Many would argue that Naughty Dog's powerful, bleak survival thriller was last year's best game; indeed, it rather overshadowed the launch titles for the eighth generation of consoles, proving that last-gen hardware still had plenty to offer.
In an unprecedented move for a game barely a year old - albeit one we're likely to see more often - it's been remade for PlayStation 4, featuring 1080p graphics running at 60 frames per second, improved texture detail and two-hour bonus episode Left Behind. So is Remastered the definitive version of The Last of Us? And is it worth full price if you've already played it on PS3?
We can answer that first question straight away: yes. The Last of Us Remastered looks sharper and runs better than ever. The original was already a bit of a looker, of course, but even without the facility to run both versions side by side, the improvements are obvious. Everything's that much crisper, from the flora growing through the cracks in the ground to the stitching on protagonist Joel's shirt.
And yet for those who played the original, it's the extra responsiveness 60fps affords that's most immediately tangible: an undoubted boon during combat. There's an option to lock the frame-rate to 30 - a decision some suggested might mean that the game can't manage 60 in all areas - but beyond improved shadow effects we can't see any reason to bother: we didn't spot any dips, even during the busiest action sequences.
Other enhancements are trickier to gauge - are the blood spatter effects genuinely superior, or simply more noticeable because of the increased resolution? Whatever the case, this is a remaster that's genuinely worthy of the name.
Meanwhile, those who are playing for the first time are in for a real treat - although after an exciting prologue, the opening few hours may lead some to wonder what the fuss is about.
Naughty Dog smartly establishes its narrative setup during the credits: society has been brought to its knees by a fungal plague that turns its victims into aggressive creatures, and much of the world that remains is under strict military control, with a breakaway group called the Fireflies fighting against the oppressive new regime.
Over the next few hours, circumstances conspire to pair gruff Texan smuggler Joel with spiky fourteen-year-old Ellie, and they begin a cross-country journey from the US's East coast, heading westward for reasons that shouldn't be spoiled.
What initially felt like a measured opening really drags on a second playthrough. It doesn't help that its early set-pieces mostly play out like any other third-person shooter - albeit one where ammo is relatively scarce, and you're encouraged towards stealthy approaches and melee attacks rather than stopping and popping.
Still, the rhythms are fairly similar: you'll reach an area with a suspiciously large number of waist-high obstacles to crouch behind, enemies will arrive, and it's your job to clear them out in order to reach the other side.
And while Ellie's invisibility to both human and infected opponents is part of what makes her such a capable AI partner, it can be a real immersion breaker. It is perhaps, a small price to pay for allowing you to remain undetected when trying to sneak around, but it never stops looking ridiculous.
"There's no sense of celebration when you 'win', merely a feeling of relief that you've survived."
Things improve the further you progress, and the more options you have at your disposal. Once you've got a bow and arrow, homebrew bombs (tin cans filled with sharps triggered to explode when an enemy gets near) and Molotov cocktails, you can really start to toy with your opponents.
You might, for example, throw a brick to lure two patrolling hunters to the same spot, and lob a Molotov to set them both on fire. Smoke bombs, meanwhile, allow you to create diversions to make a hasty getaway, though it's often more fun to sprint through the cloud and whack them with a piece of piping or a two-by-four.
There's a wonderful tension at the heart of The Last of Us' combat. Often it's about being careful, trying not to alert anyone - or anything - and taking down enemies one by one. Yet when the stealth approach fails, as it often does, it becomes frantic, sweaty and desperate: a real fight for survival.
It's brutal, too: smashing a hunter's skull in can be a worryingly cathartic release, but it's also horrible in the very best way. It's bloody, of course, but it never lingers on the violence. There's no sense of celebration when you 'win', merely a feeling of relief that you've survived. And when you do perish, each death is nasty, brutish and short, at once disturbing yet brief enough to leave gore hounds distinctly unsatisfied, which is as it should be.
Between these set-pieces - and occasionally even during them - you're forced to thoroughly explore your surroundings in order to scavenge items that will make your life a little easier. Rags and alcohol will allow you to craft a health kit, while a blade and some bindings makes a multi-purpose shiv.
The latter are best kept in reserve for the deadly 'clickers' (blind infected that can kill you in one hit if you're not suitably equipped) but you can also use it to jimmy open locked doors, which usually hide a stash of items. It's an idea that fits neatly with the game's survivalist theme, even though it often devolves into repeatedly pressing triangle while Joel bumps up against various pieces of furniture, pocketing everything his roving hands can grab.
At times, this works beautifully. The action doesn't pause as Joel digs into his backpack, which leads to some tense moments when you're being stalked by a hunter as he desperately binds his wounds. By comparison, collecting 'parts' to upgrade your weapons at workbenches scattered across the world feels contrived, while scoffing pills to give Joel more health, reduce his crafting speed, or increase aiming stability is pretty silly.
"Neil Druckmann's subtle script is beautifully brought to life by the performers, particularly the two leads."
Nonetheless, if these systems motivate players to explore the world more rigorously, then their presence is justified. Not that you should need the additional encouragement: there's some rich environmental storytelling here, and you'll find relics from the past that give you a glimpse of how things used to be, as well as disturbing or upsetting accounts from the recently deceased.
In the later stages of the game's first act, you'll stumble across a series of notes, which sketch out a compelling side narrative about a survivor named Ish. You'll want to find every one.
Even during the game's longueurs and the occasional frustrations of repeating a lengthy combat encounter, the story gives you plenty of reasons to carry on. Though the narrative beats are sometimes predictable, the characterisation is uncommonly strong. Joel and Ellie's initially frosty alliance naturally begins to thaw, and their relationship develops in surprising and touching ways.
Sure, you could argue that the setting is an open goal; that it would be difficult not to make a moving story in a post-apocalyptic world. But that would be to underestimate Naughty Dog's rare gift for storytelling. Neil Druckmann's subtle script is beautifully brought to life by the performers, particularly the two leads.
Troy Baker is terrific as Joel, a brusque, angry man who sometimes struggles to keep a lid on his emotions, and he's matched by Ashley Johnson as Ellie. In other hands, Ellie could have been a clichéd impetuous teen, but Johnson's performance is warm and nuanced, and she remains likeable even when her dialogue is aggressive and profane.
Once you've seen the satisfyingly understated ending, we'd recommend you immediately tackle DLC episode Left Behind, which explores Ellie's past. Told mostly in flashback but cleverly tied to a crucial point in the main story, we see Ellie and former friend Riley explore an abandoned mall together - the former absconding from her military duties, the latter about to join the Fireflies.
While the main game very rarely found room for levity (and when it did, it was usually gallows humour) Left Behind encourages you to laugh along with its two leads, as they don silly monster masks, and fire water guns at one another.
Such innocent fun makes the later stages all the more poignant, and there's a story beat here that is genuinely magical: it's a moment that blends wit and pathos; that invites you not just to watch but to play. What could so easily have been a cutscene is instead lent extra power by the player's input.
If elsewhere your interactions with the world amount to little more than pressing a button to prompt additional dialogue, the contextual rewards are worth it. And when the action arrives, it's as good as ever, adding an extra wrinkle to combat. Fungal foes briefly become allies, as you smash bottles to guide them towards human pursuers: a necessary evil because you're less well-armed than in the main game (though that bow happily makes a comeback).
Which finally allows us to answer that second question: Is Remastered worth full price if you've already played Last of Us on PS3? We guess it comes down to this: are you prepared to pay full price to experience the best version of a very fine game?
One year on, it doesn't quite have the same impact, and a handful of minor flaws are more obvious on a second playthrough. Nor is there anything here that should leave the seven million-plus owners of the PS3 version too downhearted - hence we're lowering our score a little. Still, if you're one of the few fortunate enough to be experiencing The Last of Us for the first time, then we're very, very jealous.
One of last year's highlights is now one of 2014's best games. The Last of Us remains Naughty Dog's finest hour.
- Expertly blends brilliant storytelling with thrilling action
- Looks sharper and runs better than ever
- Left Behind DLC is a highlight
- Carrying ladders still isn't much fun
- Feels initially sluggish and less impactful on a second playthrough