The Last of Us Part 2 is one of the best games ever made. It’s clear from the very first frame that director Neil Druckmann and all of the Naughty Dog developers poured their blood, sweat, and tears into the sequel in the hopes of delivering something truly unique. In a word, The Last of Us 2 is exhausting – an affecting, emotional epic that explores challenging themes through a host of impressive design elements and whose performances are second to none.
So much of what makes The Last of Us 2 an achievement has to do with its design. Visually, Naughty Dog is operating on a level that few can match. Its version of the post-apocalyptic Northwest takes a lot of those smaller elements seen in the first game like rundown suburbs, overgrown streets, ramshackle communities, and blows them out to staggering levels. The sheer scale of the world in The Last of Us 2 is unexpected and worth spending dozens of hours exploring.
Seattle after a viral outbreak should call up some very specific imagery for gamers – of dense overgrowth and vibrant forests mixed with a dilapidated city. But the locales on display in the game go well beyond the familiar tropes of the first game. Where Uncharted tried to save its most impressive moments for the treasure rooms and the hidden temples, The Last of Us 2 packs them so densely it’s almost overwhelming. Every new area is a sight to behold, rendered with stunning detail and boasting a hand-crafted feel.
Even the way that Naughty Dog uses its collectibles or set dressings shows how talented the studio is. Every environment has a story to tell and each collectible helps flesh out the circumstances surrounding Seattle post-outbreak. In a game where progress is terrifying because of the threats around, the game has a genuine propulsion to it thanks to the level design. Players want to see what new surprises are in store and the game never disappoints.
One thing that Naughty Dog has always been able to excel at is giving players the feel of an immense journey. They see a location off in the distance marked as the “goal” and then they start on their way. But then the game will pull them in different directions, take them through unexpected detours, and even slip in a few quiet moments to take in the beauty of the world, and before too long the destination doesn’t seem that far away anymore. What could have easily been a simple trek from point A to point B becomes a story in itself, told using painstakingly detailed environments that are always worth taking a second to appreciate.
What Naughty Dog is able to do with the PS4 suggests that maybe the current-gen console has not yet run its course. However, the environments are only one part of the game that proves Naughty Dog are technical wizards. The performance capture work and the animation in The Last of Us 2 is among the best the industry has ever seen. Naughty Dog is able to accurately capture the subtlest of facial movements and account for a ton of different movements that give each character a deeper realism. There are so many moments in the game that could have easily fell flat if the performance capture wasn’t as impeccable as it is. Even if it is only in a quick glance or a slight nose wrinkle, it’s easy to pick up on each character’s emotions.
Of course, the animation and motion capture only works because of the performances, which are unparalleled. Ashley Johnson delivers exceptional work as Ellie, taking her from a somewhat naïve young girl to a strong determined woman. She carries the game in so many ways it’s hard to list them all, but her ability to imbue Ellie with humanity, vulnerability, and anger all in one scene is enough to show her immense talent. Equally impressive is the work of Laura Bailey as Abby. Her role in the game has been kept mostly secret, but Bailey has to do a lot of heavy lifting, arguably more than Johnson. Together the two turn in performances that stand out not just amongst video games but in all creative mediums.
But the main roles are only so strong because the supporting roles are equally well cast. Regardless of if they are recognizable faces/voices, The Last of Us Part 2’s cast buys into Naughty Dog’s vision. At times many of the cast members need to be upbeat and fun and an hour later they are participating in some of the darkest material ever seen in a video game. It’s that balance between different emotions and tones that helps make The Last of Us 2 unique and the cast’s ability to nail each of those elements furthers the realism of it all.
Part in parcel with the performances is the story of The Last of Us 2. Comparisons and similarities are thrown out the window when talking about Naughty Dog’s latest due in large part to the themes it explores and the narratives it weaves together. It truly is a one of a kind experience that only works because of the interactive medium. At times the game feels dark and hopeless and forces the player to confront their own beliefs about how people should act in a post-apocalyptic setting. And then it can be light and even humorous, cutting through an otherwise bleak circumstance to remind players that these are still human beings. The story never tries to paint any one character as being morally superior and it rarely tries to justify one person’s actions. It’s up to the player to decide how they feel about each beat and usually that requires some serious inward reflection.
The game’s story forces players to confront situations and ideas that they aren’t going to like, but the writers put so much effort into justifying every one of its choices. Top to bottom, the morally grey of it all contextualizes the world of The Last of Us 2 as one where the term villain is only a matter of perspective. The story also suggests that redemption can come in many different forms and not everyone gets their shining moment.
In the first game, there was a lot of emphasis put on the idea that humans are the real enemy in a zombie outbreak. Joel and Ellie encounter plenty of Runners, Clickers, and the like, but the real danger always stems from those with a choice. The Last of Us 2 makes things even less cut and dry. There are moments of joy and levity that cut through the bleakness, but this is a very dark and violent game. At one point a character remarks that, “Loss is around every corner,” and though it fit the moment it also felt like a commentary on the game.
Of course, in the interest of being purposefully vague, it’s hard to cite specific examples as to why the game’s writing and direction are so sophisticated. Bold choices abound in the game and it’s rare that any form of interactive media can make the player experience so many complex emotions. Most video games are about propelling events forward towards a natural conclusion but The Last of Us Part 2 pushes the player forward even though they may have reservations about the destination.
At first, things may seem cut and dry but Naughty Dog starts to layer narratives and motivations on top of each other that it becomes almost hard to find a clear direction. No answer feels right and every outcome has its negatives. The emotions that the story can make you feel and the ideas it asks player to contemplate are so complex and mature that it mirrors the events of the game itself.
If the game’s design is beautiful and its story is ugly then the gameplay is an unexpected amalgamation of the two. Once again stealth is the focus, but players can choose to approach each encounter as they want. However, the more attention they draw to themselves, the harder it becomes to progress. There are a lot of new tools to assist with either distracting or eliminating targets in players’ paths and combining them is one of the game’s real joys.
There are so many tools at the player’s disposal and every one has its pros and cons. The usual bricks, shivs, and basic weapons make a return, and are supported by a familiar but streamlined crafting system. Naughty Dog seems to make a conscious effort not to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the combat and the gameplay mechanics, but to bolster them with smart changes that support each different playstyles.
Where the first game felt a little more defined and slightly oppressive in its choices, The Last of Us 2 is almost overwhelmingly free. The character upgrade paths in the game help players determine their playstyle and can favor categories like stealth, explosives, or crafting. It’s still a bit linear in that one category’s upgrades progress from one to the other, but there are still a lot of options and choices to make. Weapons also have their separate upgrade options, which can do things like increase capacity or reduce recoil. Melee has also been refined to feel more than just a last ditch effort. Through the use of a dodge and giving Ellie more agile movement, players can approach some encounters knowing that they can fight their way out.
The level design also offers up so many different pathways and options that each encounter becomes its own mini sandbox. Some situations might be easier to use a weapon to methodically eliminate a few enemies, while another makes silently slipping past everyone feel like the smarter route. It really depends on the encounter and the enemy type.
AI has been completely overhauled for both the humans and the Infected, which keeps each encounter feeling fresh. New Infected enemy types like the Shambler mix up the challenge but Naughty Dog still tends to lean on the hierarchy established from the first game. Admittedly, the Infected in the first game didn’t always “work” in the encounters but they feel more fair in Part 2. Clickers are still unbelievably menacing and some of the most threatening enemies in a video game, but they are also more manageable threats this time around. If players are careful and considerate about the Infected encounters, they will find different ways to survive.
Human enemy encounters in The Last of Us Part 2 are where things really start to feel evolved and downright challenging. Naughty Dog has overhauled the AI to make sure the human enemies never feel oblivious. They will react to quick glances at Ellie, will occasionally look behind them while walking, or will rally the troops if a body is found. And getting into a direct fight with any human enemy is never advised because they will be aggressive and relentless.
The human enemies in the game are divided into two warring factions, the more militarized WLF and the cult-like Seraphites (Scars). The WLF brandish strong weaponry and use tracking dogs to force Ellie to be quick and decisive. While the Seraphites are less sophisticated but equally menacing thanks to a lower profile, an awesome communication system that consists of loud whistles, and crude weapons like bows and axes to impede the player’s progress. Each faction brings a different set of tools and hindrances to the table to make sure that every encounter feels like work.
There are no easy pathways and no simple solutions when it comes to getting past (or through) the various patrols in the game, but Naughty Dog equips the player with enough to ensure things don’t ever feel unfair. Arguably the two best additions are a sound cue that increases in volume as the enemies start to see Ellie and a very generous checkpoint system. Because the AI is much smarter it can be hard to tell just what is a good and a bad move, but the sound cue can easily tell the player whether or not they are being seen. The listen mode is still there and it can help with planning, but a lot of stealth games struggle to avoid those moments where the player simply didn’t realize they were stepping into some enemy’s vision. The Last of Us Part 2 uses that sound cue to make it very clear.
If players should make the wrong choice, the game has a checkpoint system that feels a bit like cheating but also alleviates the frustration from those who may not be the best at stealth. At pivotal moments in an encounter – usually when sneaking past a large group or eliminating a key enemy – the game will checkpoint and players can instantly reload that checkpoint should they choose. It allows for experimentation without the risk of completely ruining an otherwise solid run, and it helps eliminate those momentum-killing deaths. The game also has an option to restart an encounter for those players who want to do everything flawlessly and feel a certain way about “save-scumming.”
No matter if it’s an Infected encounter, a WLF encounter, or a Seraphite encounter, The Last of Us Part 2 is a challenging game with a handful of difficulty options. But if players feel like any particular area is lagging or too challenging there are individual difficulty sliders attached to specific elements. If a companion feels too strong or they are helping too much, the player can lower their AI to make them do less. Or if the AI feels too dumb (it rarely does), players can increase the slider to make reactions quicker and aggression higher. Oftentimes story driven games can be criticized for too heavily favoring one type of player versus the other, but The Last of Us 2 ensures almost everyone can get the experience they want without feeling shortchanged.
There are also a ton of smaller details to call out that make the experience one of a kind. The sound design is easily some of the best in video games, in both the way it ratchets up tension and accurately represents the environment. From the tinny pitter patter of rain on a rusted car hood to the immensely terrifying screeches of the Clickers, Naughty Dog has made sure the audio meets the visuals at every turn. Similarly, the soundtrack from Gustavo Santaolalla is hauntingly beautiful. The Oscar winner uses simple guitar chords to evoke feeling of isolation or sadness so well and the music is used so sparingly it only aims to reinforce the emotions of a scene or encounter. There are more traditional musical themes in the game too, but those are reserved for when things get out of control.
From Jak and Daxter to Uncharted and now The Last of Us, Naughty Dog has been gradually showing gamers that the studio is a jack of all trades. Top notch visuals married with a sophisticated story and intricate gameplay all combine to make for a product that feels the furthest thing from generic. One could spend hours listing all of the little details that ND put into the game but that would be a fool’s errand because this is a must-play. The animations are incredible, the set pieces and level design are truly jaw-dropping, the performances are unrivaled, and the gameplay makes so many smart changes to offer greater freedom.
In the end, it really comes down to the experience of playing The Last of Us Part 2 – of jumping into these characters’ shoes and confronting a world that feels both foreign and oddly familiar. In that regard, the game is in a league all its own and there are simply too many adjectives to describe the range of emotions that the game will make players feel, and many of those emotions are not positive ones. But much like the real world is about facing harsh truths and uneasy situations, The Last of Us 2 forces its characters to confront grim realities in a world torn apart by a viral outbreak and where violence is second nature. It is quite simply a masterpiece – an experience unlike anything in video games.
The Last of Us Part 2 releases June 19, 2020 for PS4. Today Technology was provided a digital code for this review.