In a horrific turn of events, the peaceful and idyllic life Ellie thought she had gets ripped out from underneath her, plunging her into a deep sadness and longing for revenge. The Last of Us Part II is an extremely well-crafted and immensely satisfying adventure through hostile, post-pandemic Seattle, in one of the greatest revenge stories ever created. With intertwining storylines and a much more fertile and densely populated environment to explore, this sequel packs in as much emotion as it does sheer brutality. Naughty Dog has followed up with an ambitious rendition of what humans are capable of when they are driven to the absolute edge. Remarkably so, the game has been touted with numerous perfect scores already; however, it is incredibly well-deserving, but not without its flaws.
Acclaimed as one of the most anticipated games of the year, The Last of Us Part II has been expected pretty much as soon as the first game ended on that cliff-hanger, and we were so invested in the future of both Ellie and Joel, and what would come of their relationship if the truth about the Fireflies and the lengths Joel went to stop them, ever came out. Even with delays due to our own world practically falling apart, there’s no doubt the hype-train for this title was at maximum speed for quite some time.
As big-time reviewers got their copies early and were dropping 10’s and near-perfect scores, we in the peanut gallery were basically frothing at the mouth to even get our hands on the game. With this title being out for just over a week now, it’s evident that the public has been incredibly vocal about the game, resorting to just plain unnecessary “review bombing” for overt LGBTQI representation (I mean what the hell is this society coming to?!); also furious about the writing and handling of lead characters.
With all that being said, and spending well over 30 hours playing the game, there’s a lot of satisfyingly new elements to this, and Naughty Dog really have tried to set this sequel apart from its predecessor in terms of storytelling and engagement, combat – and most of all – level design. For some, this may be overwhelming, and having been so comfortable playing as Joel and/or Ellie in the previous title, it is understandable that things needed to change and advance in order for this new game to set itself apart (I’m looking at you FIFA).
Emotion and heartache have been synonymous with The Last of Us, and on show here is nothing shy of that. Driving up the brutality and mirroring it with genuine depictions of love and admiration, you get hooked on the new personalities that appear in not only Jackson County but from all over the vast new landscape. In a rollercoaster of brilliant and sometimes awkward and jagged storytelling, there’s a lot to experience and many times that’ll have you audibly gasping or holding your breath in anticipation.
A World to Behold
Just first off, I mean the environments looks and feels extraordinary. Even when the world’s gone to total shit, there are pockets of natural beauty, from the snow-capped mountains looming beyond Jackson to the lush and vibrant regrowth engulfing the decrepit streets of the now-explorable downtown Seattle. Even underground and inside buildings where light is scarce and Infected roam the hallways, the precise detailing and textures really pop. When light filters through a crack in a window or the sun setting off in the distance, visually, the game runs tremendously well.
Sound design is pretty much on point too, and with such little signs of life – even wild animals are in short supply – there is this pristine clearness, and the sound of nothing haunts your ears. Also just hearing rain hitting different surfaces like tarpaulins, or water bouncing off leaves and resting in puddles is a sensorial pleasure.
The deep crack of gunfire is nothing compared to being on the receiving end of an arrow to the torso; you can just feel the almighty thud as it pierces your skin, and as you reel in agony, you’re forced to rip it out of your shoulder. The weapons sound and feel so very satisfying, but silent takedowns, bludgeoning a foe to death with a lead pipe, and hearing limbs get blown off with an exploding pipe bomb are where the most satisfying sound effects come through.
As for the Infected, they are ever-so ominous; always crying out or clicking right beside you, and with the addition of some new variants, their gurgling noises and deep thumping of footsteps send shivers down your spine. But what’s most aesthetically pleasing is the advancement in character modelling and motion capture. With this, given the first game was made nearly 10 years ago, it’s an understatement that Joel, Ellie, Tommy, heck, everyone looks so much more life-like.
Actions Have Consequences
I really don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, but I feel like most people understand the basic premise behind it; you play as Ellie this time around, and it follows her and the many complicated circumstances that put her on the road to revenge. But what Naughty Dog has done here, which kind of make things a little bit more complicated, is throw in another variable – a new playable character – that provides even more context to Ellie’s bloodlust.
As the story opens, there’s an excellent little refresher on what happened at the St Mary’s Hospital in Salt Lake City when Joel went on his murderous rampage, rescuing Ellie from giving her life away to manufacture a cure. With the new graphical overhaul, it was so nice to see Joel young-ish again, and Ellie still that little ratbag we grew to love. And it was this pivotal ending – that silent drive back to Jackson County and Joel’s terrible lie – that set up this almost unnecessary, but quite welcomed sequel.
So, you play as Ellie now. All grown up; a teenager – 19, I believe – and incredibly mature, given everything she’s been through. She has her own little shack in the vibrant Jackson community (the one Tommy and his Maria operate), and the settlement is so beautiful. I mean it’s absolutely thriving with the hustle and bustle of happy locals, and hundreds of people just going about their business.
Everything seems so harmless and safe, and you are lured into this really comfortable sense of security. The only thing you’re ever really worrying about is what’s for dinner, who’s dating/flirting with who and even just going out on mandatory patrol missions to clear Infected is such a secondary thought.
Let’s just say that one thing leads to another and Ellie is thrown into turmoil over some very disturbing events, and leaves Jackson to pursue her own quest – more a vendetta of sorts – that takes her and the very affectionate Dina to Seattle. While I could go and outline pretty much the whole storyline for you, you’d have no surprises, and nothing would hit quite as hard when you experience it in-game, but essentially, the central theme here is revenge! It rivals that of Kill Bill and even John Wick, and it’s the journey in between that is such a moving, violent and tragic ordeal.
Ellie and Dina explore the crumbling city, and you look on in awe as nature has taken over in the absence of human existence, and amongst the remnants of a turf war within the city’s quarantine zone, you’re able to explore abandoned hotels, stumble in on grizzly scenes at a television station and run into a barbaric and primitive new cult-like faction.
Now, it’s in a shocking move by the developers – but one that I feel adds so much more detail and overall character to the game – is that you end up adopting the storyline of a new protagonist, and are reverted to playing out the same timeline as with Ellie – but instead experiencing very different events as Abby.
These two women have vast differences in terms of personalities, gameplay and motivations, but as the story progresses, you see that they are so much more alike than first thought. I want to dance around a lot of the most important parts because it’s better for you to experience them as they happen, but holy shit, say what you want about various YouTuber’s hating the direction the storyline took, it’s the many pieces that you experience that all fall perfectly into the puzzle (recall that movie Vantage Point).
The game plays out very much like a high-end film and doesn’t shy away from contentious issues like cold-blooded murder… actually, just blatant murder in general. It’s fucking brutal at times, and you’ll catch yourself literally forgetting to breath when the climactic set-pieces unfold right in front of you. You may feel some tears start to well up when characters get intimate, or some perish, but what’s been showcased in this game is a heartfelt, emotionally driven and chaotic rendition of the lengths people will go in order to fulfil their own deepest, darkest desires.
The Vast Expanse
There is so much that has been improved on and also added into this second game, which breathes new life into old tactics, offers up so much more room for exploration, unique gameplay mechanics and the way you navigate the world feels considerably different.
First of all, the environments are huge. I’m taking multiple laneways and sometimes overwhelming variations of how you can approach combat and exploration. By funnelling you through the minor and major set-pieces, on occasion, you’ll arrive in these very open, almost sandbox-like areas and you’re pretty much free to roam around, doing almost optional exploration and engaging in combat only if you really want to. That does sound like the majority of the first game, but it is just so much more extensive/open, multi-storied, and at first, I really didn’t like it; simply because you don’t want to miss anything or fail to acquire collectables.
This new game really amps up the scale and versatility of any encounters you come across. I mean the areas are much wider, more densely populated with vegetation, and the typical laneways and sightlines that go left, right and down the middle now have additional laneways, expanding like twigs on a tree, or synapses in the brain.
With all this extra space, births more difficulty in keeping your distance from enemies and trying to sneak around them without exposing yourself and/or getting shot in the back. But, mind you, these vast areas are super gorgeous. An overgrown motel area and the backlot of a small built-up district has you out in the streets navigating past enemy patrols, and it’s fun making a lot of noise and using the Infected to your advantage.
Most of these environments actually felt more exclusive to Ellie and thus suited her stealthier and guerrilla-like playstyle (which I’ll cover later). Even though you get big chunks to explore and interact with companions, Abby’s more gung-ho and close-quarters nature also offered up, what I thought, were more compact environments; they were still exponentially larger than expected though
Recognising familiar landmarks, Abby goes through a different part of Seattle’s backstreets, like abandoned railway yards, lush forests with trees and the silent undergrowth swaying in the breeze, getting caught up deep within the bowels of a heavily infected hospital, and even one of the most spectacular places, the aquarium, in all it’s refurbished glory.
In saying all this, you can now jump from platform to platform and put more distance between you and your foes by making the leap across rooftops or to get into a better position. Long grass and ferns can be crawled in; staying close to the ground gives you a much-needed advantage to wait for patrols to pass and pop up and shoot them in the face. Additionally, almost all glass is breakable, and again, can be utilised for quick rotations – but bear in mind, the sound will attract attention.
Progression has had an interesting overhaul, and scattered throughout the world are of course the same supplements from the first game, but multiple training manuals are now collected that open up new skill trees which progress in ascending order (the next perk only available if the preceding one is owned). Depending on your protagonist, these attributes differ and range from things like crafting, stealth, close-quarters, weaponry and gadgets. I feel like this was a bizarre way to progress, with some skills obviously more effective than others, and some of these were locked away behind less admirable ones. Annoyingly, I found myself simply buying those useless perks because I wanted the next one that improved Listen Mode distance or reduced weapon sway, for example
My favourite new feature is that of the weapon bench. The upgrading system here is so much more advanced and more detailed in how the upgrades work, and what you’re really doing to your guns to make them more efficient; adding a compensator to your pistol to reduce recoil, or modifying your rifle trigger for an alternate firing mode. You actually get to watch this animation as your character takes the weapon apart, cleaning it or screwing stuff in, and I guess it’s just the little things that are so damn pleasurable.
Now if you can get past the overwhelming scale of it all, the downtime you spend exploring – searching for crafting materials, scrap, ammo, collectables, opening safes and finding notes that add to the lore of the environmental – to its credit, the game really does feels a lot more fluid, and combat is that much more challenging. Seattle is a beauty to behold, but underneath it all, there’s a dark and violent aura that juxtaposes every inch of the imploding city.
Brute Force Required
As mentioned above, you control the two main characters with Ellie, your more nimble, silent assassin that utilises the large environments to her advantage, Abby has so many similarities, but the differences are also incredibly noticeable. Sporting gigantic triceps and absolutely boulder shoulders, Abby is a soldier at heart and a ruthless killer that pretty much crushes people’s windpipes with her arms and punches Infected to death.
You typically stumble into combat when you pass over an object, through a door or window, or drop from a ledge, and sometimes quick-time events can have you hustling to get out of a tight situation and onto more pressing matters at hand. But if you’re familiar with how the first game played, the combat mechanics aren’t too much different, and sneaking around, picking targets off one by one will feel like second nature here.
When fighting Infected, they’re not too difficult to dispatch, but when you slip up and rouse a Clicker or turn the wrong corner right into a Runner, it can be a mad dash to fall back, probably equip a shotgun, and spin around and blow their fucking heads off – which is so god damn satisfying!
Sneaking around and distracting these awful creatures with bottles and bricks can take time and effort; having to re-position and try not to attract too much attention. A welcomed new feature is the ability to craft a limited-use silencer which, if you’re not confident moving around the large environments, is a much-applauded new addition to your arsenal.
On top of the usual Infected, Bloaters make an appearance here, and with all the new graphical enhancements, these guys are a lot more threatening, and their armour seems so much tougher to break off. You can use a new dodge mechanic, which is reminiscent of the Dark Souls dodging method, and this helps with avoiding the flailing arms of Stalkers, following up with a knife strike or just a punch to the face.
Most notably though is the new Infected type, the Shambler, who in all its grotesque glory is like a walking fungal infestation, and as they get closer to you, they deposit this kind of lingering acid cloud, and my god does it sting. When you’ve got one of these things shuffling its way toward you, a Clicker to your left and a Runner already up in your face, this is when combat is at its best; making your feel claustrophobic, filling you with immediate panic as you’re running out of ammo, struggling to work out what the hell to do next.
Out in the open mind you, there is a myriad of possibilities as to how you engage human enemies, and while yes, sneaking around and distracting them works reasonably well – using flanking routes, climbing to higher ground or crawling through long grass – I found that combat, again, was most exhilarating and at its best when you’re falling back and luring the enemy into a more controlled space.
This is very true for Ellie’s gameplay, and by putting down proximity mines in the predictive paths of soldiers, you can funnel them in and really stay back and sulk in a corner. Obviously, you don’t have to play this way. The beauty about it is that it’s entirely up to you how you approach these situations, but it’s Abby who is the more aggressive type and goes loud a lot more – using pipe bombs, incendiary shotgun shells or an incredibly satisfying semi-auto rifle.
As the game opens up and you switch between these characters, you see that enemies aren’t just mindless AI marching to orders, but incredibly driven individuals who are fighting for a cause. With the two unique rival factions fighting a war of attrition in Seattle, Ellie bears the full grunt of both these outfits – the WLF and the Scars – and they both present with very different combat styles. The WLF use guns and doggos to flush you out, while the Scars are silent hunters and incredibly ruthless barbarians.
Abby has been indoctrinated to hate the Scars, and thus shows them no mercy, dodging arrows and the occasional blockbuster-wielding “big bertha” (think Miss Trunchbull from Matilda). But what really stands out when it comes to combat is how emotional the enemies are, and in an attempt to make them seem more human, they seemingly have their own unique personalities.
When you corner a foe and silently slit their throat and stab them in the guts, it’s the others around them that come alive, whispering their name, like “Charlette” or “Derick”, and desperately try and locate their now-deceased friend. If you’re picking off enemies with your crossbow, the Scars desperately whistle to their friends trying to get a response, and it can be quite confronting at times as you realise you just put an arrow through “Lilly’s” eyeball.
Overall, I mean the game plays exceptionally well; the guns all feel so powerful and lining up a ranged shot with a bow and compensating for the drop is satisfying, to say the least. I found I was very frustrated in the beginning and felt like such a noob when my stealthy approach was compromised, and I desperately rushed around trying to put some distance between the enemy and myself – only to do the exact same thing all over again.
At times, combat is really tense, and you can easily forget to breathe in some high-octane scenarios. It is an overall improvement on the already impressive combat systems from the first game, and some really worthy new mechanics that you’ll find out along the way. Instead of retreating with your tail between your legs, you need to fight the enemy head-on and adopt the new face-to-face combat and believe in your weapon systems.
A Monumental Journey
As the screen fades to black once more and the credits begin to roll, you’ll either feel deeply satisfied or slightly confused and frustrated. Mine was the latter, and I felt a variety of different emotions when I exhaled and took time to reflect on everything that happened; nonetheless, I am genuinely thankful for the journey this game provided.
While I think this outcome will be very different for a lot of people – this so evident with one simple Google search and observing the high numbers of public outcry and dissatisfaction for how the story unfolded and how some main events were handled. But this is just how people are, you can’t please everyone, and until you actually experience this game for yourself, there is no proper way to describe it.
In my opinion, the storyline was a little complicated with all the jumping around between protagonists and shifts in time, but as you spend more hours in the shoes of these complex characters, taking in their emotions, learning their motivations and really growing with them, everything that happens kind of just clicks.
The most prominent and underlying theme of revenge is always popping up, but as you move along, I mean everything seems justified. If nature had been left to run its course – back as far as the first game – things would be so very different, and I think Neil Druckman and his team should be really happy with this sequel.
No storyline is ever complete without decent gameplay, and while this title doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it does adds some really cool new features like that of the apparent disparity between character traits and handling, larger locations that offer up advanced fighting tactics, and really touch-and-go moments where you feel panicked and at a loss.
The sheer violence – and I mean the absolute brutality of it all – is 100% required in this game! It’s a fucking hellhole in this world, and the shock factor is again justified, because, let’s be honest, it’s either you or them. Along with the crude resources and weaponry on offer here, it may sound sadistic, but smashing a fireman’s axe into the ribs of a WLF soldier, or blowing an Infected’s legs, arms and head off when they’re already dead on the floor just feels so bloody satisfying.
The game is as ruthless as it is emotional, and even though it did drag on a little toward the end and could easily have been concluded much earlier – this coupled with some critically questionable storyline decisions – the actual storytelling and motion picture that plays out really tugs at your heartstrings.
I don’t agree that this is an absolutely flawless game, and the 10/10 reviews from many of those top-tier reviewing agencies are not entirely reliable – I mean come on, they get paid to boost video games. Overall, I came to really appreciate Ellie’s quest, even though Abby’s storyline was a bit so-so, and the ending was a whole lotta what the fuck, it is definitely a must-play for any fan of the previous title and much like putting fries in your burger, you really need to try it for yourself before you can slag it off.
Cover image credit to: https://www.powerpyx.com/the-last-of-us-2-wiki-strategy-guide/
Copyright © Will Boddy 2020