It’s been 7 years since The Last Of Us. We’ve moved from waiting for the PS4 to anticipating the PS5, which somehow means a new The Last Of Us game is upon us. The first was classic by all measures, and developers Naughty Dog have a mammoth task on their hands to live up to it.
Good news is: The Last Of Us Part II knocks it way out of the park. In the spirit of the bludgeoning baseball bat, this is a home run. (I’ll avoid golf analogies here.) If you need to know if you should buy the game, the answer is “definitely”! Nonetheless, the spoiler-free review continues below.
Set five years after the shocking events of The Last Of Us, we rejoin Joel and Ellie in The Last Of Us Part II after their escape from The Fireflies and their settling down in Tommy’s settlement (Tommy being Joel’s brother, in case you forgot). With no cure in sight, the infected still roam the land, while other humans have formed their own tribes, posing as both potential allies and enemies.
Life in the settlement involves regular patrols to look for infected, which 19-year-old Ellie often does with Dina and Jesse. But an incident violently disrupts Ellie’s largely peaceful existence, setting her on the path for revenge.
“It Is Mine To Avenge”
It is this revenge that drives The Last Of Us Part II’s viscerally violent gameplay. This is not a game for kids: Between the blood splatter, the grotesque bodies of the infected, or the ways you can die quite graphically. Still, everything hits satisfyingly, whether it’s a bullet to the head, or a pipe hitting flesh.
The action gameplay is fluid as you move from target to target, a more refined version of what we got in the first game. Whether you chose to stay in the shadows, or speed things up with a firefight, both methods work well (just don’t run out of ammo). And the game wants you to know that you aren’t just killing digital sprites – your human enemies have names, and even backstories. The enemies also try to team up against you more, working together and calling out to each other to try to force you out of safety, before you bring them to their violent end.
The violence makes the game’s world revolve, and it’s often put right in your face, such as when you squeeze someone’s life out of them with a chokehold that’s framed right in the centre of the screen. Other times, a shot which doesn’t kill might just leave an enemy member screaming until their life fades. The violence itself is the point – violent delights have violent ends, even if you’re just trying to stay alive.
And this violence isn’t plain torture porn – Naughty Dog on the most part almost goes near gratuitous, but doesn’t get there. Still, it’s clear Naughty Dog wants you to constantly question your actions, even though you do have to fight to survive. as some actions are inevitable.
But do be prepared, there are some exceptionally tough fights. The game does offers lots of accessibility options to simplify combat and gameplay, including hints to direct your way, or instant stealth if you’re prone, so you this is one game you can mostly eschew combat if you’re here for the pretty sights and the story. That said, I enjoyed the combat, even when it got intense.
And it’s not all intensity all of the time anyway – often you’ll make your way across locations alone, each lull allowing the story, and your actions, to seep in, before the next fight again.
“I Will Render Vengeance To Mine Enemies”
Even amidst all the violence, there is beauty, because The Last Of Us Part II is a visual spectacle. While the game looks absolutely bonkers on the PlayStation 4 Pro, those with only a PS4 (like me) will still enjoy how the game looks tremendously (it’s often gasp-worthy), with some slight loss in detail. You might want to turn up the volume sometimes, if your PS4 starts whirring like mine during the game. But the only noticeable performance hit was when I was in a room with quite a number of people. In all other times, this game runs like a dream.
The lighting, the art, the digital renditions of a post-apocalyptic Seattle, the game is often a sight to behold. There’s also an amazing amount of attention to detail. Throughout the game you will traverse across multiple environments, and you’ll get to step into old shops and homes. At one point I had to stop and gasp: One house had a shelf full of Warhammer 40K miniatures. Often-times in games some locations can feel copy-pasted just to fill a map, but here each place often feels lived-in, a melancholy testament to a life that once was. (And you’ll also see lots of PlayStation 3s, which is the console generation when the world ended. A nice touch!)
All these locations help enliven some good level design. While there are some obvious roadblocks throughout the game, many locations feel semi-open, allowing you to explore the streets and find treasure without fixating purely on your quest at hand. Detours are always fun, though often filled with danger. The game also brings you to new situations that you wouldn’t have figured to see in The Last Of Us Part II, and they’re often pleasant surprises.
And this is a Naughty Dog game, so there are some clever puzzles throughout the various levels. None of them are as intricate as those in Uncharted 4 – of which the puzzles are a focus – but there’s enough scattered in there to leave you feeling pretty smart when you solve them. Whether it’s a locked safe, or even a story-related quest, these puzzles are a welcome respite from all the danger you face.
And that respite you will need, especially as the game constantly ratchets up the tension with each chapter of the story. From the get-go there are some amazing set pieces, and the game constantly tightens the screws as it introduces new ways to be in danger. This is some of the most tense gameplay I’ve ever experienced, whether it’s facing infected, or humans, or even navigating new areas. Ammo and craft item limits are low enough that you might face a challenge even at the absolute lowest difficulty level if you’re too trigger happy.
“And I will execute great vengeance upon them”
But on top of all the violence and the beauty, what makes The Last Of Us Part II work is the characters you get to spend time with. Between the bombastic moments are the quiet, tender ones, as you experience the relationships between the various characters. You might have started the first game in Joel’s shoes, but transiting to Ellie, seeing things from her perspective, is a natural progression for the game. If you’re coming to this after playing The Last Of Us (and you should play the first game), it can often be painful to watch what Ellie goes through.
A lot of this is a testament to the voice acting and motion capture done for the game. Coupled with the game’s often eye-popping (no pun intended) graphics, you get drawn into the lives of these characters, as they try to eke out one more day of being alive in a world set on infecting them. (Good thing Ellie is immune!)
The characters, and the story, are what make The Last Of Us Part II tick, and help elevate it to a cinematic marvel. The game’s grand scale is proof that the first game, and Uncharted 4, are no flukes by director Neil Druckmann. This is a game written to be deeply experienced, whether or not you fully agree with the direction it takes.
And for a game that clearly says violence is never the answer, it’s violence you often have to turn to. The Last Of Us Part II’s focus on revenge is clear – you don’t need even half it’s 20-30 hour run-time to grasp that. It definitely is not some morality play, especially not when a game is telling you revenge is bad, but doesn’t give a player choice to avoid any of it. But within the confines of the game, of its post-apocalyptic world, experiencing Ellie’s drive for revenge and how the dominoes fall with every step remains a very engaging one.
The game can often feel emotionally manipulative as the story twists and turns. It definitely is primed to get a response out of you, and often, it works. How much you enjoy it will involve how much you can keep an open mind: Druckmann himself has admitted not all fans will like what happens. There are some divisive moments – especially if you’ve gotten involved in the characters’ lives over the 2 games – but I think, taken as a whole, The Last Of Us Part II takes us on an amazing journey.
As its worst, The Last Of Us Part II is more of the same from its prequel. The core theme might be different, but it doesn’t try to do things too differently from the first. But in many ways I’m happy that they weren’t tempted to add a million new bells and whistles, but instead elevate what they achieved in the first game to the next level. Whether it’s the graphics, the characters, or the story, Naughty Dog has released a very polished game. The new side characters are great too, many of them people of colour, often of all sorts of body shapes and sizes. Naughty Dog is committed to being inclusive, and it shows.
The Last Of Us heralded the end of the PS3 era in an amazing way, pushing the graphics on the PS3 to the end to tell an amazing story of survival at the end of days. As we await the imminent launch of the PS5, The Last Of Us Part IIbrings us once again on an unforgettable journal with Ellie, and serves as a fitting bookend to the PS4’s sterling game library.
And well, the game can really get to you. At one point The Last Of Us Part II had wormed into my head, when I dreamt about infested one night after stopping at a particularly harrowing point in the game. That’s how The Last Of Us Part II gripped me, and I was sad to have to let go when I was done.
The Last Of Us Part II is out 19 Jun 2020.