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'The Last of Us Part 1' Is an Expensive Way to Revisit Naughty Dog's Masterpiece

Commentary: The postapocalyptic adventure comes to PS5, but price-conscious newcomers should still consider picking up the PS4 version instead.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
Expertise Culture, Video Games, Breaking News
Sean Keane
5 min read
A concerned Ellie wields a bow in a snowy area in The Last of Us Part 1

The Last of Us Part 1 reunites us with 14-year-old Ellie.

Naughty Dog

A few hours into The Last of Us Part 1 -- the remake of Naughty Dog's 2013 dystopian classic that hit PS5 on Friday -- protagonist Joel gives surrogate daughter Ellie a handgun to defend herself in their postapocalyptic odyssey across the US. It comes after she's proved herself by covering Joel with a rifle as he kills a bunch of bandits.

"How 'bout something a little more your size?" he says. "For emergencies only."

"OK," she responds.

This is one of countless moments I'd forgotten since my 2013 playthrough of this survival horror adventure's original PS3 release, and likely something I breezed over at the time. After all, 14-year-old Ellie seems to know what she's doing and tired Joel could use the backup.

The scene hits differently once you know the violence and death that'll permeate Joel and Ellie's story, both in this adventure and its heart-rending 2020 sequel. Joel is acknowledging that Ellie can't maintain her innocence in the horror show this world has become. It's among the more subtle defining moments of their path.

Despite the joy of incredible scenes like this, it's tough to justify The Last of Us Part 1 as a $70 PS5 game when you have multiple cheaper ways to play it.

Remake or remaster?

I thought I had a crystal clear memory of The Last of Us. Developed by Uncharted studio Naughty Dog, it's among the PlayStation's crown jewel exclusive series. How could the passage of time possibly rob me of one of gaming's greatest experiences? 

Turns out it did; I really only remembered the harrowing introduction and emotional roller coaster of an ending. I'd forgotten most of the characters you encounter (like sibling survivors Henry and Sam), several places Joel and Ellie venture (including Pittsburgh and a hydroelectric dam), and many of the ghoulish combat scenarios you have to overcome (like the intense boss battle in the high school gym). Playing through The Last of Us felt unexpectedly fresh.

Joel avoids a gas cloud in a bright high school gym in The Last of Us Part 1

The first Bloater encounter is beautifully lit and pretty darn intense.

Naughty Dog

This is the second updated version of the original Last of Us -- a PS4 remaster landed a year after the PS3 original in 2014 -- so it's understandable to wonder if Part 1 is worth your time or money.

Naughty Dog has been calling the PS5 release a remake rather than a remaster -- frustratingly, the internet has taken to using these terms interchangeably -- and it's certainly a major step up from a visual standpoint. Plus, the wealth of new accessibility options opens the experience to a much wider audience (these could justify the price tag for some players).

But it isn't a remake like the 2019 Resident Evil 2 or the 2020 Final Fantasy 7. The gameplay is the same and you shouldn't expect any narrative surprises -- unless you've forgotten as much as I had.

Still a masterpiece

The Last of Us takes place a few decades after a creepily realistic fungal brain infection turned much of the population into aggressive, cannibalistic mutants. (In-game news reports about millions dying, countries cutting off travel and failure to find a vaccine land differently now.)

This world's survivors have three options: move into totalitarian military quarantine zones, find a place among an independent settlement of questionable safety or run with nomads that often do terrible things to stay alive.

Joel and Ellie (played superbly by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson) have nasty encounters with all three groups, as well as the many varieties of Infected. You often find yourself thrown into little gameplay sandboxes, where there are a bunch of enemies you have to dispatch (or sneak past, in some cases). It's always tense, engaging and satisfying, even if the environments are less sprawling and ambitious than those in the second game.

The stealthy approach will see you sneaking around the area and choking, shivving or bow-and-arrowing your enemies -- humans will often beg for their lives, which is consistently distressing. You can also take the guns blazing option, with an fun array of weaponry available to dispatch your foes. The best encounters are usually a mix of the two, so don't go reloading your save if you make a mistake and get caught.

New skills are unlocked with collectable pills and screws are used to upgrade weapons, so your approach can evolve as you play through. The excellent prequel chapter Left Behind, which reveals more of Ellie's backstory, is also available here as a menu option separate from the main game (and best played after you've completed the main story).

Joel and Ellie observe a bridge in a rural area in The Last of Us Part 1

Joel and Ellie's journey takes them through rural and urban America.

Naughty Dog

It plays like a more grounded version of sister series Uncharted. I'll confess that I mentally labeled The Last of Us as "GrimUncharted" after finishing the original, but that was reductive and immature. Older and wiser now, I appreciate this series' realism.

For those who've played Part 2, the original might feel quite stripped back. With a roughly 15-hour running time, fewer intensely scary encounters with the Infected and more focused narrative, it doesn't offer quite as much bang for your buck.

A dark odyssey

If you've managed to avoid spoilers for this series (particularly the bad faith controversy about the similarly incredible sequel), you are in for a treat here. The Last of Us stands among the best written, most mature games I've ever played, and the PS5 remake is unquestionably the best way to experience it. 

Characters look as lifelike as anything I've seen on the console, environments are lush and it all runs extremely smoothly. I only encountered one or two minor graphical glitches as I played. The game's use of the DualSense controller is subtle, but the resistance as I squeezed a gun's trigger or readied my bow added a nice layer of immersion. 

So The Last of Us Part 1 rules, but it's also a full-price release of a game that's available in multiple other forms and lacks the multiplayer mode seen in previous versions -- likely because a standalone multiplayer game is coming.

The Last of Us' Joel is seen in side-by-side comparison shots of the PS4 remaster and PS5 remake

Joel has had a PS5 makeover for The Last of Us Part 1.

Naughty Dog

You should consider the PS4 remaster (which is playable on PS5 and available at no extra cost on the $18 a month PS Plus Premium subscription service) or even the PS3 original (this version isn't playable on PS4 or PS5 though) are still easy to get. Non-gamers can also wait for the HBO show next year.

One way or the other, I urge everyone to experience (or reexperience) The Last of Us in some form -- Part 1 is also coming to PCs at some point. Some moments may fade with time, but you'll be engaged for every harrowing minute of your playthrough, and it'll make you feel like few other games can.

Watch this: DualSense Edge: PS5's First Pro Controller