The Last of Us Part II Review: … Okay

There will be no spoilers in this review – if I was to dive into spoilers, this review would be far longer, there is certainly a lot to say about the direction this game takes our characters in. As you may know, the original The Last of Us was one of my favourite games of last decade, I will try and keep my bias in check, no promises. That being said, turn your TV up a few notches higher than you usually have it, because this game makes the PS4 whirr like crazy, lets get into the review.

 

Everyone, Calm Down

The Last of Us as a series has been a bit of a punching bag in recent months. From the entire library of cutscenes being leaked (thankfully all of which I manged to avoid), to the LGBTQ+ representation in the game, it has been a tough time for the Sony darling Naughty Dog. None of this seems to have impacted sales as within 3 days the game had already shifted 4 million copies making it the fastest selling Playstation exclusive so far, outperforming Spider-Man.

The “outrage” around Ellie’s sexuality has been commonplace since the release of the Left Behind DLC which explored this minor character detail and gave deeper context to situations in the original game. It was subtle, but helped Ellie be more relatable than ever. In Part II, this again isn’t as overt as some people may lead you to believe, though it is part of her identity. It is essential that it is shown. She’s now openly gay, she is much more confident, she’s strong, independent, all of that helps set up her arc in this new game. So, what’s the big deal?

New characters too have come under fire for their inclusion. One lesbian character is seen in a cutscene with underarm hair, whilst another female is muscular and clearly battle-hardened. Again, I don’t see any issue with this. In the universe of The Last of Us, with all that is going on, does anyone have time to shave every day? It makes sense that female characters would be ripped as all hell, especially given her status as a soldier, in this new world, gender should have nothing to do with it. That being said, it is a magnet for criticism, memes and potentially put in the game just to tick a box, it just never feels that way to me.

Criticism for the story specifically I can understand but picking apart the above issues seems to be more malicious than constructive.

 

Did We Need More of Us?

The world of The Last of Us is as dark, brutal, and unforgiving as in the initial game, probably more so. Once again, morality is never quite as black and white as things first appear and this grey area is explored extensively through the surprisingly lengthy campaign. When this game was first announced, I was sceptical, did there need to be a part II? The first game ending so dramatically, on the best cliff-hanger I have seen in ages. It was an emotional gut punch and the impact of this was left entirely up to your own interpretation of the story, this ambiguity is what really made it special. It felt a bit like making an Italian Job 2, picking up from the moment the crew were dangling off the edge of the cliff.

Thankfully, Part II stays consistent with the characters it has crafted and the world that has been built. Nothing is sacred here. Everyone is a threat and danger is constant. Nobody is safe, and if they feel like they are, it is fleeting. There is a lot more to juggle in terms of story this time around. The first game could be summarised as a guardian-child journey across America, Part II is much harder to nail down into a single sentence. Instead it opts to go for more of a theme, The Last of Us Part II is a game about anger, rage and the sustainability of an eye-for-an-eye mentality, without forgiveness, when does it end?

The story is such a massive part of this game, and it is where much of the value lies, if I was to say much more it would actively dampen your experience. Not everyone is going to like the story direction, and that is okay, it doesn’t make it bad. It means that there is a lot to discuss, explore and unravel. That has been Neil Druckmann’s ideology for a while now, he has been documented as saying things like “I don’t care if they love it or hate it, as long as they aren’t indifferent” and that shines through here, this is going to be discussed a lot in the following months.

This expanded story comes at a price however. The pacing does feel a little wonky at times. Having such an expansive timeline means that there is a lot of jumping around, this is a little frustrating when the action begins to crescendo, only to be greeting with “3 years earlier”. These flashbacks are essential to flesh out story points currently being experienced – I just wish they didn’t leave me hanging quite as much as they do.

Similar to other Naughty Dog titles, there are notes and documents scattered throughout the environment, each containing their own little story that unfolds as you collect more. This allows for you to get to know the family who inhabited the aquarium and what befell them, despite never actually meeting them. Whilst this isn’t my favourite type of storytelling – reading rather than experiencing, it makes sense in the context of the world. This also extends to enriching the main narrative too, you recount various experiences with characters like Isaac hours before you actually meet him. This allows you to build up a perception in your head of what these people are like, making it more interesting when they are not how you perceived them and all the scarier when they are.

 

The Cycle Continues

The gameplay loop here is similar to it’s predecessor; story, exploration, resource gathering, intense actions, story some more. Where Part II improves significantly upon the first entry is with the action – this is the best combat system Naughty Dog has implemented to date. That is saying a lot coming off the back of the rope swinging shenanigans of Uncharted 4.

Of course, TLOU has always leaned more towards stealth than bombastic firefights and the same is true here. There is now much more variety in the encounters though, with three main factions to tackle; the WLF, the ‘Scars’ and of course, the infected. Each faction has a distinctly different style of combat, with different unit types thrown in the mix too; heavy soldiers, snipers, hulking infected, assassin-like soldiers, each combat encounter brings something new to the table. Not to mention times that multiple factions show up and you can often just let them take care of each other, doing most of the heavy lifting. The choice is yours.

 

Crawling in My Skin

I haven’t played a stealth game that felt this good since Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. This is complimented by the updated level design and traversal options available to Ellie – there is now a dedicated jump button, forget the lesbian protagonist – this is progressive. The arenas here are much more vertical, with buildings to scale, narrow gaps to slip through unseen and countless ways to take on the same situation. This is also helped by the addition of going prone, as with MGSV, this feels sneaky as heck and it is awesome to crawl around a scouting patrol in the tall grass. This extends to being able to crawl under cars too, there are way more options available this time – Joel was much slower and rigid, this is far more agile.

There are also elements of horror to be found sprinkled throughout the campaign. These are reminiscent of the recent Resident Evil remakes and certainly do crank up the spookometer, perhaps even more so than the first game. The areas that the infected inhabit are dark, damp, disgusting and beg to be explored, as much as you might not want to. The different infected types also have memorable introductions here as you hear them shriek and crow in further rooms, shadowy figures to be exposed by the piercing light of your flashlight.

 

Tools for the Job

Crafting is once again a large part of the experience, though also expanded. There are a few more options available to Ellie, such as explosive arrows for you bow, and my personal favourite – makeshift silencers. The same risk-reward mechanic is also present here, with multiple crafts pulling from the same resource pool, for example, you could craft a Molotov cocktail and be far more dangerous for it, but you would consume the same cloth and alcohol needed to make a medkit if you became injured. Each time you raid a storeroom in TLOU you need to think about the likely enemies that will be in the area, if they’re infected, Molotov cocktails will be more essential than a silencer, but if you’re dealing with human enemies, you may favour the quieter options, it is as engaging now as it was in 2013.

With the increased verticality comes a much more interesting exploration portion of the game. Whereas Joel would just have to open every drawer he could find to restock on supplies, Ellie has much more to contend with. There are puzzles revolving around rope physics, climbing, crawling, safe cracking, it is much more involved. This would just be busy work if the rewards for exploration were just more crafting materials, thankfully this is not the case. There is an abundance of sedatives and screws which are used to upgrade your skills and weapons. These upgrade trees are far more extensive than in the first game and the more plentiful materials means that there is much more room to experiment. With several upgrade trees available, you can tailor Ellie to your playstyle – do you want her to be a sneaky warrior with faster movement and stealth kills, or would you rather the materials be put to better use and craft more with less? This is just another way that TLOU continues to empower you and rewards the exploration of its rich world.

On top of all this, the action is brutal, it is a visceral experience and doesn’t pull any punches. Where it is the gurgling moans of a recently pierced guard or the shrieks of an infected having the release of death, it is graphic and will make even the most iron stomached gamers wince. The amount of times I stated out loud “that was brutal” was numerous. Hopefully you can deal with this, whilst it isn’t always pleasant, it is immersive and adds weight to every dispatch of a grunt, monster, or more disturbingly, dog.

 

More Artsy Stuff

Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, Laura Bailey are note-worthy actors in this story and credit must be given for how they seem to throw themselves into these roles. Even when the writing may dip or story beats get a little entangled within itself, the exceptional performances keep you invested, they keep you hooked.  I needed to see what happened next. Much like the game before it, TLOU continues to raise the bar for production and while the story may not be as concise as the original, it is still leagues ahead of other games attempting a similar style.

The performances given by these actors is also lovingly animated in game through stunning animation work. Hours upon hours poured into nuances such as Ellie’s occasional nostril flares. Rounded shoulders and body language is meticulously recreated through use of motion-capture during cutscenes and this same detail bleeds back into gameplay, as Ellie crawls through mud and grimaces during violent actions. There are instances where enemies will call out the names of their fallen comrades too, it might be easy to clown on these as “trying too hard” or “it is just saying a random name”, it is something that really tries to elevate the immersion and I dug it. Needless to say – the sheer amount of money poured into this title must be staggering.

 

The Sound of Violence

The fantastic acting and fluid animation is only one half of the presentation, visually and audibly the game is typically outstanding. Environments are even more gorgeous than Uncharted 4, no mean feat. The lighting is excellent, I particularly like the use of red lighting in some of these sections, in the infected areas light is a source of comfort and above ground looks welcoming as it pours through a recently broken barricade. Everything looks as good as you can expect from a current-gen console release.

From a sound perspective it once again nails the feel of the world. Heavy rain sounds oppressive, murmurs of nearby patrols atop of Ellie’s breathing are realistic and well realised, it is all superb. I want to say also, I have never felt so intimated and worried to hear whistling, you’ll know when you know. Shout out to the noises that the clickers make also, that is still absolutely hideous, great stuff. The score by Gustavo Santaolalla is back and is as iconic as ever. Each note as haunting as the last, I’m not sure it really qualifies as music. It actually sounds sad, and I think that is the point. I really like it and it jives with the world Naughty Dog have crafted perfectly.

 

What Does it Leave Me With?

The Last of Us Part II is divisive, that much is certain already. Is it a bad game? Absolutely not. If you enjoyed the stealth action-horror gameplay from the first time around, it is still here. This is easily a better version of it. The improved level design, mobility and tools at your disposal make the moment-to-moment action superior to its predecessor. I don’t think that can be argued.

From a visual and production perspective, it is also second-to-none. It looks great, it sounds great, the framerate might drop a little bit when the action gets crazy, but it never dampened the experience (I also don’t have a PS4 Pro, it might not be an issue on there).

Where most people will have an issue with the game is in the story and the pacing. I didn’t hate it nearly as much as other people, in fact, I loved it. Sure, the pacing was a little janky in places, but the story was so compelling it drove me to keep playing. I understand (most) people’s gripes with the game and because the story is such a massive part of TLOU, I get why scores are so wildly different. Regardless of whether you like the direction it takes, I don’t think it can be argued that the world set up in the initial title would continue something like this. Even if it makes you angry, or “triggered” or whatever, I think it is a story worth diving into and it is sure to be discussed for years to come. For better or worse.

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