Recently I’ve been playing The Last Of Us: Remastered on the PS4 when my flatmate got one for Christmas, and considering I didn’t get the chance to board this particular train the first time round, I thought that it might be worth seeing how this alleged gemstone holds up. Will it still shine brightly after all the crap I throw at it, or will it shatter on impact and be revealed as nothing more than a cheap glass façade?
The Last Of Us is a story all about a bearded everyman named Joel (sounds familiar) who must struggle to endure the post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland and help to teach his adopted daughter Ellie the means to survival, at the potential cost of her ethics and humanity. Along the way they’ll encounter the darkness of the human heart, realise the need we have for companionship, be confronted by troublesome moral quandaries, and if you pull the camera back far enough you can see the smoke from the rubble spelling the words “we played a lot of Telltale’s: The Walking Dead before we wrote this.”
What bugs me about The Last Of Us is that a couple of minor cosmetic changes have managed to hide a whole laundry list of clichés. OK, so the zombies are based on fungus parasites rather than necromancy, or a mutated version of herpes, but at the end of the day they’re still zombies. Not to mention that there’s a lot of other tired tropes that I can’t describe in full, because I started writing the list and the article became too long even by my standards.
Even the much-touted intro sequence didn’t rank at anything better than “fine” in my mind. It’s a good blend of narrative and gameplay, if a little linear for my tastes, but the infamous emotional climax I’d heard so much about didn’t raise more than a brusque “well, sucks to be them” from yours truly.
Which isn’t to say that the story is bad, just that it’s far less clever than it thinks it is. For god’s sake, the zombie apocalypse is more heavily-trodden ground than Mecca at this point, and takes just as much pleasure from watching people walk in the same circles as before. You might think then that the emphasis would be on the cast then, and to an extent you would be right, especially when it gets past all the dull set-up and changes the focus to the dirt-caked protagonists. Troy Baker, his wacky teenage sidekick and their rotating cast of supporting characters do tend to steer the story by their actions, and focus is given to their development, which reflects a certain skill in the writing. I especially like how one of the things that exploration rewards you with is additional dialogue moments, such as stumbling across a busted arcade machine that prompts a little expository chat between our heroes. Not to mention that the narrative pacing is superb, with long periods of contemplative quiet making the action scenes all the more exciting.
But I think the problem we have here is the one that so many games have in the struggle to make their characters complex – namely that the heroes run the risk of becoming unlikable, burdened with too many flaws and gruesome attributes. On the whole they manage to keep themselves relatively sympathetic, but certain moments, particularly in the last few scenes, made me wonder why I was rooting for these people at all. Yes, I know that’s the point – “the urge to live shall make people into monsters” – but I still found myself a little on the fence about it all. What made Lee and Clementine so endearing in The Walking Dead was their admirable struggle to keep their base humanity throughout everything, no matter how far they were pushed. But the rogues pictured here seem happy to drop it if it’ll make room for more ammo and shivs, the latter of which have all the structural integrity of a lolly stick.
Which brings us to gameplay, which teaches us that there’s nothing more noble than the simple scavenger hunt. Hope you like shuffling around damaged rooms looking for bullets and medkits, or dragging ladders and planks around to find access into the next ruined street. And it’s easy to tell when enemies are coming up, because the area will suddenly be dotted with haphazard crates and chest-high walls, Mass-Effect style, perfect for taking cover or sneaking around in that strange crouch-walk that hurts your knees when you do it in real life.
On a larger scale, maps are vaguely open-ended with no objective markers and you shuffle around searching for the way out. As you do, you occasionally sneak-choke anybody who comes too close, at least until you inevitably screw up and have to start burning ammo and hitting bad guys with planks. Every now and then there’s an action set-piece, like running away from soldiers or shuffling across a ledge high in the air, so The Last Of Us is certainly holding the flag high for the rather unfocused but otherwise entertaining genre of “action-adventure.”
And I won’t say it isn’t fun, because on the whole it is, albeit very unadventurous. It’s also intentionally challenging to fit the survivor theme, but does seem pretty trial-and-error at times. The clicker zombies being immune to the regular stealth kill and melee attack is some “because I said so” bullshit if I’ve ever seen it, especially when they can turn around and end your bearded ass with a single, unblockable attack. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too bad if they didn’t blend in with the regular zombies so easily, so that in the middle of a fistfight I kept finding myself getting torn to shreds like one naan bread being shared between a whole table.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on the game. In fact, I know deep down that I am. The gameplay is uninspiring but basically enjoyable, the road trip-style story has some well-crafted moments and the environment and monster design is pretty impressive, managing to elicit that sense of awestruck scale that should come from seeing a half-collapsed moss-covered skyscraper loom above you. I’ll gladly praise those things, because yes – they are worth praising.
So at the end of the day, The Last Of Us is a decent game – even one worth playing, in fact – but it could never be anything more than that, taking the safer path every time a choice had to be made. Zombies, cover-based shooting, action set-pieces, the now-mandatory pseudo-parental relationship between our protagonists… It’s just a very competent version of everything you’ve seen before. Play it if you can, but just be aware that this isn’t exactly Half-Life. It’s more of a Pokémon Sapphire, and you can take that for what it’s worth, which is probably about the same as a tin of peaches, three revolver bullets, a dirt-flecked comic book and the world’s most fragile shiv.
Predictable but well-structured, The Last Of Us: Remastered manages to organise itself competently by putting all the least threatening pieces together. It might not be ground-breaking, but it is enjoyable, and that should be enough for most.