Playing Catch-Up: The Last of Us (Opinion)

Updated: Feb 19

A missed classic from my life in gaming

I never had a PS3, I was never a PlayStation guy in general up until the launch of the PS4. As a result of this, I didn’t play The Last of Us in 2013 when it was released. Post-launch, I kept hearing more and more about this game, a supposed modern masterpiece, that I couldn’t play. It was re-released including DLC on PlayStation 4 in 2014, and I still didn’t play it. Why didn’t I play it? The conversation around this huge game was simply too much, it was everywhere, and in my mind it couldn’t possibly live up to the levels of hype that had been created. As a means of avoiding disappointment, I chose not to play it. In October 2019, it became available as part of that month’s PS Plus lineup. I played the opening two or three chapters, and it was a powerful and emotional few hours but again, I didn’t commit to the game. Life happens and such.

With all the hype surrounding Part II the past few months, I couldn’t help but get wrapped up in it. The more snippets of gameplay I saw, the more impressive I thought it looked and finally this past week, it caught up with me. One of my good friends and fellow CGC members, Phil, invited me over this week in order to play Part II and I said yes. This was me challenging myself to get the game completed and get up to date before the sequel was released. In just a short few days I completed the main story, Left Behind, listened to the soundtrack and I’m currently listening to the new official podcast as I write this.

Here is how I’ve become a mega fan of The Last of Us in four days.

*** FULL SPOILERS for The Last of Us***

Extraordinary circumstances

The opening is powerful because it takes a perfectly normal situation and turns it on it’s head so completely. In the space of minutes, Joel has his perfectly normal existence wholly reversed. His child is dead. There is a deadly infection, resulting in loss of life and turns his neighbours into horrible, brainless creatures. So what does he do about it? We cut to 20 years later, and he is alive and barely well - The key takeaway here is that he has thus far survived. I’m a big fan of the Die Hard-esque premises, taking an ordinary person, throwing them into an extraordinary situation, and seeing just how well they can adjust. This I feel represents the characters we encounter well and it’s the prevailing question I had throughout the game - How have people survived and how has it changed them?

When we flash forward to 2033, we’re re-acquainted with Joel, now a middle-aged man whose moral compass has clearly been changed in the post-pandemic world. Working as a smuggler with his partner Tess, they’re looking for a weapons cache. They find out it’s been traded to the Fireflies, a group of freedom fighters. Their leader Marlene cuts a deal, promising she will double the cache if they escort a young girl named Ellie to a pick up spot. She is immune to the infection, and Tess dies buying them time to escape and get her to the rest of the Fireflies. This is where it really begins, and the heart of the story begins to develop.

Trust, it’s a two-way street

The fundamental core of the story is the relationship between Joel and Ellie, and the many stages it goes through during their journey. I found the development of their relationship to be excellently paced and completely natural. At first there is no trust to be found between them, and Joel even being resentful of the idea of travelling halfway across the country to deliver this girl to the Fireflies. They’re a means to an end for each other, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t a level of care right from the beginning, at least from Joel’s side.

What I found right from the beginning of their adventure together is that Joel seems to care for Ellie pretty much right away, no doubt due to his deceased daughter Sarah having been similar in age. A girl of this age was sure to trigger the trauma he has been dealing with for 20 years and as a result of this he tried to hide it away, something he is no doubt used to doing for two decades, especially having worked as a smuggler and hunter - He’s worked to become a hardened, ruthless man and eschewing emotion is part of it. While he is a closed book for the earlier stages of the game, by the time he and his brother Tommy reach the ranch house after Ellie runs off, it’s clear that he has become less capable in hiding his connection with the young girl. He was just trying to pawn her off for her safety to Tommy, and came running after her (galloping as it were) after she disappeared.

The later stage bonding between the two protagonists was truly beautiful and meaningful and I would be lying if I said I didn’t get emotional because of it. The dedication shown from Ellie in getting Joel back to fighting shape in the Winter sections was heartening to see. This incredibly resourceful and capable young girl, going to any length to save the man who has been guiding and protecting her, was a great role reversal and served to show the established dedication they have to each other. To top it off, this by far was one of the most unsettling sections, thanks largely to Nolan North’s twisted antagonist David.

End of the road

The ending most unfortunately had been long spoiled for me, it’s hard to go 7 years without playing one of the highest rated games of all time without having anything spoiled I guess! This however didn’t lessen the impact, and the ending cut me to the core. Ellie, being prepped for surgery that would kill her but possibly be the key to ending the cordyceps, is ripped from the watchful eyes of the Fireflies. Joel, in his selfishness and passion, murders the surgeons, grabs the girl and gets out of there. There is no going back from this and I expect there will be repercussions for his actions in Part II. It’s such a bittersweet ending and nearly representative of my own thoughts as the player as the ending drew near. I absolutely did not want to see her pass and if there was a chance to save her but also pave the way for a vaccine, it would be ideal. But this is a cruel world and I made peace with the fact that she had to die. This wasn’t the case and Joel made a decision he can never come back from. He murdered these people and worst of all, he lied to his surrogate daughter about what happened. There is no way this isn’t addressed in the sequel and I cannot wait to see how it unfolds.

We become accustomed to violence throughout the game, but not like this where murders innocent (for all we know) people, in the surgeons who were about to operate on Ellie. In cold blood, he ends Marlene’s life during his escape. Worst of all? He lies to Ellie. By not telling her the truth he seemingly feels as though he is protecting her which is presumptuous and wrong. She has proved herself more than capable of taking life herself and while she would not be happy about what transpired, she would be able to handle it. I fully expect the truth to have it’s day in the sequel, and how she will react is beyond me but things won’t be well between this duo.

Survival of the resourceful

I wouldn’t call the gameplay exactly groundbreaking, but it is very very satisfying. I love how using guns is downplayed in a lot of the game, especially earlier sections, demonstrating just how valuable ammo is. Due to this gun fights are way more impactful. Each headshot you get feels earned and the advice rendered early in the game to make every shot count was taken to heart in my playthrough. I conserved ammo as much as possible and used stealth takedowns at every opportunity. Between those tactics and scavenging every single area I was in, I not only felt like I was playing “properly” but I was ready to go if combat really went to s**t. I didn’t find the combat at any point super difficult, so with that in mind I am absolutely gearing up to play on Survivor or Grounded difficulty at some point.

Both the melee and ranged combat was impressive for how weighty it is. Every strike using a pipe to an enemy’s head felt brutal, and the same goes for gunshots as well for the most part, perhaps barring Bloaters who are tanky by design anyway. There isn’t an awful lot to the combat but works very well and comes across very much refined. It’s the simplicity of things that I appreciate the most - There are a few weapons, we figure out what they do quickly, and they’re all viable in basically all combat situations. I never felt like I was forced to use specific weapons from the arsenal at any stage.

Some of the set pieces throughout are simply wonderful. My personal favourite is the sniper battle, found at the end of the suburb section. It was a lot of fun and challenging at times when on approach to the sniper, and the part after protecting Ellie, Henry and Sam from the Infected and the soldiers. This was fun of a different kind in a game where emphasis is on survival for the most part.

Sights and sounds of the apocalypse

The soundtrack provided from the brilliant Gustavo Santaolalla is a wonderful mix of unsettling atmosphere and relaxing acoustic guitar. It was an inspired choice for the composer, and really lends itself to the unique identity that the game possesses. It’s a fitting direction for a game that is full of darkness and harsh reality with fleeting moments of beauty and positivity. I’ve had the soundtrack on repeat the past few days and some of the themes and motifs on it have been stuck in my head - And unlikely to disappear any time soon, considering Gustavo Santaolalla has created the soundtrack for Part II! One of my favourite aspects of the soundtrack has to be the asynchronous percussion found on tracks such as The Hunters. It’s chaotic and a perfect microcosm for chaos found throughout this epic. I certainly do hope that the soundtrack for the much vaunted sequel is up to this standard. With Gustavo in the driving seat, I have no doubt it will be a masterpiece of its own.

Visually it’s probably unfair to compare it to anything modern as this originated from the PS3 generation. Keeping that context in mind, it looks great. Facial animations in particular are really well done. I love the colour palette used in the game, it’s a lot of greys and browns but it helps the greener parts pop more and shows off the theme of nature’s reclamation really well. The Winter chapter was my standout part visually. It’s really atmospheric and minimalist. The way the enemies are shrouded by the gusts of icy wind is a great and simple effect and goes a long way to amplify the already unnerving atmosphere.

Introduce yourself

I had a pretty good time with the Left Behind DLC expansion. It was great to step into Ellie’s shoes on a “full time” basis and once again really enjoyed the atmosphere as it expanded upon the gameplay elements we saw in the Winter portion of the main story. While the flashbacks to her time with her friend Riley, leading up to when they were bitten by infected, was a lot of fun and took a real positive spin on things, I found it grew tiring quickly. The water gun fight and the other fun activities were great but it felt like there was little to do in the flashback sequences outside of this. The combat parts in the present were nicely done and I’m delighted to see the opportunities to set the infected and hunters against each other - Helpful in dividing your problems in combat for sure!

It would be harsh to say I was let down by this expansion, but I most definitely appreciate that it’s something a bit different. One of my already most beloved moments from the series is the photo booth. That part at the end when the girls don’t understand what Facebook or the Internet are is fantastic, and goes to show what we take for granted in our everyday life. Perhaps we should count our blessings more often, we don’t know what lies around the corner.

No matter what

What a trip, is all I can say. I can really see how this could work as a TV show over at HBO. Each of the chapters bring their own self-contained story, be it with Bill, the dam, or the situation with the cannibals towards the latter part of the game.All this while retaining the overarching plot of getting Ellie to the Fireflies and her developing relationship with Joel. In my mind, it’s worth every bit of the hype that I once felt was so off-putting. Maybe there is a lesson in this, maybe once in a while buying a first class ticket on the hype train and a release with such ridiculous free press, can actually be that good. In this instance, that is absolutely true and more than anything I feel sickened that I didn’t jump on board a lot sooner. In a way I’m glad, because while most fans of the franchise have had to wait for seven years for the sequel, I’ve had to wait a week.

Enjoy Part II all, and make sure to get the (spoiler-free) conversation going on the Casual Game Community!

All images taken from The Last of Us Remastered press kit here

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