At last, the long-awaited sequel from Naughty Dog is here. The Last of Us Part II debuts June 19 for the PlayStation 4, but I’ve played through the game a couple of times for this review. And I am glad to say I am not disappointed with the risks the developer took, even though the game didn’t go where I thought it would go, nor where I wanted it to go.
Early on, the previews gave us clues that a tragic event that would trigger the journey of the second game. There is no question that playing the game is an intense emotional and moving experience. But the story had some twists that I believe will prove controversial and perhaps unpopular among enthusiastic fans.
I’m glad to see some risk-taking. The stakes couldn’t be higher. With more than 100 million PS4s sold, Sony has a chance to sell tens of millions of copies of this game (as of 2018, The Last of Us sold 17 million copies). The original won numerous Game of the Year awards, and it’s my favorite game of all time.
Early on, I detested parts of the story. But Naughty Dog committed itself to this unpopular direction. Despite my initial misgivings, I’m glad they went down this road, because it made me question my sense of right and wrong.
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It’s so eerie to play the game about a post-pandemic zombie apocalypse during a pandemic, with sirens for emergency vehicles going off in the background in real life. If there was a solace, I played this one together with my middle daughter, who was too young to play such a serious game when the first one debuted.
But I was so much happier in the sadness of the world of The Last of Us Part II, and I was so disappointed to snap out of it after each play session and emerge in today’s reality. We have waited for this game for a long time, with multiple delays. But the good thing about those delays is that I did not encounter any showstopper bugs in the game on my PS4 Pro. That is exceedingly rare.
Naughty Dog vice president Neil Druckmann (who directed The Last of Us Part II) and the company’s own trailers have spoiled a lot of the story. But you shouldn’t place stock in everything that they have led you to believe. Part II is not at all what it seems. In fact, Naughty Dog has gone out of its way to mislead us into thinking what the game is about.
What you’ll like
A story told in a compelling way
I’ve already begun to sound like I want to rewrite Naughty Dog’s script. But let’s be clear. I believe that nobody tells better stories than Naughty Dog. This story is told in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards in a timeline. You’ll see the characters get put into an excruciating situation, and then you’ll have to wait, as the story moves back in time to a flashback that will explain how you got into that situation.
This can be very frustrating until you learn the reason for the flashbacks, and that makes the dramatic impact so much bigger. I’d like to say so much more, but that would be spoiling the story.
Flashbacks are an interesting tool for a storyteller because they give you a way to learn something about a character who is dead in its present but still alive in your memory.
The story of the first game came with a bookend ending that resonated for me. I was deeply touched by the story of the teenage girl Ellie and gruff smuggler Joel — two survivors of the zombie apocalypse who spend their days just trying to survive. The graphic violence is horrific, but more often than not, Joel does it in the name of protecting Ellie, and later on it’s Ellie protecting Joel. Fighting the zombies takes skill and stealth, and too often the human enemies are worse.
At the beginning of The Last of Us, Joel loses his teenage daughter at the start of the pandemic. By the end of the game, he had to decide whether to save Ellie or watch his surrogate daughter die. He had to choose how much he was willing to sacrifice for somebody he loved. Joel made the choice of a parent, and it was easier to make that choice even though the fate of the world was at hand. What made his choice easier is that, throughout the entire game, we learned what a shitty place the world had become.
When I finished the first game, I thought about a quote from Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, about the German man who saved Jews during the Holocaust. It says, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” That quote came to mind as I finished the game. Joel saved a life, and he said the world be damned.
And now Joel has to live with that choice in Part II. The sequel is not about love, but hate. It is about what you would sacrifice to take revenge. Can you get justice and closure without sacrificing your soul? The main characters go on a long journey to discover something about themselves. This new game also has its bookend ending, and all I will say about that, for now, is that it involves a guitar.
Amazing graphics affect gameplay
This is one of the prettiest games with it comes to graphics on the PS4. So many graphical marvels appeared in the imagery that I lost count. But these improvements in graphics aren’t just part of the scenery — they affect gameplay.
On a skyscraper in the clouds, the fog gets in your way just as you’re trying to aim at an enemy. The grass blows in the wind, and it gives you a place to hide while you creep up on a foe. You can swim underwater, find key secrets at the bottom, and emerge in a place where the enemy doesn’t expect you.
The story spans seasons and climates, such as the snows of Jackson, Wyoming or the lush jungle-like landscapes of an overgrown Seattle. The cities are authentic, with great attention to detail. You’ll find coffee shops in Seattle, but they’re overrun with vines, moss, and long grass growing out of cracks in the floors and walls.
In Wyoming, Ellie loses track of another character, Dina, in a snowstorm and then finds her again. In that way, the environment plays a role in the gameplay as well as the story.
A diversity of characters with different perspectives
We’re used to video games that give us good guys and bad guys. In the previous game, our main characters were just Ellie, then 14, and Joel, a grizzled old man in his 40s. In Part II, Ellie (played by Ashley Johnson) and Joel (Troy Baker) are four years older. But they’re joined by a big cast of characters in Jackson, Wyoming, like Jesse (Stephen Chang), Dina (Shannon Woodward), Tommy (Jeffrey Pierce), and others — as well as a number of strangers that we meet along the way.
This game goes out of its way to paint two sides to every person and to show them in shades of gray. Ellie and Joel are both brutal killers in the first game, and they remain so in the second game, though they have settled down in Jackson. Now their job is to protect their home from the Infected (as the zombies are called) and human foes outside the walls. Yes, even after a pandemic, more so than today, humanity has to live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by people like Ellie and Joel.
While the first game doesn’t have much by way of supporting characters, the sequel’s cast gives us a contrasting point of view to the people we have come to love. They are different kinds of survivors, and they highlight how people can make some contrasting choices in this gray world.
Significant gameplay improvements
Part II has some huge technological improvements. In close combat and in exploration, Ellie can do so much more thanks to these changes. And it makes the fighting intense, grueling, and raw in a way that, if you can believe it, doesn’t happen in the first game.
She can swing on ropes, climb vertical structures to avoid trouble, navigate boats, ride horses, break glass, and crawl through grass. She faces enemies such as dogs who can trace her footsteps, stealth warriors who can attack with arrows, and large numbers of zombies. Ellie can sprint, dodge attacks, and time her counterattacks. She can use enemies as a shield, and she can get help from her friends. This makes combat far more diverse than in The Last of Us.
And as she does in the first game, Ellie can pit enemies against each other, making zombies attack humans. All of these improvements ratchet up the level of skill.
One character makes a keen observation about how two others are behaving awkwardly when together. It just so happens that one of the characters, who is afraid of heights, is trying to deal with a high crossing. The character replies, “Now?” As in, you have to ask me that now? It’s pretty comic, trust me. And after a particularly difficult level, one of the characters screams, “Fuck Seattle!”
Spatially aware AI enemies
The enemies are particularly tough to beat when they are hunting you in packs. You can take one down with a stealth move, but another might see you. They’re also able to track you in multi-story buildings. This was evident in a skyscraper, a ruined building, and a parking garage. The AI enemies kept changing levels, and so it was harder for me to figure out how to ambush them. This means that you have to think in three dimensions, not two, or you’ll suffer Khan’s fate in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, as Spock and Kirk outwitted him.
Some scenes of post-traumatic stress will surely freak anyone out. It’s another recognition of mental illness in a video game. Naughty Dog splashes some cold water on the idea that heroes are invincible. You can’t mow down people and zombies without being affected by it. It takes its toll and comes back to haunt you, and the storytellers told this part in a realistic way.
One of the things that the storytellers bring back throughout Part II is an acoustic guitar. You can make music from it, strumming the guitar using a game controller (through joystick maneuvering and swiping the touchpad) as part of the gameplay. You’ll find a guitar here and there throughout the game, and you can always pause and play it.
But it’s also a mood-setting device, as somber music will take over and remind you of things that happened during, if you can believe it, happier times in the past.
Moments of beauty
In the original, one of the most beautiful moments is when Ellie and Joel came upon a herd of giraffes walking through a city. They get to experience the pure joy of seeing something totally unexpected and misplaced in the ruins of humanity. It interrupts the relentless sadness and moody tone. The sequel has beautiful moments as well, provided by the natural world that has survived the pandemic.
Sometimes it takes the form of notes found near skeletons, where people who died during the pandemic talk about their final moments and their regrets. Another time, you see a seal swim past an aquarium window or a dog play fetch with a stuffed animal. These are reminders that some kind of humanity or natural beauty persists in a world gone awry.
What you won’t like
Long delays between story points
The Last of Us Part II has a story that is as compelling as they come. But Naughty Dog finds ways to string it out. My run was 40 hours, and not just because I was a bit of a completionist. My daughter finished it in about 35 hours, partly because she’s a better shot than I am.
Flashbacks and character pivots and backtracking: Naughty Dog uses every trick to stretch the story out. I would’ve been happier with a longer story, rather than one that left me hanging for so long. This is excruciating because the cliffhanger is a life-or-death moment, and it brings to mind my old suspicion that game developers are gods and they love to torture us players.
And when these long detours are done, you ask yourself whether they’re necessary. I certainly enjoyed spending an extra number of hours in the world of The Last of Us Part II. But I don’t know if every player will appreciate the plot detours.
Another religious cult
Yep, just like in Days Gone, you encounter a new faction here, and it’s a religious cult. It’s kind of logical that cults form after the apocalypse has destroyed everything of the scientific and corporate worlds. But it is still a bit of a cliché. What I admire about The Last of Us is how it’s pretty free of the clichés of zombie games, even though it’s a zombie game with a great story. When I saw things like the religious cult and the presence of enemies who emitted fart clouds (like in Left 4 Dead), I felt it diminished the uniqueness of Naughty Dog’s game.
Interaction delays, false button pushes
Naughty Dog created a lot of cool animated scenes, like squeezing between cracks in walls. You do that by going up to a crack and pressing X. Then an animation takes over (a quick cinematic that interrupts your gameplay), and your body squeezes between the cracks. But too often, you’ll hit the button at the wrong time.
Sometimes, that means death. This happens over and over because of the latency between when you push a button to start a cool move and when it actually happens. It’s a matter of timing that you have to master, but it is one of the most frustrating things about Part II, and it detracts from the realism. You’ll curse every time this happens, saying, “But I hit the button first!”
Cinematic load times, and empty drawers
I was going to count how many times I opened a drawer in a home and then found nothing there. If you as a game designer or artist are going to the trouble of making a drawer interactive, then you should put something in it. Quite often, I would be motivated to open a drawer before going to take care of a life-threatening issue, like an Infected walking around upstairs. It’s a long game, made longer by these dead ends.
Load times are also quite long, as are the cinematics themselves. In the beginning, it takes a long time before you take control of your character and start making things happen.
In one mission in Seattle, you have to go find some gas. The first major location that you go to with Dina is a place of worship. It’s a beautiful place, and you get to know Dina and her background a bit more. But you don’t find any gas there. You don’t find any Infected either. The mission is a bust. For the player who simply wants to find gas, this is frustrating. For the player who wants to get to know Dina, this is actually an interesting part of the story. It feels like Naughty Dog is testing the patience of players.
You’re always starving for ammo. That’s a good concept for a survival story. But it can be frustrating when you take out a guard and take his gun. Then you find he has just one bullet or no ammo. Why is he serving as a guard if he doesn’t have any ammo?
I can forgive Naughty Dog for the slow load times, as this is an artifact of the PS4’s age. New hardware will solve some of these problems. This makes me want to play all over again on the PlayStation 5, where processing power and fast SSD storage should get rid of a lot of the latency and the loading times.
The improvements that Naughty Dog made in gameplay and graphics showed that they were able to completely overhaul a system that wasn’t all that bad to begin with, and the result was gameplay that kept me entertained even though it was the longest game that Naughty Dog had ever made. As I said, the action in this game is intense, grueling, and raw.
I am very mixed about the story of the game. For someone who fell in love with the characters of The Last of Us, the sequel is a heart-wrenching tale. You might see split reactions among fans like we saw with the ending of HBO’s Game of Thrones. The new characters who come into the story have a symmetry to them. Some are mirror images of each other, and it shows you the different directions that you can take with hatred. I hated parts of the story, but they all made sense in the end.
I said that the original game is the very best of what video games can be on the PlayStation 3. And this game, available on the PlayStation 4 on June 19, also represents the very best of what video games can be. It is right up there with awesome titles like God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 that make narrative storytelling the highest form of video game art, in my humble opinion.
The Last of Us Part II launches on June 19 on the PlayStation 4. Sony sent GamesBeat a PS4 code for the purposes of this review.
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