The Last of Us? More like, 'I wish this were The Last of This Game.'
The Last of Us remake, titled The Last of Us Part 1, is an upcoming rerelease that encapsulates the decades-long problem with Sony’s gaming strategy.
The video game giant seems perfectly content spotlighting high-budget, cinematic experiences on its PlayStation consoles. Gameplay, however, is secondary to that experience. Why else would Sony greenlight a remake, price it as a premium $70 game, and offer it without the multiplayer component that fans loved?
In short, The Last of Us did not need another rerelease. Not when the previous Remaster, released in 2014, is backward-compatible on the PlayStation 5—and has more features.
The Last of Us Part 1’s reveal perfectly illustrates the flaw in Sony’s gaming approach ever since it took the world by storm with the original PlayStation. The company adores cinematic games that feature massive budgets, cutting-edge visuals, and gritty melodrama. With this laser focus on looks, gameplay becomes an afterthought. AAA PlayStation games don’t need to innovate with their gameplay, because reiterating is good enough. In Sony’s eyes, a good story and high production value trump mediocre gameplay. That’s why we get subpar titles like the highly forgettable The Order: 1886.
The writers have a story to tell with their carefully crafted cinematic campaign, and they won’t let a silly intrusion like gameplay get in the way of their glorious narrative. As an example, Naughty Dog capped the frame rate of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End’s campaign at 30 frames per second to create a cinematic, 1080p visual experience. Want smoother gameplay? Play the multiplayer, which capped the resolution at 720p, but delivered much more fluid 60fps action (as well as vastly improved movement and gameplay mechanics).
For some bizarre reason, gaming industry leaders seem to think that visual fidelity is more important than game feel, and would rather hide fun gameplay in optional side content rather than showcase it in the campaign. Rockstar Games gives you a horse with testicles that shrink in the cold. FromSoftware gives you a horse that can perform sick double jumps and ride the wind over mountains. Which sounds more fun to play?
The ultimate goal of a video game is to deliver a game for audiences to play. Yet, game narratives have become so overbearing that it is common now, even expected, to have controls wrested from you in order to present you with a cutscene, or a walk-and-talk lore dump. What used to be sparse, CG treats has become movie-aping abominations that can easily bloat a game’s run time by several hours. It’s as if a generation of film majors couldn’t get production gigs, and jumped into the gaming industry to make surrogate movies disguised as video games.
It’s genuinely refreshing when a studio has the discipline to limit story scenes, or even present its story through gameplay interactions. Remember how sparse the cinematics were in Metroid Prime? Wasn’t it neat that you could use Samus’ visor to scan data logs to learn about the game’s events? Wasn’t it cool that you could also ignore it, because the gameplay was good enough to stand on its own?
Games like Elden Ring are similarly minimalistic, so you can pour hours into the lore, or just ignore it and slay weird monsters as you bumble through the world. Would The Last of Us be as beloved if the game lacked cinematics, or if you chose to skip them your first time through?
The answer is, maybe. When developers like Naughty Dog don’t have to work within the constraints of a narrative, they can be surprisingly creative with their gameplay. Factions, The Last of Us’ multiplayer, is a testament to this. Without a restrictive plot to limit what players can do, Naughty Dog got inventive, even innovative. Factions married the story’s survival elements to a competitive multiplayer environment, designing classic shooter modes with harsh rules that encouraged player cooperation. Many modes severely limited respawning and healing, so you often only had a single life to complete objectives with teammates. Stealth and other annoying campaign elements were better represented in multiplayer mode, so sneaking skills and movement were integral to outplaying opponents.
The potential for greatness is there, but the focus on story cohesion and cinematic experiences radically hinders the creativity these titles need to innovate and elevate their gameplay. A game can look better, but play worse during a campaign, on purpose, because the developer and Sony want it to look good when marketing the title. Fun concepts and experimental gameplay are often relegated to multiplayer, where they can fade into obscurity if they don’t catch on. In the case of The Last of Us, there are still fans out there who don’t even know the game had a multiplayer mode.
So, why buy The Last of Us Part 1 again? There has been no mention of any narrative changes, and considering how acclaimed the plot is, there’s no chance Naughty Dog will alter it. Besides, it’s been released twice to date, and it’s getting an HBO adaptation. You can get the same narrative experience for a much cheaper price with the PlayStation 4’s The Last of Us Remastered.
Sure, you could argue that you don’t need to buy the new remake. Yes, this is obviously true, but that’s not the problem with the situation at hand. The issue is that this remake is a blatant cash grab, with a focus on visual fidelity and presentation. There are some minor gameplay tweaks, but Naughty Dog didn’t even feel the need to elaborate on them during the game’s Summer Game Fest announcement. The only worthwhile improvement, a remake of the Factions multiplayer, was apparently not important enough to include in the premium package.
We know Naughty Dog is working on a multiplayer project. What was originally supposed to be a multiplayer expansion for The Last of Us 2 evolved into a much larger, separate endeavor. This was elaborated on in the PlayStation Blog(Opens in a new window), which reveals that a new, standalone multiplayer project is in development. But considering how Sony is presenting The Last of Us Part 1, with its premium price point and Factions’ exclusion, I suspect that this new multiplayer project will be a premium product as well. Rumor has it that this online game is free-to-play, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
I get it. People love The Last of Us. They love its story, the moral conundrums, and the ambiguity that the setting and characters depict. But Sony is triple-dipping here. The company is treating you like a sucker, and anyone excited to pay more money for less product is telling Sony precisely that.
Sony’s obsession with cinematic games won’t pivot any time soon, but at the very least you can demand more gameplay for your money. If you want to play The Last of Us, buy the remastered PS4 version. Otherwise, keep your wallet closed until these companies make a real effort to earn your hard-earned money.
The Last of Us Part I is headed to the PlayStation 5 on Sept. 2, 2022. For more on Summer Game Fest, check out PCMag’s video game feed. Also, peep our The Pop-Off YouTube channel(Opens in a new window) for more video game discussion.
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