A History of Violence
The Last of Us: Part II is a brutal story about the cycle violence, pain, and the repercussions of revenge. Naughty Dog’s latest improves on almost every aspect of the original, and will definitely be a polarizing and challenging story for many. It’s worth noting Naughty Dog’s history of crunch culture, and the human cost that was put into the game based on several reports by former developers, animators, and producers made in recent years. Even the gameplay demo released last fall had developers crunching and pushing their limits. Hopefully this exposure to non-developers helps to heal that culture for not just Naughty Dog, but other studios as well. After spending about 32 hours (and almost a month playing in chunks) combing through and often tense and beautiful settings of The Last of Us, I decided to put some words down.
(Note: Spoilers for The Last of Us ahead, minor spoilers for The Last of Us: Part II)
Picking up not long after the events of 2013’s The Last of Us, Part II starts off as a continuation of the events of the first game’s much talked about ending (end even recapping it to an extent), then fast forwards a bit life in Jackson, Wyoming. After a series of events, things pick up in downtown Seattle, where a majority of the game takes place. The environments in The Last of Us Part II are beautifully tragic and meticulously crafted, with each building, broken down store, and abandoned apartment telling their own stories. While some of them rely on the bog-standard trope of a skeleton in a bathroom, or a note left behind for a family member, there’s plenty of visual context to environments that give off an air of mystery to each setting. There’s also plenty of fun Easter eggs for fans of past Naughty Dog games, as well as fans of the Seattle music scene.
Speaking of environments, the settings in Part II feel much more open than past Naughty Dog games, taking some cues from Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy’s more open sandboxes. While it’s not exactly an open world, several locales/hubs are open to explore at your leisure. I spent a majority of my time checking every corner of the environment for collectibles, notes, crafting materials (even when I was full up on some items), and more just so I didn’t miss anything. There’s also several missable conversations and remarks made with the several characters you’ll partner up with along the way. The game continues Naughty Dog’s streak of making gorgeous looking games, taking what they’ve built in earlier games on the PS4 (it looks real nice on a PS4 Pro) and improving on it. Characters look immensely detailed and the animation work continues to be some of the best in the industry. The only issues I ran into personally were some minor clipping issues with some objects, and some minor texture and objects popping in environments even while playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro. Character performances continue to be top notch as well, with Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker returning as Joel and Ellie, as well as several great new characters that were performed fantastically.
Part II makes an array of improvements on the gameplay of the previous game, making it one of the most “fun” stealth-action games I’ve played in recent years. I felt like I was encouraged to use various tactics in each engagement, and not just stick to one during the course of a fight. As someone who has a tendency to hoard resources and bullets, I felt encouraged to peak out of stealth, make some noise, then run away a little more than the previous game. Part II adds several new weapons, craftable traps, and abilities in combat. Some of these include the ability to construct a silencer for a handgun, being able to go prone and crawl (setting up more stealth opportunities like hiding in grass), and the ability to dodge attacks in melee combat. There are several situations where you can go ahead and bypass enemies completely in a situation if you feel outmatched and outgunned. The brutality/immersion of each combat scenario is definitely increased by having several enemies do callouts for one another by name, as well as the performances by those that discover a downed teammate. The accessibility options provided should also noted. Naughty Dog has provide a vast array of options for players to tune the game’s difficulty to their liking, such as modifiers that can change the amount of resources found as well as AI difficulty. There’s also a plethora of accessibility options when its comes to helping disabled players, such as the ability to put the game in a high-contrast mode to better discern enemies for those that might be visually impaired, changing button press types, and text-to-speech options that can let players know their health, ammo, and a lot more.
Along with new abilities and weapons comes new enemies, both human and infected. The main human engagements you’ll run into are the warring WLF (Washington Liberation Front), a private military-like front seeking to bring order to Seattle and the surrounding areas, as well the Serpahites, a cult-like faction of a highly religious nature. Both factions offer different terms of engagement, with several classes of enemy variety. For example, the WLF features several dog handlers, with canines trained to track the player down once they get their scent. On the Seraphite side, their soldiers will call out to one another using a distinct whistle language, and feature larger bruising melee attackers. On the infected side, there are a couple additions to the roster such as the annoyingly gaseous Shambler, as well as new variations of ones from the previous game. There are several fights where Part II did a great job in introducing new mechanics into the fray with these enemies, and maybe a few that were frustrating (one of which I can imagine being nightmarish on harder difficulties).
If there’s one big issue I can take away from Part II, it’s that there’s some minor pacing issues with the way the game plays out both story-wise and gameplay-wise. There were several points where I was itching to get to a location or plot point, but the game started to slow down when I felt like it was ramping up to a big showdown or moving cutscene. There’s also several of the bog-standard “walk-and-talk” sections that were prevalent in last generations shooters, with characters moving slow and talking for an extended time. The game can also feel a bit long in some parts, dragging down the pacing a bit and padding out the game. All told, I spent approximately 32 hours completing Part II, about double the length of the first game. I also spent hours hugging the walls of every environment looking for collectibles, so you can probably cut that run-time to about 25-30 hours. Without spoiling too much, the game does play around with time and perspective in interesting fashions, which some players may find fault with. Character motivations are definitely a talking point to be had, with Ellie being a particular culprit for me personally. Without going into specifics, the extremes she goes through in her motivations can be a bit much considering some plot circumstances. Obviously with the game being out for almost a month, there’s been plenty of discussion about the direction the story goes in, which I may get into another time more in-depth, but I generally appreciated the risks and themes that were associated with the writing decisions that went into the game. Prior to release, director Neil Druckman has said that while the first game is a story about love, Part II “is a story about hate – an intense, harrowing, and emotional adventure.” While there’s plenty of gut punches and brutal moments, I found that The Last of Us: Part II still has a heart.
Final Score: 9/10