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The Last of Us Part I Review: PS5 Gameplay Impressions, Accessibility, Speedrun Mode

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured Columnist IVAugust 31, 2022

Sony

There's arguably no greater challenge in the video game landscape than trying to remake one of the best games of all time, yet that's a task developer Naughty Dog has tackled with The Last of Us Part I on PlayStation 5.

Initially released in 2013 on PlayStation 3 and later released on the PlayStation 4 with improved framerate and other upgrades, The Last of Us was a landmark moment for video games with its Hollywood-level story, production and characters, never mind superb, mature and realistic action.

Remaking that means not just creating expectations actually compared to the release almost a decade ago, but creating expectations against the cherished memories players have of the experience.

A full remake, The Last of Us Part I is a chance for Naughty Dog to lean hard into new hardware while updating a classic, bringing it in line with the similarly received follow-up, The Last of Us Part II.


Graphics and Gameplay

At the time of release, TLOU1 was a stunning feat for then-modern consoles visually, and it didn't have many equals in the gameplay department, either.

Those familiar with how games have progressed visually over the last decade don't need it explained—the difference here is staggering. In a mere single scene, what was once muddy, flat textures on the ground have morphed into blossoming life. A waterfall, once gray and flat, now billows with plumes of water and complementary fog.

There's better color contrast, more depth to facial animations and packed detail, whether it's a character's hair or the scattered remnants of what was once a bustling storefront long abandoned. The thematic backdrop that is plant overgrowth taking back the Earth following humanity's collapse is fully realized here with a flourish.

Improved audio doesn't just bring the world-class voice-acting performances to life, either. The presence of directional audio adds another element to the experience in refreshing ways, sometimes more so than the visuals.

On the gameplay side, the first game was a stellar experience in third-person action that was refined enough to make the horror elements more immersive, especially when attempting a stealthy approach. A smooth crafting mechanic that gave meaning to exploration and was heavily constricted at higher difficulties has been copied in many a game since.

Much to its credit, this feels like the original game. While some might bemoan the omission of things from the sequel, such as dodging, their inclusion might have broken the experience. It almost sounds silly, but the pacing of the game hasn't been shattered here, hence the same style of combat and even ladder or companion-traversal sequences still being rather slow.

This remake hovers in this interesting zone where it doesn't feel as good as or is not as polished as The Last of Us Part II, yet it's still a tremendous upgrade compared to the original. And this being one of the best games ever and from a powerhouse like Naughty Dog is the highest of compliments, as it could have simply made everything prettier and a little more smooth and called it a day.

But immersion thanks to a player's interactions with the environment is more realistic than in the past. Examples include running into things, shooting items like cans and the shattering of glass.

Graphics are far from the only thing that has made a gigantic leap since the original game or the PS4 version. A.I. is abundantly better in how enemies react more realistically to the player. Most notable is a change in that funny technical limitation from the first game where enemies could see Ellie but wouldn't be alerted because it just isn't fair to the player. Companions now behave more realistically based on the situation, and those instances are long gone.

As expected, DualSense haptic feedback plays a huge role in this truly feeling like a new game.

Each gun gets its own weighted adaptive trigger, and various in-game actions prompt notably different vibrations. Trailers for the game go out of their way to point that out using a shotgun that gives two different vibrations—one for the shot and one for the pump after—and that's indeed a highlight, though just the beginning of these immersive improvements.

For those totally new to the series, TLOU is quietly one of the better stealth games ever. And the shattering of that timid approach is an escalation of sweaty-palm tension most other game franchises just can't match.


Story, Accessibility and More

The heartbreaker intro. The trap in Pittsburgh. Pinned down by the sniper. Pinned by the machine gun. The bridge. The dam. The diner. A fateful conversation in an abandoned farm. A brush with wildlife. The hospital. They are all here, all the beats that even gently described will elicit an emotional response from fans.

They're not just here, but they are amplified by the droves of improvements at every level of the game. Gameplay upgrades haven't harmed the pacing of the story or anything of the sort.

Last of Us has always relied on those little in-game moments to tell the story. There are cutscenes, sure, but what happens during the game itself is arguably even more important. That's no better represented than in the little side conversations and facial expressions that happen while exploring the world, especially compared to the original.

Naughty Dog, a pioneer in accessibility, is again distancing itself from the rest of the industry with this release, as it did in TLOU2.

The list of accessibility features is staggering, with things like navigation assistance, enhanced listening modes, motor accessibility modifiers, cinematic descriptions, motion sickness modifiers, screen readers and more.

Other general accessibility options include allowing characters on screen to auto-pick up anything they find or auto-craft items. There are also HUD adjustments, the option to skip puzzles and even auto-aim, plus the ability to customize controls.

On the technical side, there is little in the way of glitches or hangups, which is saying something for a Day 1 release these days. It runs like a charm on either performance option, and the quick PS5 load times are also a huge, but perhaps overlooked, upgrade.

As far as extra goodies, Naughty Dog has simply stacked the deck. The DLC Left Behind makes the cut, as do documentaries surrounding the game.

Players can unlock gameplay modifiers and renders, new skins for characters, skins for weapons and cosmetic outfits (and there are a lot of these), plus entire new character models. A new model-viewer mode joins the already-great photo mode, too.

While none of these are overly stunning, it's the type of modern pass and/or GOTY version players should rightfully expect from this type of release.

If there's one big omission players of the original will lament it's the lack of Factions multiplayer. That might sound silly to some—TLOU is a singleplayer powerhouse, right? But Factions was an incredibly fun, deceptively deep competitive multiplayer scene that, at least for some, easily blew past bigger third-person contenders like Gears of War back in the day.


Speedrunning Mode

A very, very healthy speedrunning community has popped up around the two games in the series.

It's no wonder. TLOU1 has world records hovering in the two-and-a-half-hour range as players memorize no-death routes and the perfect angles for shots, throwing distraction items and so much more.

Naughty Dog leaned into this in TLOU2 with the perma-death mode, which is exactly what it sounds like. That's back again, tasking players with beating the entire game without so much as a single death—just one means starting all the way back at the beginning no matter how far along a player was.

But Naughty Dog wasn't content to stop there, instead going all-in with a full-blown speedrunning mode.

At face value, it isn't anything dramatic, but less can be more when it comes to HUD elements and info fed to the player during a run. The mode slaps a handy timer (which pauses during cinematics, just like official runs) and location info box in the top right corner and helpfully details a player's best time in a given stretch of the game. Players can even compare times with friends, as expected.

In a welcome twist, the inclusion of this sort of speedrun mode might encourage players who otherwise wouldn't give such a challenge a second thought to enter the fray. That's great for the series and its underrated viability as a speedrunning game, and it's great for the niche community in video games as a whole.


Conclusion

It feels like this release moves what was already one of the greatest games of all time a little closer to what might have been the initial vision for the game before that was dialed down because of technical limitations of the time.

That doesn't mean it's a perfect release or fit for everyone. But calls asking why it needed to happen at all are reminiscent of the same calls lobbed once Part 2 was announced.

Like then, the release itself does the talking. Remaking TLOU, when done this well, is a no-brainer. The same love-based, emphasizing-wrenched masterpiece of a story is still here—but modernized, with some must-see bonuses tacked on and must-have accessibility features welcoming even more gamers into the experience.

Which is to say fans of the game and new players alike would be doing themselves a disservice to not appreciate the feats accomplished here on all fronts, never mind a story that has transcended the medium. The story didn't need updating, but the rest did, and what an update it is. Naughty Dog has again set the bar largely out of reach.

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