The Last of Us 2 Review (PlayStation 4)07/07/2020
It is fair to say The Last of Us 2 had somewhat a rough time leading up to launch, between delays and the leak of major plot points threatening to derail the hype and hopes fans had for the sequel. However, Naughty Dog’s Creative Director Neil Druckmann assured everyone that nothing you see or read on the internet can come close to experiencing the game for yourself. And so, those lucky journalists who got their hands on an early review copy of The Last of Us 2 delved into the highly anticipated sequel, to the envy of the rest of us.
When the embargo was up on June 12, a plethora of overwhelmingly positive reviews come out for The Last of Us 2 which positively allayed my personal worries. After all, it’s currently sitting at a higher Metacritic rank than the first game. Flocks of the most well-known game reviewers in the industry revered it as a masterpiece and so, with my worries allayed, I was giddy to experience this flawless masterpiece for myself.
25 hours of game time later, I must say my faith in the credibility of game reviews took yet another hit. Slow your horses, resist hurling insults my way for just a few minutes as I articulate why I had this reaction. Pointedly, The Last of Us 2 is far, far, from a bad game. The talent and budget behind it all but guarantees a high level of quality. On a solely technical level, it is a masterpiece. A showcase of what’s possible on the current hardware available to game developers.
Also, just a quick note that this is not a criticism of the increased inclusion of people of color and the LGBTQ community. In fact, I applaud the team at Naughty Dog for giving more prominent roles to underrepresented peoples in this medium. There will be criticisms of characters in this review but it has absolutely nothing to do with race, gender, sexuality, or the sorts but all to do with how characters are developed by the Naughty Dog writing team.
The Last of Us 2 picks up where the first game left our beloved Joel and Ellie. After following them through the emotionally tumultuous journey across the post-apocalyptic United States. As we know, that journey culminates in Joel and Ellie reaching their destination – Ellie’s on the operating table, a cure seems realistic but the cost is Ellie’s life, but Joel can’t let them go ahead with it. However, the Fireflies couldn’t let humanity’s chance at a cure go either.
The shootout that ensues sees Joel escape with Ellie whereafter he takes her to Tommy’s settlement in Jackson County. Ellie asks Joel to swear to her that everything he told her about the Fireflies is true, and he does. She hesitantly accepts his answer.
What we see in The Last of Us 2 is the repercussions of these choices. Joel and Ellie live in relative peace for a few years within Tommy’s settlement but, like with most of us in life, their past catches up to them. A sequel was always going to be risky since the ambiguity of the first game’s ending is what made it so impactful. The Last of Us 2 feels like it does enough to warrant taking the risk of tainting the original ending but it does not stick the landing with the same success as the first game.
The start of the game puts you, as Ellie, right in the middle of her new life. Whether it be going out on patrols, petting dogs, or engaging in snowball fights with the settlement’s children, Ellie has made a somewhat normal life for herself. We’ve been with Ellie as she’s gone through hell so it’s reassuring to see her live in relative peace.
It’s here we are introduced to two of the new main supporting characters in Dina and Jesse. As the leaks portrayed, Joel dies very early on in The Last of Us 2. That affinity that was carefully crafted between Joel and Ellie between the 15+ hours of the first game was one of the best character relationship ever developed in this medium. Whilst I don’t hate Naughty Dog for killing off Joel the way many fans do, I am disappointed that the writers didn’t develop a character relationship that comes close to the affinity we felt between Joel and Ellie.
There lies in one of the biggest issues with this sequel and a problem, in fact, many sequels in any entertainment medium face. In some aspects such as visual fidelity, environments, animations, etc. The sequel lives up to and surpasses the original game. Again, a testament to the immense talent of the Naughty Dog team.
As far as characters and story goes, The Last of Us 2 takes a step backward. Whilst more ambitious than the arguably trite arc of the first game, the sequel falls short of its ambition. It’s important to understand there are multiple story arcs at play but the overarching theme is revenge. In particular, how far one is willing to go to get it, the repercussions of pursuing it, and ultimately the folly of revenge.
One instance in which this falls short is in the structure of Abby’s arc. In our first interaction with Abby, we see her commit an act of atrocious cruelty to one of our most beloved characters. The second half of The Last of Us 2 then attempts to get the audience to identify and sympathize even with this character. The issue here is this feels entirely disingenuous.
The second half of Abby’s arc shows rare glimpses of kindness but it feels so forced and out-of-place. We don’t get to see any development. We witness her commit extreme acts of cruelty, to the point she says “good” in response to finding out someone’s throat she’s about to cut is pregnant, and so it seems very out of character when she’s on her story arc with Lev and his sister. I can’t bring myself to like this unlikeable character, no matter how much Naughty Dog is trying to get me to.
By the end of it, this half of the game felt it just labored on longer than it should have and I found myself just waiting for it to end. It’s a shame too because the first half of the game, seeing Ellie and Dina traverse across Seattle, brought back memories of why I loved The Last of Us in the first place. You’re given a map of a desolate downtown are and given the freedom to explore before progressing.
Here, in this segment of the game, finding relics of the old world by exploring old music stores and the likes really brings out the best of our characters too. The dialogue in these moments enriches the experience as we see how Ellie and Dina react to these old relics. I explored this area to the fullest, not just for the trophy, but because it was perhaps the most enjoyable segment of the game for me.
In the second half of the game, you of course can still find notes, etc. With similarly harrowing stories to tell but Abby’s reaction or lack thereof ruins this part of the game. Ellie’s youthful reactions contrasted with Joel’s older, wiser reactions complemented each other perfectly. Ellie and Dina bounce off each other well in their exchanges too but the Abby section seriously lacks these touching moments that are necessary to find some solace amongst the bloodshed and horrors we as the player experience alongside the characters.
Speaking of bloodshed and horror, you can expect to encounter plenty of it. Adding to this, Naughty Dog has given names to the grunts you’ll inevitably takedown, which is often screamed out by their friends after you kill them. This ends up feeling pointless however as there’s nothing you can do to avoid this, in many, if not most segments with combat you’re forced to kill every enemy you come across.
The game wants you to feel guilt or empathy for killing these grunts but then gives you no choice to avoid doing so. You’re forced to reckon with the negative consequences of cyclical violence whilst having absolutely no control over stopping any of it. It’s like Naughty Dog covering you in shit then telling you off for being covered in shit. When the developers don’t allow you to progress in the game without killing people they can’t then turn around and make you feel guilty about it.
A saving grace throughout the game is the various flashback sequences. It’s in these that we really see Naughty Dog shine. In a game filled with so much violence with little to no escape from such violence during the present timeline, each and every flashback sequence was more than welcome. Whilst some of these flashbacks made the pacing of the game suffer, the respite offered by seeing Joel and Ellie at the museum, for example, more than made up for this.
Unfortunately, the frequency of these flashback sequences does add to the gluttony of story elements Naughty Dog try to cram altogether. More flashbacks, more themes, it all begets introductory sequences and development. No single element is given enough time or care to fully flourish before another is put front and center.
This contrasted with the first game which was at its core a simple and almost singular story of Joel escorting Ellie across the post-apocalyptic United States. The meaning, the development, the depth all came from seeing these characters grow and develop. Conversely, The Last of Us 2 tries to achieve all of that through multiple arcs and themes and the pay-off does not live up to its predecessor.
Returning to the new cast of characters, many of whom aren’t nearly as interesting as the characters we get introduced to in the first game. The new cast doesn’t capture my heart or pique my interest in the same way the cast of the first game did. We simply aren’t given enough time with them or a lack of focus means we can’t get to know these characters better.
Besides from Abby, none of them are unlikeable it’s just there’s nothing immediately fascinating or interesting about them. This might seem like a tough analysis and unfortunately for the cast of The Last of Us 2, it’s hard to shine in the shadows of such memorable characters from the first game. Characters like Tess, Bill, Henry, and Sam, all of them resonated better and their eventual demise had a more profound impact as a result.
After all this, I found myself perplexed at the plethora of 10/10 reviews I have seen for The Last of Us 2. However, throughout playing the game, I was continually taken aback by the sheer impressiveness of the game both visually and technically. Each environment was breathtakingly beautiful and detailed. Every animation expertly motion-captured to take realism in a video game to a new level. In this review, however, I don’t want to focus on these things as they’ve been clear from the very first footage we saw of the game.
Having said that, it became clear to me the temptation to award this game a 10/10. It is gorgeous and this visual fidelity creates a world that actually feels lived in, it is masterfully crafted and despite the story’s multiple flaws, it is still an emotional journey rivaled only by few other journeys in the medium. There’s a love for Naughty Dog and their games, I feel it too, but I also have the capacity to take a step back and see the flaws in a beautiful creation.
The core gameplay of loot and stealth is largely unchanged from the first game. Characters now have the ability to jump, vault, climb and swing on ropes, etc. In a way that feels very reminiscent of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted franchise. It was a must-needed addition too as the verticality allows for smarter level design and opens up the possibilities of exploration and traversal.
Finding hidden rooms, pathways, and the like is all done on your own intuition for which the new movement abilities add some much-needed layers of depth. They also come in handy in combat situations whereby enemies will often be present on multiple stories of a building for instance and the added verticality gives the player freedom in how to tackle these arenas.
Enemy A.I. is a lot smarter this time around which is necessary considering how much smarter the player can move around now. I found the ability to go prone a very welcome change to the gameplay as it allowed for interesting stealthy encounters. In fact, seeing how well it’s executed here makes me surprised we don’t see it in more games but it is an intuitive and successful addition on Naughty Dog’s behalf.
Enemies are often accompanied by dogs now which adds yet another layer of complexity to the combat sequences. Dogs can sniff your trail and this forces you to keep moving as complacency means almost certain exposure. Overall, the human combat in the game benefits from some much-needed evolution and is one of the most notable improvements compared to the first game.
Of course, this is still The Last of Us and the infected still pose a very real and very dangerous threat in spite of Ellie’s immunity. There’s some new infected type, the ‘best’ of which I refuse to go into detail on because the moments you encounter these new horrifying monsters are amongst the best in the entire game. The genuine terror these encounters induce are best experienced without any hints or details about them.
All in all, the gameplay has some small evolutions that make it more compelling compared to the first game. By the end of the game, the sneak up on an enemy and press triangle to silently kill them becomes repetitive but for the most part, the added verticality and the new enemy types come together to create more complex enemy encounters with greater player freedom in gameplay.
By the end of The Last of Us 2, I was both amazed and disappointed by the journey I’d been on with these characters. The first half, in particular, was standout and offered the best experience of the game. Unfortunately, the latter half loses its appeal and had me waiting around for the game to end. Nobody can fault the immensely talented designers at Naughty Dog for this masterfully crafted game but criticism is warranted at Neil Druckmann and the narrative writers for the story that doesn’t live up to its ambitions.
As a quick side-note though, I must express my disgust at the vile hate messages high-profile people involved with the game have been receiving due to some unpopular decisions the game makes. This is utterly abhorrent and not the right way to express disappointment in a game whatsoever.
Ultimately, The Last of Us 2 is a must-play title on the PS4. The sheer quality of the game on a visual and technical level all but guarantees that. I was amazed at what was possible on base PS4 hardware. The shortcomings of the story as a whole, especially in the denouement, left me with a feeling of disappointment. I am grateful I undertook this journey with these characters but in the end, the pay-off doesn’t live up to its predecessor and the ending, in particular, does not stick the landing that Naughty Dog intended.