The Last of Us Part 2 – the mega-hyped sequel to one of Sony’s most successful games was recently released on June 19 to overwhelmingly positive critical reviews and sold 4 million copies in its first three days. I mentioned in last week’s blog post that I don’t recall seeing a game that has caused such immense vitriol and hyperbole. I intend to keep this relatively brief as my summary and two cents are nothing more than a drop in the vast ocean of online reviews and opinion pieces, but I wanted to write some of my thoughts on the game as it has made an impact on me. It’s been a week and a half since finishing The Last of Us Part 2 and I’ve had a hard time NOT thinking about everything I experienced in the game. I’m not going to discuss every plot point of the game’s story, but there will be spoilers contained below, consider this the obligatory…
** Spoiler Warning **
It’s been just over seven years since Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us was released for the Playstation 3. The game went on to receive commercial as well as critical success, with many considering it to be among gaming’s all-time greatest releases. I bought the game shortly after release and admit to really enjoying the game after my initial experience, though my estimation of the game began to erode as time went on. I can still appreciate the game, though I don’t necessarily consider it the genre-defining masterpiece that others may. For me, the strength of the game lies in its visuals, sound, and the wonderful performances of its cast, particularly Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson as Joel and Ellie. I recently began another playthrough of The Last of Us on my PS4 prior to the sequel’s release and quickly remembered how rough around the edges the gameplay feels compared to the more polished Uncharted games. I understand the intention to make playing as Joel and Ellie feel different than Nathan Drake to reflect the survival-horror aspect of the game, but that weapon sway and at times, clunky movement haven’t aged quite as well as others. In a post from this past September after the Sony State of Play presentation revealing the (initial)release date for The Last of Us Part 2, I had noted the much darker tone of the trailer and mild feelings of confusion over the intense fan reaction towards seeing Joel at the end of the trailer.
One of the things I was most curious to see about TLOU2 was how Naughty Dog would approach the gameplay, particularly the combat. I’m incredibly satisfied with everything from the overall movement and combat in the game, it feels markedly better than the kinda clumsy feel of the previous one. Naughty Dog has gotten some flack in the past about the ‘hit or miss’ gun play(lame pun) within their games(the annoying weapon sway in The Last of Us or the inconsistencies in each Uncharted installment), but The Last of Us Part 2 is a noticeable improvement. Yes, there’s still a little bit of weapon sway, but it doesn’t feel as jarring as before. The ability to dodge an incoming attack with the L1 button is an improvement and assists in a better combat flow. The combat animations are as smooth as ever as Ellie can take out multiple guards, grabbing one as a human shield before turning around to shoot an incoming clicker, then jumping out the nearby window and assassinating an unsuspecting enemy mid-air à la Assassin’s Creed. My only real issue with the combat in game is moments where you will attempt to melee attack an enemy but are just out of reach causing your swing-and-miss to leave your back turned towards an enemy.
Another nice gameplay addition is the ability to go prone and crawl underneath obstacles like vehicles or broken structures; stealthily progressing through an area is a lot easier when you can crawl through the long grass for cover. As demonstrated in pre-release trailers for the game, you can now aim and shoot an enemy while lying on your back.
The amount of puzzles requiring you to find a dumpster or wooden plank has been drastically decreased as well, which is another welcome improvement as I had forgotten until recently playing the first game how frequently you had to stop and look around for a ladder or plank to cross a gap. In addition, Ellie has learned how to swim, so there’s no need for floating pallets this time around…
The Last of Us Part 2 is quite simply, a technical marvel on the PS4. The visuals may be the best I have seen on my base-model Playstation 4, very much like the way the first game pushed the PS3 to its limits in terms of graphics. I fully buy into the hyperbole regarding how damn gorgeous the game is and love the exquisite lighting and environments. The attention to detail displayed by the team at Naughty Dog is unbelievable, from Jackson’s snowy, rustic vibes, to the expanse of downtown Seattle overtaken by nature, post-outbreak. Later sections of the game are set in dark forests surrounding the city, illuminated only by a few scattered torches and the faint glow of the moonlight. I spent a significant amount of time in photo mode throughout the game and have included a few of my favorites below…
As with the previous game, the performances of the cast are stellar. Ashley Johnson gives Ellie an even greater range of emotions going from introspective calm to adolescent joy to being entirely consumed by rage as we follow her through hell and back. Troy Baker is predictably impressive in his performance as Joel, exhibiting the quiet demeanor of a man whose actions at the Firefly hospital may have kept Ellie in his life, but understands even the things we do out of love can have negative consequences. And then there’s Abby, played by Laura Bailey, whose wonderful performance in the game breathes humanity into a character that you will very likely despise at times.
Another area showcasing Naughty Dog’s attention to detail is the game’s sound. From the sound of tree branches as you brush past to a plate of glass shattering, the game is definitely worth playing while wearing headphones. The sound design of the infected enemies like clickers or shamblers(new enemy type) make encounters even more tense. I’ve always felt that a vastly under-appreciated area of any game(or movie) is the work of foley artists in creating all the sensory audio that is taken for granted far too easily. Discussing the audio of The Last of Us Part 2 wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Gustavo Santaolalla’s brilliant soundtrack. I love the rustic, minimalist instrumentation and argue it would be hard for the game(s) to have the same emotional impact without it.
The Last of Us Part 2 deals with a range of topics, such as anger, grief, trauma, obsession, love and forgiveness, so I don’t feel it completely accurate to label the game as simply a revenge story. Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way – Joel is killed within the first two hours of the game by Abby. We then spend the next ten or so hours playing as Ellie, hellbent on finding Abby and exacting her revenge over the course of three days in Seattle. In what seems like it would be the climax of the game taking place in an old, abandoned theater, the screen fades to black…
In the OTHER controversial moment of the game, we are then given control of Abby as we follow her over the course of the same three days. We learn in a brief flashback that Abby’s father was the doctor in charge of creating a vaccine from Ellie’s immunity, who is then murdered by Joel in the final scenes of the first game. Abby has accomplished the only thing she has wanted in the past four years – to avenge the death of her father – something that has taken over her life, and now must attempt to move forward with her life. Playing as Abby is simply the other side of the picture, we see throughout her three days the cost of her pursuit of Joel and its aftermath. All while this is happening we are given constant alerts of attacks on other members of her militia group by members of a traditionalist cult, The Seraphites. As Abby’s section of the game nears its conclusion, we arrive at the theater looking to confront the person responsible for the brutal murder of her friends. At this point we already know it’s Ellie, but what I found interesting is the feeling of tension and dread despite knowing the ‘other side’. In a shocking move, we must fight Ellie as Abby, pursuing her backstage in the abandoned theater. Every skill that you have acquired as Ellie in previous parts of the game, is flipped against you as you are now on the receiving end of her bow, trap mines, and switchblade knife.
The non-linear way the story unfolds may not be for everyone, but I feel the biggest impact can be felt through the use of flashbacks. A memorable moment from the game was a flashback in which we control Ellie as Joel surprises her with a trip to the Wyoming Museum of Science and History. It’s not seeing the two of them harmoniously taking in the dinosaur and space exhibits that makes the scene so resonant for me, but in the underlying tension that is covered up, even if it’s for just a moment. Nearing the end of the flashback we see Joel and Ellie stop to view a Firefly emblem painted on a wall with ‘LIARS’ scrawled across. A brief moment of pleasantness before the heavy reality of the world in which they exist fades it away…
I legitimately had a lot of fun playing The Last of Us 2, despite the absurd insistence by other articles and reviews leading up to the game’s release that there’s not much fun to be had while playing the game. It’s a dark, brutal game, but I absolutely enjoyed it. There are definitely parts of the game that cause feelings of apprehension as we witness characters doing reprehensible things. The game aspires to show the toll our desires can take on a person as we see Ellie and Abby begin to rot away from within as anger and the desire for revenge become an unquenchable thirst that ultimately leaves us empty inside. The Last of Us Part 2 can be opressively bleak, but there’s also just that shimmer of light that comes through. It gives a feeling I can never articulate precisely, something similar to the haunting doom of bands like Opeth or Alice In Chains – whose bittersweet darkness pairs eerily well with the gloomy Seattle depicted in the game.
I don’t believe the game is flawless or above any sort of criticism. I thought the pacing could have been improved a little bit, or perhaps trimmed a little more from the game as it started to feel like it was running a little too long at times. Even with a few areas here and there that I felt weren’t executed as well as they could have, I don’t feel these few examples take away much from the experience in The Last of Us Part 2. I personally enjoyed playing as Abby, preferring her aresenal of weapons as a trained soldier to Ellie’s guerilla combat approach. I also really like the symmetrical approach to the story and began to think of it as essentially a double album, Side 1 – Ellie, Side 2 – Abby – with a prologue and epilogue very much in the way of Red Dead Redemption 2. We notice the parallels between Ellie and Abby; two people on the same path blinded in their pursuit and unable to understand the cost of their respective obsessions. We see as Abby being slightly further in the process than Ellie as we see Abby at her darkest moment early in the story, where Ellie’s descent takes place before our eyes. It’s a game meant to challenge our perspective on things as, far too often, we are the protagonist in our own minds and 100% sure we’re in the right; that the other side brought it on themselves or “had it coming”. I find it strange as I see the response of many gamers to TLOU2 as it very much continues what the first game started as it prompts us to discuss such things as perspective and the actions, good AND bad that we do out of love. Do we identify the protagonist purely by virtue of being the character we identify more strongly with? Is the “good guy” in the game simply the person on a given side of the camera?
The Last of Us Part 2 as a game, ironic or not, feels similar to the characters it depicts – a complex combination of things, for better and worse. A character study of what happens when we are overtaken by our emotions and quite often, never see the full perspective or light of reason until the damage has been done. I appreciate the bold, if not forecful way The Last of Us Part 2 delivers its story, though it can feel hindered by its own obsessions at times(much like Ellie and Abby), in the heavy-handed way it demonstrates the darker side of our humanity. There’s not much in the game that hasn’t been represented in games before, but there’s still something powerful about its presentation and its encouragement of perspective. I don’t feel it quite pulls off everything it seeks to, but nevertheless manages to make a lasting impression that I don’t believe I’ve felt from a video game for some time.