NAUGHTY DOG have released the highly anticipated follow-up to their 2013 masterpiece, The Last of Us. And with the game set in a world ravaged by a pandemic that spiralled out of control, the timing could hardly be better.
Fortunately for us, coronavirus doesn’t turn those infected into crazed, flesh-hungry walking zombie-mushroom hybrids who would love nothing more than to snack on your larynx.
It is worth noting now that this review may contain some minor plot spoilers, so, if you know you’ll play the game, you have been warned. You should also play (or watch a play-through of) the first game before playing Part II, as the events from the first installment are critical to the plot of the second.
The first thing anyone who plays this game will notice are the graphics. They are simply gorgeous. Naughty Dog’s attention to detail is absolutely insane, and this is the best looking game you will find on a console to date. The lighting effects are impeccable, whether rays of sunlight are filtering through trees, or the subtle sparkle of snow, it is amazing – especially in HDR.
Character models are also the most lifelike you’ll see in a game, at times even giving Hollywood CGI a run for its money, which is incredible for something running in real-time.
Animations, for the most part, are flawless with motion-capture magic integrated seamlessly into the world. Facial expressions are nuanced and lift immersion to new heights while bringing the characters to life in ways others games just don’t.
Environments are varied, from post-apocalyptic cityscapes and mountain range vistas to claustrophobic underground tunnels, teeming with infectious spores which linger in the glow of a flare. Words can’t do it justice – it has to be seen to be believed at times.
You’ll visit many, many locations throughout the game which are all detailed with texture work that sets a new bar for video game realism. Very rarely will you find a muddy texture in this game, but even the mud itself is truly a sight to behold. That’s not something I thought I would ever say.
The foliage in the game is also fantastic, reacting and moving naturally as the player moves through it, which is often a key aspect of the stealth gameplay as you sneak through the overgrown shrubs.
The stealth in this game is one of the elements which have been improved compared to its predecessor. Human enemies are less predictable than before, and often unexpectedly turn around to clock you when you thought you had them jumped.
Sneaking around, scavenging for supplies as you create makeshift weapons, in case you get caught with little to ammo in between silently taking enemies down, is still just as fun and adrenaline-inducing as it was in the first game.
While enemy AI has been drastically improved, seeing a friendly companion appear to be invisible for all intents and purposes, often coming into the line of sight of an enemy with no repercussions, is jarring at best. Thankfully this issue is nowhere near as prevalent as it was before and only rears its ugly head occasionally.
When you do get caught, the shooting mechanics are rock-solid with guns which don’t shoot like laser beams and hitting your target feels just as challenging and visceral as it should. Enemies react believably to your shots, as does the player-controlled character, and the constant consideration of whether to run at an enemy and try to take them out with an improvised weapon that’s about to break or to use up your last bullet on them and leave yourself desperately scrambling for something else to use makes the combat incredibly satisfying, even if you die. A lot.
Formerly human infected enemies are still terrifying, with just enough jump-scares thrown in to keep things fun without seeming like lazy design. Infected who have been afflicted the longest are increasingly dangerous as they lose their sight and begin to rely on echolocation, making gung ho tactics risky business – particularly with the increasing scarcity of resources in higher difficulties. Although, except for one particular boss-type enemy, it would have been nice to see Naughty Dog include a little more variety here.
There are plenty of wide-open spaces, as well as the cramped corridors, which are teeming with secrets to be found. Whether it be trying to crack a safe using clues from your environment (it has been reported that you can even pick them using sound alone, a technique used by lock pickers, which is yet another example of Naughty Dog’s insane attention to detail) or finding the numerous types of collectables and Easter eggs, exploration is encouraged and rewarded. You can even finish-off a pre-pandemic robbery in a bank found during a semi-open world section of the game.
Unfortunately, despite often involving some of the best rope-physics in a game, the puzzles are uninspired and lacking in challenge. The rolling dumpsters from the first game also return, except now you have to climb them as they roll away from you – hardly groundbreaking stuff.
Playing the game on ‘Survivor’, its hardest difficulty, provided a challenge that never felt unfair, rewarded exploration much more, and in a play-through with around 80% of the hundreds of collectables found, it took around 38 hours. Lower difficulties with some exploration should take around 25-30 hours, which, for a (mostly) linear story-driven game, is great value.
The story itself has been rather divisive among fans. To sum it up: The Last of Us Part II is the Game of Thrones of gaming.
The story begins by totally throwing away plot armour, being characteristically brutal and evoking strong emotion in the player, launching the plot forward throwing turn after twist and keeping you on your toes. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last, and much of the second half of the game has you begging to get back to where you left off.
The game at times feels like two separate entities, as you play as two main characters, weaving backwards and forwards in time. Unfortunately, this weaving is more like someone decided to try and take up crochet for the first time than anything resembling the kind of masterful storytelling we’re used to from Naughty Dog.
There are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, and it would’ve been tiresome if the gameplay itself wasn’t so fun. Sadly though, this leaves you feeling detached from the story itself. I found myself at times wondering if the game was too long, but by the end, it was evident that the problem wasn’t the length, it was the structure of the narrative.
There are many, many flashes of the brilliance that Naughty Dog fans are accustomed to. And by all means, this is a fine story by gaming standards, but in the end, I found myself frustrated because it was evident that there was so much unfulfilled potential.
Bruce Straley, one of the directors of the first game, left the studio shortly after its release, and it’s hard not to feel like the loss of his influence severely hampered the narrative. Neil Druckmann, a director and writer for both instalments, appears to have become self-indulgent with the story, attempting to say far too much and then appearing to run out of time as the end felt rushed and went out with a whimper compared to the fireworks of the first game.
Perhaps it was the inclusion of a seasoned TV writer, Halley Gross, that hampered the process, with the story at times feeling like it would have been better suited to an episodic format than the tight, refined core story you’d find in a good movie like it should have been.
Inclusion, however, is one thing the game does get right, exploring sexuality, gender identity, body diversity, mental health as well as many other issues such as cults, religious fundamentalism and how political extremes on both sides are often just as bad as each other in their justification of atrocity.
But the pitfalls of revenge, and the horrors of a cycle of violence, are what the game is really about and sadly the story just doesn’t live up to its own over-ambition and it never manages to catch up with a promising, gut-wrenching beginning. There was an opportunity here for the characters to become self-aware and for the writing to address ludonarrative dissonance, but the game only ever skims the surface and doesn’t achieve what it thinks it does with the theme of guilt.
Despite this, some really stunning moments in the story do make it worthwhile playing, including an unexpected cover of a classic hit song performed by one of the game’s actors, as well as breathtaking, adrenaline-fueled set pieces. Sadly, the sum of the parts is somehow greater than the whole.
On the topic of acting, the voicing in the game is truly magnificent and in particular, the chemistry of Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson in playing Joel and Ellie respectively is spectacular.
Voices sound natural and the acoustics shift and change within an environment accurately, serving to ramp up immersion. The way rain sounds differently depending on the surface it hits is just another example of Naughty Dog’s immaculate attention to detail. If you have high-end headphones or a surround sound setup, you really are in for a treat.
Gustavo Santaolalla returns with his signature minimalist guitar for the sequel, with each note wonderfully struck to tug at the heart-strings of the player during cut-scenes and more tranquil periods of the game. However, the addition of Mac Quayle – an award winning composer known for his work on American Horror Story and Mr. Robot – has been an inspired choice. His score does an awe-inspiring job of elevating the tension, discomfort and anxiety felt during high-stress segments without distracting the player. If anyone could make the noise of chalk screeching on a board tuneful, it would be Quayle. Bravo.
Audio options to improve this experience further are provided in abundance along with a boatload of various other options to make the game playable by anyone. The sheer accessibility of the game is something to be applauded and something that other studios should take note of. You could probably play the game blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back and a mitten on the other one with all the right settings.
All in all, The Last of Us Part II is a phenomenal game that gets almost everything perfect. Unfortunately though, the story is an ocean-wide, yet puddle-deep tale that may leave a bitter taste in the mouth of fans who expected more. Despite this, it is full of spectacular moments and is well worth the price of admission, even if it doesn’t quite attain the masterpiece status of its predecessor.
Featured image credit: Naughty Dog / Sony Interactive Entertainment