Naughty Dog’s critically and commercially acclaimed post-apocalyptic action-adventure game, The Last of Us, gets its long-awaited sequel. The Last of Us Part 2 continues the narrative that I, at least, thought was left hanging at the end of the first game.
I’m going to assume that you’ve played The Last of Us, so excuse the spoilers for the seven-year-old game.
The first game ended on a bitter-sweet note that tends to be the stock-and-trade of sci-fi melodrama. Our reluctant hero, Joel, having fought his way across America, protecting his charge, Ellie, finally reaches his destination. He’s grown fond of the young girl, a surrogate for his own daughter killed at the beginning of the viral outbreak that now threatens to destroy humanity.
Ellie, being immune to the virus, could be the cure. Having safely handed the girl off the doctors at the hospital, Joel is informed that Elile will not survive the procedure required to produce the vaccine. Ellie is completely oblivious to this.
Rather than submit Ellie to this fate, and potentially save humanity, Joel shoots his way in, rescues the unconscious Elle and escapes. In the closing moments of the game, Joel tells Ellie that the doctors did some tests and her immunity didn’t mean anything.
Joel saved the girl at the expense of the world, lied about it and got away with it. A weird “happy ending” that just didn’t sit well with me. Where’s the sacrifice? For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. There should have been a narrative trade-off. But there wasn’t.
The Last of Us Part 2 seeks to address this and it may not be to everyone’s liking.
I don’t see The Last of Us Part 2 as a sequel, I see it as, well, part 2. You don’t get to walk away from basically murdering your way out of a hospital full of people that just want to save the world without consequences. I think about this after every playthrough of the original game, which must be about four times. That’s not to say I don’t love the game, I do. But that was never an ending. At some point Elle had to find out what happened. At some point there had to be a sacrifice.
I’d say that Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann, has been thinking along the same lines.
Nothing is for nothing. Although I would have done exactly what Joel did at the end of the first game, that doesn’t make it right. And that doesn’t mean that it should be without consequences.
Whilst I’d say that this review is spoiler-free, Sony would like me to let you know that I do discuss elements of the game that will remove one of the surprises that it has in store for you. It’s not really a plot point, but it could be construed as a spoiler. At no point does this review reveal plot details, just some of the characters and the antagonists. If you want to stop ready now, The Last of Us Part 2 is a worthy successor to the first game, so just go out and buy it.
We re-join Joel and Ellie some four years later in the town of Jackson. Ellie’s relationship with Joel is strained. But when Joel’s past comes back to haunt him, it is Ellie and her friend Dina that go off to Seattle to find Joel’s bother, Tommy.
The Last of Us Part 2 is a tale of revenge. Ellie is older and not the child with the same sense of wonder as in the first game. We do, however, get to see a bit of the younger, more innocent Ellie with Joel acting as her surrogate father, via flashbacks. But, for the most part, this narrative is a lot darker. But hey, it’s a post-apocalyptic setting, so it’s hardly going to be like the Care Bears Movie.
This time, in controlling Ellie, she takes over the visceral, head-smashing, brutal slaying behaviour of the protagonist. Whilst this may have been expected of a protective crusty old Joel, Ellie’s vengeful actions are slightly more unsettling. But only slightly, as this is an action game, and we all walked in knowing that disputes were unlikely to be settled over a nice cup of tea.
Naughty Dog, likely still feeling a bit bad about all those poor people Joel shot up in the first game, would like us to feel sad about all the people that Ellie has to kill. I’d dig this if there was an option to sit down with antagonist and have a chat rather than sneaking up behind them and splitting their heads with an axe, but there isn’t. If you don’t kill them, they will kill you, even if the misunderstanding is mutual. Someone tries to kill you; you try to kill them back. Doesn’t matter if they refer to themselves by name, or have back stories. Boom, there goes Deborah, blown to chunks. Well, perhaps she should have stayed at home.
Naughty Dog’s narrative adventure is at odds with the nature of the gameplay. No attempt at guilt tripping me is going to balance out the fact that you have made a very violent game where people that perhaps shouldn’t have been killed are killed. As well as lots and lots of doggies.
About half way though, Naughty Dog ups the ante and really starts to challenge the player. It’s a brave and interesting move, but one that they must have known would divide the audience. But more on that later.
No one is really innocent in The Last of Us Part 2. All but the final set of antagonists are shown with, somewhat, redeeming qualities- if not as a whole, as individual characters.
At the end of the day, though, it is only Ellie, who was plunged into this world of violence because she got bitten by an infected, and Abby, a former firefly (whose story I’ll leave up to you to discover), who are just victims of circumstance.
I did bloody well in insulating myself from spoilers before playing the game, unfortunately, I was accidentally exposed to the catalyst for the game’s plot. I also became aware of a lot of the outrage towards elements of the game’s plot and characterisation, but avoided the details.
During my playthrough I proceeded with trepidation, expecting Phantom Menace-level disappointment to be lurking around the corner. Disappointment that never came.
That’s not to say, I can’t spot the trigger points.
The politically receptive element of players that the game’s moral and social statements are geared towards at will probably be satisfied. Another element likely reading too much into it all will be triggered/disgusted/outraged etc. The majority will see it as a well-made game, continuing the style of the first and enjoy it for being exactly that, the political statements shruggingly accepted.
Creators’ wearing their politics on their sleeve is not new. For many it’s what they draw upon for inspiration. Done properly, it elevates the work, but it’s a treacherous path that needs to be carefully navigated. Whilst no artist should pander to their audience, respecting your audience is an important part of the process. Go too far and most will switch off and you’ll end up just preaching to the converted, which is only useful if you are trying to form a cult.
Personally, I don’t care much for political correctness or the whole social justice thing. It’s not that I’m dismissing it, it’s just I’ve other things on my mind. For me, I’ve got all that ticked off with common decency and the believe that everybody should be able to do whatever they like as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.
But, I have to hand it to Naughty Dog for the natural way in which they’ve incorporated characters and situations into the game that other, less skillful, storytellers would have clumsily shoe-horned in. I hope others take on board what Neil Druckmann has done with The Last of Us Part 2 so that I can avoid rolling my eyes as I’m beaten around the head by cringy, point-scoring, overly-forced diversity in my entertainment media. Others may see it differently, but that’s my take.
So, yeah, it’s a tale of revenge told from two viewpoints, with an interesting cast of characters- some familiar and some new.
The game plays very similar to the first. VERY SIMILAR. If it wasn’t for the fact that the mechanics were so good in the first game, Naughty Dog would not be getting off so lightly. They’ve done similar with the Uncharted games, so it’s not really that much of a surprise for this game to be more of the same.
For the most part, the game is set among the overgrown ruins of Seattle. With two warring factions, the paramilitary Washington Liberation Front and the cultish Seraphites, as well as the various infected creatures.
Some of the environments are a lot larger than the previous game and, for most levels, there’s more than one route. This really comes in to play in offering players the choice of engaging the enemy of skirting around them. There’s not always a choice, but when there is, it’s often a risk/reward situation.
Successful progress in the game depends on scavenging. Items can be used to fashion medikits, upgrade weapons and unlock abilities, as well as increase your limited stock of ammo. There’s stuff laying around all over the place. But the best gear is often found tucked away after clearing an area of enemies.
There are also a number of safes that contain all sorts of goodies. There’s always a clue to the combination laying around. If you are patient, though, you can crack the safe by listening out for a little click as you hit the right numbers. Safe combinations are often found on noted lying about the levels. These same notes also fill in a lot of the backstory on what happened to Seattle. There are also collectables that all add up to unlock extras such as concept art and character models.
Stealth is the order of the day as opponents are often numerous and can easily overpower your character, even when with an AI companion. Silencers, arrows and sneaky attack from behind generally garner more favourable results than a frontal assault or engaging in a protracted gunfight with human opponents. With infected, carefully picking them off, one-by-one is usually the only way to get out of an encounter alive.
The enemy AI is not bad in that it will flank you and try to get you cornered. You can, however attack and then retreat back to cover in order to proceed under stealth. Bricks and bottles return to distract enemies and can also be thrown at approaching bad guys, catching them off-guard for a swift melee attack.
When things get up-close-and-personal, the game is brutal and bloody gory. Not a game for kids. Events are so violent, the action seems, as I previously mentioned, quite at odds, sometimes, with the plot’s moralistic messaging.
The game gives players enough options with every encounter to make each player’s experience quite different. I played through a few sections a couple of times trying different strategies. A well-placed Molotov cocktail, or a slice of a machete, can turn the tide of a battle in an instant. I had a few moments that played out so well, they couldn’t have been better choreographed.
The game is masterfully paced. Tense action sequences are offset by calmer areas were players can explore and take in the amazing world that Naughty Dog have invited us to play in.
The respites are short-lived as that same beautiful world is fraught with danger. Human antagonists, aside, the infected return and are still as terrifying. The blind clickers need to be attacked with care, whilst the frenzied runners can be taken out by melee attacks after a carefully timed dodge. Stalkers hide having the speed of runners but as deadly as clickers. Then there’s the armoured bloaters and shamblers that offer up even more of a challenge.
As with the first game players take control of more than one character. At the beginning of the game you play as Joel, but for the most part, you play as Ellie. About half way though the game, though, you take control of another character, Abby.
Abby is an ex-firefly and pivotal to the game’s story. Her sub-plot runs parallel to Elle’s. Abby is now a member of the WLF, AKA the Wolves. She has been fighting the Seraphites, colloquially called Scars- due to their tribalist facial scaring.
Instead of the usual slight build you’d expect from a fictional heroine, Abby works out and her muscular frame better suits the harsh world she occupies. The deft use of flashbacks allows us to see a different side to Abby and sympathise with her character. I know not everybody will see it this way, though.
Both Ellie and Abby play about the same. Ellie has a knife ready at all times, whereas Abby needs to craft a shiv, like Joel in the first game. There are also a few different weapons and abilities between them. Both can listen out and “see” enemy locations through walls (except hiding stalkers).
Both characters are driven by revenge, making their actions sometimes a bit different from what I’d like them to do. Nevertheless, Naughty Dog succeeded in making me grow very fond of Abby, somewhat at odds with some of her actions.
The graphics are outstanding. The game looks amazing in 4K HDR. The locations, the details, everything is without fault. They couldn’t have done better with this generation of console. The game has a photo mode which players can use to capture some of their favourite scenes.
The vocal and performance capture performances are superb. Ashley Johnson, as Elle, Shannon Woodward, as Dina, Laura Bailey, as Abby, and Troy Baker, as Joel, do themselves proud.
Again, Gustavo Santaolalla provides the game’s soundtrack. His beautifully emotional guitar music further elevates the game.
The game comes with a variety of customisations for the HUD and in-game prompts. But it’s the accessibility options that really deserve a special mention. Naughty Dog have incorporated some of the most comprehensive accessibility features ever put into a AAA game. The game accommodates the partially sighted with zoom and high-contrast features as well as visual cues for players hard of hearing. This type of inclusion is often overlooked and something I hope becomes the norm, rather than the exception.
Players that finish the game unlock the New Game + mode. You can then restart the game using harder “+” version of the difficulty settings.
Gameplay-wise, The Last of Us Part 2 does not stray from the original. If you liked the gameplay of the first one, you will enjoy playing this one. If you didn’t like The Last of Us, you are not going to like Part 2.
The story takes us further down the dark path that the likes of The Walking Dead TV show does, further exploring the human condition in a post-apocalyptic setting. It exposes the very real truth of how quickly and easily humans can turn on one another in a fight for survival. This grim reality may be too much for players with an overly sunny disposition.
How you find the story very much depends on how you saw Joel’s actions at the end of the first game. If you have an unrelenting believe that Joel was the hero in storming in to rescue Ellie, you may have an issue with the way Part 2 turns out. If you are willing to at least consider the point of view that the Fireflies, in accepting the difficult decision to sacrifice one person to save everyone, where not really the bad guys, you’ll likely fair better with the turn of events.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the developers chose to court controversy with The Last of Us Part 2. I can understand the hurt felt by some regarding the plot. It’s easy, for instance, to not like Abby, but she’s caught up in all this as much as Ellie, and that made for an interesting dilemma for me, as a player, but it was one that I embraced. I would feel exactly as Abby does, just as I would feel exactly as Ellie does in the game. The closing moments of the game proved confronting, but the resolution, for me anyway, was right.
Paraphrasing Tolstoy, there are two stories; a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. In The Last of Us Part 2, the player becomes both.
I played the game with an advanced copy of the game supplied to me by Sony to get a head start. This, however, didn’t stop me from picking up my pre-ordered Collector’s Edition for EB Games! I didn’t rush through the game, and I’ve thought about the experience for a little while before finishing of this review.