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"It's a masterpiece in its own right": Why thousands of people are still playing The Last of Us' multiplayer, six years after launch

Credit: Naughty Dog

Ask most people why they love The Last of Us, and they'll predictably run down the same list of bullet points; a gripping, cinematic campaign held together with masterful writing and centered on the endearing persistence of its two central characters, brought to life by some of the finest motion capture performances the medium has ever seen. What often won't be brought up, however, is The Last of Us' multiplayer mode, which many will have either forgotten about, ignored, or probably never knew existed. But it does exist. It's called Factions, and it's surprisingly good.

To be fair, there's nothing particularly outstanding about Factions at first glance. A standard helping of PvP fare released during the time when every traditional single player game felt obliged to include an ancillary online mode, few were talking about Factions when The Last of Us first arrived. But, given the opportunity to prove itself over time and through player investment, Factions emerges as a tense, addictive, and refreshingly hardcore competitive experience with a distinct survivalist edge; one that channels the intimate strategy of Rainbow Six: Siege, the fait accomplis brinkmanship of battle royale, and the stealthy skirmishing that once garnished Assassin's Creed players' interactions during the series' brief but brilliant fling with multiplayer. 

It's so compelling, in fact, that you'll find thousands of players still enjoying Factions today, across both the game's original PS3 release and The Last of Us: Remastered on PS4, including a variety of YouTubers and streamers who both evangelise the mode's continuing quality of life to the wider internet, and organise competitive tournaments within the community itself. Just ask current Factions players about why they're still playing a six year old multiplayer mode, in fact, and they'll happily sing its praises. 

Joel and Ellie who?

Credit: Naught Dog

Credit: Naught Dog

"Factions is the only competitive multiplayer game that I'm good enough to truly enjoy," jokes long-time player TheGorbsters over a discussion with me on Reddit. "It’s pretty well-balanced, and the unique gameplay systems (crafting, low amounts of ammo, stealth opportunities, etc.) give you a fighting chance against other skilled players, whereas in other games I find myself getting instantly killed by players that are much better than I am. 

"I think it’s really crazy, to be honest, that Factions means so much to me considering how poorly received it was by game critics who said it was arbitrarily tacked on, uninteresting, and didn’t seem to belong as part of The Last of Us. Honestly, I think they’re right that it was unnecessary to add a multiplayer component, but I'm so glad they did." But, according to the TLOUstrategist, Factions owes much of its long term success to a group of online influencers and content creators, who developed a soft spot for the mode a few years ago. 

"The only reason why someone would start up a channel on a game that old is because they’re passionate about the game...and they want to share that passion with others. A lot of people point to YouTubers and channels that promoted Factions in its early years, and while they laid the foundation for future success, they haven’t brought new players or kept the community thriving these past two years. It’s the combination of many small yet passionate channels posting regularly during this time that has helped maintain the surprising number of Factions players in lobbies each day." 

Credit: Naught Dog

Credit: Naught Dog

Bobby Barks is one such influencer; someone who regularly organises and hosts competitive tournaments within the Factions scene, and he tells me what it is that has kept him coming back to the mode after all these years, admitting that he "didn’t even know the game had multiplayer at first."

"It was during one of those late nights, waiting for the baby to wake up for feeding, I saw I needed two trophies to platinum the game. Factions was an option on the main menu screen. So I dived in… and got my ass handed to me constantly. It was such a steep learning curve. I had no idea what I was doing or how to play it. Fortunately, I came across two guys who were talking to each other in a lobby who ended up on my team. I readied a microphone and got on to chat to these two guys, who quickly became friends and people I played with regularly. They helped me understand the game; they had a wider network of friends playing the game and they all eventually took me under their wing. If it wasn’t for this group of players I highly doubt I’d have stuck with the multiplayer at the time."

"Today’s games are a form of art, like a novel or a movie," continues Barks. "The Last of Us, and Factions in particular, holds an artistic element that has captured me during some of the most difficult years of my life. It helped through those tough times, as a distraction from the worries of everyday, but also in creating friendships that will last a lifetime. I owe the game, Naughty Dog, and the community a lot of gratitude and that’s why I’ve spent as much time as I have giving content back."

Last call

Credit: Naught Dog

Credit: Naught Dog

"It’s the first time in a game where I literally felt my heartbeat race uncontrollably."

"Factions is balanced, basic, and straightforward," explains a Redditor by the name of android2460, who has been playing the game steadily since The Last of Us released in 2013. "Not to mention pretty versatile in that you can play it in a multitude of ways. I've made so many friends online through playing, as it forces communication, collaboration, and teamwork above all else. With that being said, something Naughty Dog could do to support the players more is continue offering extended online support. I know that's probably a tall task considering that this game is over five years old, but they've created something with so much replay value." 

As good as Factions is, however, android 2460 is keen to point out that the mode is not without its problems, admitting that “there are so many bugs and glitches that will occasionally disrupt gameplay, while some players choose to exploit these holes outright", and his comments touch on a prevalent pattern of thought that pervades the discourse amongst Factions' active community of players. 

While many continue to play on a regular basis, there's no short amount of complaints from this same userbase about Factions' underlying problems, many of which relate to its technical competence, competitive balance, and general lack of support from Naughty Dog, who have naturally moved on to other things, including the game's upcoming sequel, The Last of Us 2. The community holds weekly debates online about which weapons are the most overpowered or useless, while infamous firearms like the Tactical Shotgun are either revered or reviled depending on which end you're most often behind or in front of.

Credit: Naught Dog

Credit: Naught Dog

On top of all that, says competitive player Vaughn Williams, "the community is essentially split down the middle on how Factions should be played. Is it a stealth campy game of hiding in strategic areas to surprise players, or is it a team based game where players need to coordinate and strategies?" With its noticeable absence from the scene, Naughty Dog hasn't weighed in with a definitive answer to that question either, leaving the game's meta in a perpetual state of flux, freely dependent on the type of people who are playing the mode at any one time. 

Despite Naughty Dog's distance from Factions, the fact is that a small but not insignificant group of people are more excited about jumping into The Last of Us 2's confirmed multiplayer mode than its campaign. Factions 2, or whatever it ends up being called, will inevitably develop its own micro-community of players, as those still playing a multiplayer mode from 2013 will finally make the transition to something that's hopefully smoother, bigger, and better supported. Even in its rough-edged 2013 form, however, Factions is an inimitable multiplayer experience that has captured the attention of a  starstruck few, as TLOUstrategist's parting thoughts surmise. 

"Factions provides a multiplayer experience unlike any other. The slow pace, combined with periods of sudden chaotic intensity, make for highly challenging and rewarding gameplay. The dreadful and exhilarating intensity of a last man standing situation is phenomenal...it’s the first time in a game where I literally felt my heartbeat race uncontrollably. We picked up The Last of Us for the masterful story mode, but we continue playing because of Factions. It’s a masterpiece in its own right."

For more, check out all the big new games of 2019 still to come, or watch the video below for another look at The Last of Us 2 from Naughty Dog. 

Alex is a UK-based writer and editor, peddling his written wares to whoever will take them. You can enjoy his irrational stream of consciousness on Twitter at @alexavard95.