the shadows and avoided confrontation with my latest playthrough. I've been all about throwing a Nail Bomb to trigger a fight and get right into the gritty action. I want to lay waste to the crooks who haven't eaten a proper meal in two weeks. I want to clear a safe path for Ellie so that not a single Clicker can harm her. The two intentions couldn't be further apart from one another -- a thought process steeped in murder and the other calm and collected. But I revel in becoming Joel, warts and all.
The combat systems of The Last of Us still have a unique edge to them and that's something I think can only be bettered by a sequel. The follow-up in question will also have a story to tell. Naughty Dog's first new IP in six years was famed for its narrative at the time and it continues to be what sets it apart from almost anything else. At its heart, the plot is a simple one. Joel must help Ellie reach the Fireflies since she could carry the cure for the Cordyceps virus. As such, this is a story more about the people you meet along the way than anything else. Times are always bleak, but it's through superb writing and cutscene direction that you really get a handle on the sort of people you're encountering and how Joel grows into a fatherly figure once more while Ellie finds someone to rely on.
Although, because of that, it's hard to pinpoint an obvious enemy. I don't think The Last of Us has an outright villain -- everyone is to a certain degree. Is David a bad person because he wanted to enact revenge on Ellie and Joel after they slaughtered some of his people? Is Marlene a bad person because she tried her very best to find a cure for the Cordyceps virus, taking Ellie's life in the process? Is Joel one of the good guys? The answer to those questions is no. After the world went to hell, everyone operates in shades of grey where they simply look out for those closest to them and condemn outsiders to death.
It's a plot that represents both the very best and the very worst in humanity. You could say that's happening right now in the real world. From the bloodthirsty gangs of goons you'll come across time and time again right the way through to Tommy and Maria's efforts to restore power at the hydroelectric dam, nobody can walk with their head held high. Not even the doctors about to begin surgery on Ellie before Joel takes their lives.
But we have to find someone to care about, right? It all comes back to Ellie. While brilliant writing elevates so many scenes in The Last of Us, it does just as well when it chooses to say nothing at all. Ellie does not need to speak to communicate her thoughts and feelings -- her body language does all the talking. I find it incredible that a game routed in the technology of the PS3 managed to do this, and still does just as good a job seven years later.
At the same time, the fact that Naughty Dog managed to make me actively dislike playing as Joel on purpose is a true achievement. He is not a good person and the experience goes to great lengths to communicate that through brash decision making and a selfish attitude that leads to the loss of life more often than not. Sure, he has to protect Ellie, but there are more sensible ways of going about it that don't even have the chance to enter Joel's mind.
Seven years later, The Last of Us remains a masterpiece. A handful of its gameplay mechanics may be starting to show their age, but what made the experience memorable still holds true to this day. The Naughty Dog narrative achieves something that few games in the time since have surpassed -- a deeply moving tale of love, hate, and the shades of grey in between. I absolutely cannot wait to see how this story continues. The Last of Us was ahead of its time. In some aspects, maybe it still is.
Have you been replaying The Last of Us in anticipation of its sequel? Seven years later, how do you feel about the game? Do you think it holds up or does it feel like a product of the past? Avoid the Clickers in the comments below.