Spoiler free review
Warning: some spoilers for the first Last of Us game.
It’s finally here. 7 years after game one, we have Part 2. It’s already making waves – with near universal critical acclaim and VERY polarized fan-reaction to its story and themes (Last Jedi flashbacks anyone?). The level of violence and bold story choices have gotten a lot of commentary online. But, while I’ll devote a couple of articles to this games themes and whether the criticism of it is justified, first up… is it any good?
Like its predecessor, The Last of Us Part 2 is a Naughty Dog game. I.E. the guys who do Uncharted and did Jak and Daxter back in the PS1/PS2 era. Their games have a consistency to them, and a penchant for compelling stories/levels and fun collectible hunts. The studio has been getting increasingly ambitious ever since uncharted 1: their games have got longer, with more intricate level designs, more overarching/hard-hitting stories and awe-inspiring set pieces. TLOU Part 2 feels like the culmination of all that progress. It’s arguably got the most depth of any Naughty Dog game ever – its certainly the longest and most ambitious, being nearly twice as long as its predecessor. It gives you the best variation on the ‘open world-esque level’ from the last two uncharted games. There’s also way more collectibles to hunt down, meaning this is a game that will likely take several playthroughs to complete 100% (if you can – its not going to be easy to find everything in levels this huge).
The gameplay feels more like a refinement of its predecessor than a complete rework. Being able to go prone rather than just crouching and the ability to scramble over high obstacles and slip through small breaks in walls makes stealth sections more versatile. The crafting and player upgrade systems are expanded but are fundamentally the same kind of mechanic as in game 1. There’s a slighter larger diversity of weapons, but as with the first game, you don’t get the most powerful ones (flamethrowers, assault rifles and the new silent submachinegun) till the last few levels. The fact that Ellie can now jump and swim makes traversing the environment a lot more interesting – she can go pretty much anywhere, but some routes through levels are way easier than others. There’s way fewer of the ‘how do I get through this area’ puzzles that were one of the few meh things about the original game now too. There’s more variety in the gameplay too – some sections will see you running from hordes of enemies too numerous to fight, while other parts includes boat and truck sections (definitely can see Uncharted’s influence in those bits, though they are more realistic and have way less cartoony escapism than Nathan Drake’s adventures).
Combat in the the first game struck a nice balance – your weapons hit hard, but you had limited ammo and couldn’t get into endless firefights if you weren’t smart about it. Stealth (if successful) was often a better way to approach encounters, particularly on higher difficulties where you took more damage per hit. All that has been pretty much transferred to this game, with a few tweaks – enemies are far better at communicating in this game – get spotted by one and the others will home in on you until you’ve killed them all or hidden again. The enemies’ sniffer dogs make camping impossible in some sections – they can be distracted with thrown objects, but only temporarily, and can do real damage if they catch you. Taking the dog out first is often the best option, uncomfortable though it might be for some players. That’s the main combat difference in this game, the sheer bloody realism of it. Enemies scream out the names of fallen comrades when you kill their friends/dogs. Enemies will writhe around on the ground if their wounds are fatal but not instant kills. There are consequences to violence in cutscenes too – PTSD, disfigurement, maiming, its here and its damn uncomfortable. Call of Duty likes to think it shows the dirty side of warfare and human nature, but the Last of Us showcases the reality of violence in a way no game I’ve ever played has – and definitely one that doesn’t glorify it.
One area where there is a MASSIVE upgrade from its predecessor is the visuals. Naughty dog has always pushed what PlayStation is capable of, and this is no exception. Even on my basic PS4, this game looks amazing. The depth perception, level of detail, lighting effects are all stunningly beautiful. You’re not seen snow, sand, storms or fire done this realistically in a game before. The lighting is especially impressive – the way using the flamethrower affects things for example, or the levels set at night. The facial animation is honestly the best I’ve ever seen (to think this is only 3 years on from Mass Effect Andromeda lol). This feels like a game which not only showcases what the PS4 has achieved, but the standard that PS5 will bring to the table. The music is also good, with the first game’s composer returning with a soundtrack that’s less haunting, but just as tense.
Finally… the story. Without going into details, I can touch upon it in this review. Oh boy. The first game was brutal in terms of playing with your emotions and killing off side characters (after all, Bill, Tommy and Maria were the ONLY supporting characters to make it out of game 1 alive). Part 2 is devastating in so many different ways. Ellie’s journey is heartbreaking – revenge quests in games have a habit of simply driving the plot forward, but here you really see and feel the toll it takes on her and her allies. You know she’s making a mistake, picking a fight with a group way more numerous than anything she’s faced before. She crosses a lot of lines here – and while not every gory detail is shown, enough of them are. Joel hinted in the first game that he’d done a lot of unsavoury things to survive – but here we actually control Ellie as she does the same – and that makes a massive difference. And the game pulls a massive perspective twist halfway through to really make you question what she’s doing. Ellie isn’t the only character you play as – you also get several levels as Abby, the main antagonist for Ellie. But the more you play as Abby and the more background you get to the factions in Seattle, the less and less comfortable you’ll get as you think on everything you did during Ellie’s levels. Games rarely make you feel guilt (you can be a total psychopath in Fallout 3 and only receive a slight admonishment from your father) but this one will. The story does pick up several threads from game 1’s ending too: Joel’s endgame rampage, choice and the lie he told to Ellie all have consequences here. Its a bold game that makes you question if the series’ two protagonists are actually good people… especially when the answer doesn’t lean towards yes. In many ways its easy to see why this game has already stirred up controversy – its story and themes is designed to make you self reflect and feel genuine discomfort at points. The game does have its share of lighter moments and heartfelt interactions, but, while beautiful, they won’t be what you remember.
Personally, I struggled to accept one or two story choices when i was playing, but reflecting on them now, i totally support the choices the developers made. They were bold, and the ending will definitely be controversial – but then again, that was true about the first game, so what did everyone expect?
Overall, the Last of Us Part 2 is bigger, longer, more detailed and more disturbing than its predecessor. It looks gorgeous, with stunning visuals and a multitude of environments to traverse and explore. The gameplay is refined but familiar to the first game. Its soundtrack, direction and voice acting are top notch. It deals with themes most games wouldn’t touch or wouldn’t do justice. It is, like its predecessor, a masterpiece. But… it may not be a masterpiece everyone will like. The lack of narrative choice, a few of the bolder storytelling decisions and character fates have already caused controversy with some fans – ultimately, the only thing I can say with certainty is that this game will be talked about for a long time.
And if there is ever a part 3… I’ll still be picking it up on release day.
Final word: don’t listen to the haters online. Don’t listen the reviewers gushing over this. Don’t listen to me frankly. This game is like the Joker movie from 2019 – its a masterpiece – its deeply uncomfortable at times and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – but its something everyone should check out, because there’s nothing quite like it and only you can tell yourself if you like it – no one else can or should do that for you…
Rating: 5 out of 5!
The first game since God of War to get full marks from me. Regardless of some story beats I struggled with, this is a masterpiece that surpasses the original and the studio’s previous highs of uncharted 2 and 4.