The Last of Us has been considered to be one of the greatest video games of the past decade. Selling over 20 million copies, it was no doubt one of Naughty Dog’s biggest games. This is why when the sequel was announced back at PSX in 2016, the pressure really set in. How do you follow up one of the most successful games of all time? Now we have an answer with the release of The Last of Us Part II. After spending 30+ hours of exploring the game front to back. Here are my thoughts on one of the biggest games of 2020.
From 2013 To 2020
Seven years is a long time for a sequel. While Naughty Dog obviously had other projects on their hands, it doesn’t change the expectations. With basically an entire console generation since the original, the pressure was on to deliver. The first thing I immediately realized in my first few hours with the game was the improvements in the game’s core mechanics. Navigating cover, mantling platforms, and sneaking around the environment felt incredibly smooth. Clearing a broken column, to run full tilt and execute an unsuspecting NPC felt phenomenal.
As someone who thought that the original game’s gameplay mechanics were good but could be improved. I was very impressed with the diverse forms of combat the game presents the player. I found the stealth mechanics were especially addictive. My first maxed out skill tree was stealth combat. As a fan of games like Hitman, and Splinter Cell providing multiple ways to approach a scenario is orgasmic. Planning out combat scenarios and how you approach each encounter is almost art in itself. Juggling managing ammo, and crafting materials, as you fight your way through each scenario is exhilarating.
Brutality Around Every Corner
The combat in the original game felt very heavy. You could feel each hit. Whether you were shooting an NPC or hitting them with a melee weapon. This is turned up to 11 in The Last of Us Part II where the attention to detail really comes in to play. The first time as Ellie when she shot someone with the hunting rifle and blew their arm off as they screamed in pain won’t be forgotten. Neither will one of their companions who yelled their name in anguish and rushed me with a hatchet. Combat scenarios are incredibly intense and every moment feels like it could be your last. I found myself physically cringing every time as I watched Ellie die in a terrible and very real way. In some hard sections of the game, I felt unexplainable sorrow for endlessly killing Ellie in various ways.
The level of gore and violence depicted in The Last of Us Part II is unsettling. However, in cutscenes, some of the altercations reach Game of Thrones levels of grotesque. This feels very uncomfortable which I felt was the overall goal. Too often in video games, we senselessly kill armies of NPC’s without a second thought. A perfect example of this can be found by looking at a different Naughty Dog title. Did you ever feel uncomfortable while killing an NPC in Uncharted 4? Not likely. That sense of humanity is going to be important later when we dive into the themes of the story. So hold onto that thought for now.
Expanding and Exploring
We have seen Naughty Dog slowly expanding on the worlds they have designed. The studio has done some of the most impressive set pieces that we have seen in the gaming world. The Last of Us Part II continues to see improvements and experimentation in terms of level and world design. One of my favorite environmental moments of the game is when you first reach Seattle with Dina and Ellie. Aside from Uncharted 4, most of Naughty Dogs games have been remarkably linear cover shooters. However, I think they did a fantastic job of changing this up especially with the Seattle portion of the game.
When you enter Seattle, the player is given the task to try to track down gas in order to open a gate. In this portion of the game, there are several locations you explore to try to track down the fuel. The game points you in the general locations you can find the material you need. However, if you explore the entirety of that section, you will find a wide variety of supplies, upgrades, and crafting material that becomes useful later on. One of the best parts about this section was exploring the building and having some really personal moments.
There is a moment in a music shop where Ellie finds an old guitar. She plays a powerful rendition of the song “Take On Me” for Dina. It is one of the most beautiful and gripping moments in the game. It is completely missable as well. Some might find this annoying, but I really appreciate the risk and reward of hiding such a beautiful moment. It really rewards the player for exploring every inch of the world, which I wish more open-world/hub world games would do in a meaningful way.
Performances Of The Generation
An standout performance can take an average game and make it amazing. But what do you get if you have a great all-around game with amazing voice acting performances? You get games like The Last of Us Part II and Red Dead Redemption 2. There is not a dead performance in The Last of Us Part II. Though I have to give credit to two performances that really stuck with me through the game. First is Laura Bailey for her performance playing Abby.
Abby could have easily been a one-dimensional character. Within the first few hours of the game, she brutally murders a character many players had fallen in love with from the first game. Bailey nails the raw anger that fuels Abby. She does a fantastic job in making us feel sympathy for the character in the back half of the game. It takes a phenomenal performance to make you hate a character so passionately then to turn it around at the end of the game.
Another performance that absolutely deserves a mention is Shannon Woodward as Dina. Many people were concerned that Ellie’s love interest with Dina would feel forced. This did not end up being the case at all. Dina quickly became one of my favorite characters in the game. This was due mainly to how much she constantly kept Ellie on her toes.
Some of the most emotional and beautiful moments in the game are between Ellie and Dina. Their relationship grounds the story and makes it human. Despite all the constant death, hatred, and violence. These two characters still find a way to fall in love and interact in a deep and meaningful way. Woodward has the ability to make a brand new character instantly likable, while also making her interactions with Ellie so natural. It is a real credit to the writers who wrote the script as well as her immense talent.
Now to talk about one of the most controversial parts of The Last of Us Part II. Ever since a portion of the game leaked, many people have preemptively formed opinions on the story beats of the game. Before I dive into what I like and dislike about the game’s story beats, I cannot stress this enough. This will contain heavy spoilers for the game, and if you have not played it yet. This may be the time to exit if you want to skip major plot points. You have been warned.
The game basically kicks into gear when Abby murders Joel. This moment feels like it was meant to drive home one singular point. No one is safe, and anyone can die. It does this perfectly, it catches the player off guard immediately. It’s brutal watching the character, you controlled for almost the entirety of the last game meet his end. It’s a hollowing experience. This moment motivates Ellie through the entirety of the game. As Abby’s road to revenge ends Ellie’s is just beginning. Watching Abby try to find meaning in her existence after killing Joel, while Ellie falls victim to the same anger and hatred that motivated Abby is enthralling.
Two Sides To Every Story
Sometimes when playing a game, we have trouble understanding what drives a character. Naughty Dog clearly wanted to address this feeling by splitting theThe Last of Us Part II in half. The first half of the game you play as Ellie which many had expected. However, at the midpoint of the game, you switch to playing Abby and experience the same timeline as you just played with Ellie. This gives players a cohesive experience of understanding what these two characters were doing through this timeline.
I initially was not a fan of having to play Abby as up to the middle point of the game she was my antagonist. She had come across as cold, and unlikeable. While the first few hours of Abby’s journey are slow, it quickly picks up the pace. As you start to understand why Abby hated Joel so much. It really gives a perspective on how much of an impact Joel’s decision at the end of the first game really had. It is almost like throwing a rock into a lake. After the initial splash of the rock hitting, the ripples affect a wider area of the water. Joel’s decision was one of immense violence. It had long-lasting effects on people who lost loved ones due to his murderous rampage. It provided an interesting perspective on a character many fans viewed as a hero.
By the end of the journey, I found myself not really having a favorite character. What I mean by this is both Abby and Ellie had some very raw human traits that made them incredibly endearing at some points. However, as their stories progressed flaws in their character were quickly revealed. This made them incredibly human. Too often in games, our protagonists are a representation of humans at their best. However, when the whole world has gone to waste and violence rules everything, no one can afford to be a perfect angel. At the end of the game, we watch Ellie literally cast aside her love, and life in order to chase revenge. While many may say, “I would never do that.” It’s easy to say that until you’re consumed by anger, fear, and hatred because of one human’s act of brutality on someone you love.
The use of flashbacks in The Last of Us Part II is something that I feel torn on. Every flashback had a purpose or a moment that held emotional importance to the character. Yet, these flashbacks often felt very long, and could really take you out of what you were doing during present events at times. This is where the pacing begins to get choppy for me. Sometimes it felt like you were doing 30 minutes of standard gameplay to get to a 2-minute cutscene that was relevant to what you were currently doing. I say all of this, but at the same time, some of my favorite moments in the game were done in flashbacks.
One of the most beautiful moments in The Last of Us Part II was when Ellie and Joel are traveling together through a science and history museum. The museum is filled with dinosaurs and history related to humanity’s obsession with space and exploration. Within this flashback which is a lengthy one, we get a real look at how much Joel cares for Ellie. A man of few words and emotions, Joel always seems silent and judging. However, his actions and intentions during this entire flashback are one of a caring father. Its a deeply emotional portion of the game, and gives us a glimpse into Ellie actually acting like a kid. It is so easy to forget she is a young teen with the violent situations she constantly finds herself in. Moments of vulnerability really gave new perspectives of Joel and Ellie.
My only minor complaint in terms of the storytelling is how long the game is. I put in almost 30 hours of combing through the world and taking in as much of the story and world as I could. For a primarily linear game, outside of some hub sections, this can feel dragged out. The flashbacks really can throw off the pacing of the game in certain areas. Where one moment you’re in a very intense combat scenario and then the next you’re in a flashback for 30 minutes following a story beat. I know many loved the cutscene aspect of the game, while others, like myself, feel it throws off the pacing. I think that’s what makes the Last of Us Part II so interesting. People are playing the exact same game, but coming out with completely different and complex feelings about it.
The Last of Us Part II is a unique experience that you truly have to play yourself. Some may come away thinking its the best of all time, while others may find the story points fall flat for them. It’s a truly polarizing game, that took many risks that I never thought Naughty Dog would take. It’s ambitious in the way it tells its story. It focuses on the circle of violence and revenge, and the emotional effects it can have on people. It is one of the best games I have played this generation, with smooth gameplay and stealth mechanics that Naughty Dog deserves a congratulatory round of applause for. Everything comes together in one cohesive game that I will be replaying again very soon, to see how I feel the second time around.