Six years in the making, The Last of Us Part II, the long-awaited sequel to Naughty Dog’s dystopian classic, makes no safe decisions, and is all the better for it.
Back in 2013, as the PlayStation 3 reached the end of its life, that console had come to be defined by the developer that understood it better than most – Naughty Dog. Their Uncharted trilogy had rewritten the rules of what was possible on the machine, squeezing every last drop of power out of a console that most other studios found too hard to work with. And, along the way, Naughty Dog did something else special – they came up with their own unique blend of cinematic storytelling and action gameplay, with an emphasis on the former.
Then, just as that console generation was riding off into the sunset, Naughty Dog dropped its masterpiece – The Last of Us. An epic, story-rich and visually sumptuous tale of survival in a destroyed world, it recalled the early seasons of The Walking Dead not just in its setting, but in its deft blending of adventure and tragedy. Instead of the charismatic, witty Nathan Drake in the Uncharted games, we played as Joel, a man broken by events that unfold at the start of the game, as the collapse of society begins. He ultimately ends up travelling with 14-year-old Ellie, smuggling her to a rebel hideout that’s miles across the country, the two forming a bond along the way.
We won’t spoil what happens next for those of you who still haven’t played the first game (it’s dirt cheap on PS4 these days and it really is a must-play before you dive into this long-awaited sequel). In development literally since the previous game released, it can be played as a standalone story, but it shouldn’t be. There’s no catch-up storytelling to speak of – writer/director Neil Druckmann largely assumes you’ve been there and know the Joel and Ellie story and so, after a fairly brief and homey introduction, we’re thrown into the meat of the story quite quickly, occasionally via a third-party view but mainly from Ellie’s. Within a few short hours, the game sets the emotional stakes, once again by way of an unimaginable tragedy. From here, it becomes a story of revenge, violence, and what pursuing it with a passion can do to a person who’s already seen the best and worst of people.
“Within a few short hours, the game sets the emotional stakes, once again by way of an unimaginable tragedy.”
We’re not going to spoil the story at all – not even to hint at the catalyst that propels the main story into high gear – but the reaction in some quarters to leaks about the events of Part II have been astonishing, ranging from vitriolic, angry and, yes, entitled. Suffice to say that much has changed in Part II and some of it may catch some people off guard. For example, Ellie’s sexuality – really only explored in the first game’s sole expansion Left Behind – is front and centre here, which seems to have inexplicably bothered some fans. So too have some events and character arcs that play out across the lengthy story – but the fact is, this is a game that should be thought of like an interactive movie, a visceral, immersive experience in which Ellie’s story is being told to you, and you cannot materially change it any more than you can change the outcome of your favourite movie or TV show. Perhaps that’s the problem for some – that far more than most games, this is a tightly-scripted story that may give you the illusion of free choice (such as how you approach combat or avoid it) but ultimately is guiding you down a path towards a set outcome.
And the storytelling is masterful here, even more so than the first game. Ashley Johnson returns as Ellie, and despite now playing a 19-year-old version of the character, she manages to imbue her with the weight of the intervening years and the wisdom of her age. It’s a phenomenal performance alongside a stellar voice cast that includes the return of Troy Baker as Joel. But the voice acting is matched by outstanding character animation. Apparently, Naughty Dog went to extreme lengths to motion-capture and render as many different character movements as possible so that characters would have a pool of movements to draw on, giving them an uncannily believable presence in the game. Perhaps the faces let the side down just a little – Naughty Dog seems to have a bit of a “house style” when it comes to character faces, and it’s not to everyone’s taste – but that’s a minor grumble when everything else looks so good.
The game world is rendered with exquisite detail – keep in mind that this is the first The Last of Us game to be specifically developed for the PS4, and it draws on every last ounce of power in the machine to come up with almost photorealistic environments where there’s no such thing as mere background scenery. Blades of grass blow in the wind, horses leave hoof tracks in the snow, light glows warmly from windows… it’s an immersive experience that not only takes on Red Dead Redemption 2 in the visual stakes, it outdoes it.
Throughout, the player is gently guided through the story by environmental prompts, hints from characters and, if you get truly stuck, Naughty Dog’s good old hint system kicks in. You learn the visual language of the game soon enough – if there’s a platform, you’re probably meant to get up to it, if there’s a narrow gap in a fence, you’re going to be squeezing through it, and so on. As usual, collectibles abound, and searching every location thoroughly rewards you both with those and with materials to upgrade weapons and craft consumables.
“…it’s an immersive experience that not only takes on Red Dead Redemption 2 in the visual stakes, it outdoes it.”
The combat… well, it’s barely changed from last time, and it’s still “not terrible”. Bullets and other resources are scarce by design, encouraging you to find non-combat solutions, but if you get into a melee fight with an Infected, chances are you’re about to meet your maker no matter how good you are at button mashing (melee combat has been problematic for Naughty Dog since they introduced it in Uncharted 3). But when the point is to avoid combat as much as possible – and even run away when necessary – it’s serviceable enough when needed.
The star attraction in The Last of Us Part II is the story itself. This exciting, emotional, daring and sometimes confronting story goes to some very dark places, and more than earns its R18+ rating along the way. The tone’s very different to the first game (the cover pic of an angry, blood-soaked Ellie should give you some idea where we’re headed) and that’s possibly going to upset some people. But if you’re up for an adventure that’s viscerally exciting, deeply emotional and decidedly not “safe” then you’ll be wanting to grab this masterful work of mature storytelling – which also happens to be the same sort of technical mic-drop that the first game was at the end of the PS3 era. It’s a dark masterpiece.
The Last of Us Part II is available June 19 exclusively on PS4.