To say that I’ve been looking forward to playing The Last of Us Part II is an understatement.
The Last of Us is my favorite video game of the last decade. It’s an emotionally exhausting, grim, violent trek, but that despair is worth enduring to experience the beautiful, broken, post-pandemic world and the bond between its equally broken survivors, Ellie and Joel.
Early trailers, comments from director Neil Druckmann and an extensive preview last fall confirmed that The Last of Us Part II would be bigger, more violent and more grueling than what came before.
Naughty Dog has proven itself to be a developer that deserves the benefit of the doubt, and I had few concerns that The Last of Us Part II would succeed on a technical level. As expected, it looks fantastic, showing just how far we’ve come from the PS3 original. Gameplay has been smoothed out and improved upon in many ways, as well.
But what I really care about is Ellie and Joel. The Last of Us ended with ambiguity, but nonetheless provided a stunning conclusion to a nuanced and layered story. Druckmann said that developer Naughty Dog didn’t take the decision to continue that story lightly — but after seven years of waiting, the next chapter in Ellie and Joel’s story really needed to deliver.
A word about spoilers
As with most high-profile video game launches, Engadget agreed to an embargo as a requirement to get early access to The Last of Us Part II prior to its June 19th launch.
These embargoes come with rules — in this case, Sony has put significant restrictions on which plot points and segments of the game reviewers can discuss. As such, this article only covers the story in broad terms, and does not contain significant plot spoilers.
That said, if you want to go in completely fresh, you’re probably best off waiting another week and just playing the game on launch day.
The Last of Us Part II begins by introducing you to the town of Jackson, Wyoming, where a self-sustaining settlement is trying to build a better way of life. It’s now been 25 years since a pandemic created hordes of infected, zombie-like humans waiting to rip your throat out. (And hordes of equally dangerous human survivors.) Joel and Ellie (portrayed to perfection again by Troy Baker and Ashely Johnson) arrived in Jackson at the end of the last game following a cross-country trip to discover whether Ellie’s immunity to the infection can help save humanity -- and the first segment shows a typical day in Ellie’s life four years later.
This extended intro re-introduces the player to Ellie, and lets you get to know her companion / girlfriend / it’s complicated Dina. It’s also an introduction to the gameplay basics -- and it doesn’t take long to realize how differently Ellie handles compared to Joel in the original game. She’s more nimble and agile, which makes sense since she’s a stick-thin 19-year-old woman and not a strong but bulky 50-something man.
The main changes are Ellie’s ability to jump, lay prone, crawl and dodge. She doesn’t have the brute melee force that Joel did, but combining dodges with slashing at enemies is an effective combat technique for taking on humans or infected one-on-one. Going prone, meanwhile, lets Ellie hide under vehicles or in grass or crawl through narrow spaces. Jumping is fairly obvious but comes in extremely handy when traversing the massive, ruined city structures you encounter.
Gunplay is largely unchanged from the original game -- bullets and other ammo are scarce, particularly when you play on harder difficulty levels. You’ll need to make every shot count, and also be prepared to improvise with stealth and melee combat when you run low. You can try to sneak past swaths of enemies entirely, but it’s a lot harder to stay in stealth this time out. Human enemies are far better at tracking your location -- and some have the controversial attack dogs that can follow your scent and cause major havoc if they discover your position.
Fortunately, the many upgrade systems have been significantly enhanced, as well. As in the first game, you can craft a variety of weapons like molotov cocktails and bombs; you’ll also find “training manuals” that unlock more skills for Ellie. But the skill tree is far more complicated than the first game. There are a total of five different skill paths, covering categories like survival stealth or explosives, each with five characteristics to upgrade. Survival, for example, allows for faster health kit crafting and increased overall health, while explosives lets you craft explosive arrows or improve your molotov cocktails. There aren’t enough resources in the world to max out every skill tree on a single playthrough, so you’ll have to decide what you value most as you go.
There are also more items to craft than ever before -- besides returning tools like molotov cocktails and health kits, Naughty Dog added options like the aforementioned explosive arrows and a silencer to Ellie’s arsenal. You have to unlock these first through the skill tree system, and then you can craft them with supplies you find around the world. They expand the different ways you can tackle any given situation -- one of my favorite moves is making a trip mine and luring a horde of infected mindlessly to their doom. You can also craft basic arrows for your bow, which really comes in handy when other ammo is scarce. As in the first game, there’s overlap in the crafting recipes, so you’ll need to decide between, say, a silencer or a health kit to help you through an encounter.
You’re going to need to take advantage of everything you can, too, because this game can be extremely difficult. I played on the third of five difficulty levels, moderate, and didn’t have too tough a time. But I’ve since started to play on “hard,” and it has significantly changed the game -- supplies are incredibly scarce, and there have been plenty of times I’ve found myself with one or two bullets and no other weapons. And I’m no slouch; I beat The Last of Us on the super-difficult Grounded mode, though that was after playing through on lower levels multiple times.
Naughty Dog does allow you to tweak individual difficulty settings for combat, stealth, resources and so forth, so if you like a challenge but want more ammo, you can set “resources” to an easier level. It’s part of an extensive accessibility effort put into the game, which is a very good thing. Players who just want to experience the story can try the “very light” difficulty, and you can adjust difficulty levels after you start the game if you feel like you’re in over your head. Meanwhile, the truly insane can try Grounded mode and a few “permadeath” options coming in a future update.
The visual overhaul Naughty Dog brought to the game is nearly as dramatic as the gameplay improvements. The Last of Us was a stunner for its time, but in 2020 its PS3 origins are starting to show a bit more, even when playing the remastered version for the PS4. Trees don’t look so realistic, for example, and twisting the camera to see the faces of NPCs can reveal some pretty dead-eyed expressions. In Part II, that’s not the case at all. Everything -- from faces, clothing and hair to the intricate details of signs on decaying buildings and the lush, overgrown forests of Washington -- looks amazing. Environments are similarly beautiful: Naughty Dog has a particular knack for making a brutal, broken world look like a world worth living in.
Part II also features much larger environments and more varied gameplay than the original. The scope of The Last of Us was huge -- cities like Pittsburgh seemed to go on forever. But individual encounters with groups of enemies were pretty gated. Those areas could be large, but generally you’d clear an area and move on to another section without being able to move backwards. In Part II, though, you have incredible amounts of space to work with when dispatching roving groups of hunters or infected, which means there are untold ways to take on any situation. And you’ll absolutely need that space, because enemies are much smarter than before, better able to track you, flank you and find you when you’re in stealth. It’s significantly harder than before to stay hidden and take out a half-dozen hunters -- one mistake, and you’re spotted and in serious trouble, even with the ability to crawl through grass or hide under cars.
The game is still fairly linear, but there are far more ways to get through a given situation. And from an exploration standpoint, there’s tons to see that you could miss if you just stay focused on moving forward. That exploration is key both for finding items that’ll help you survive as well as adding story beats and context to the world. There’s even a pseudo-open world section in downtown Seattle where you’ll find clues that point to different locations you can explore. Most of them are entirely optional, but they’re fun to find and it was rather refreshing to do them in any order I chose. Other curveballs, like blasting away at humans and infected from the back of a truck, exploring the city by boat or even just strumming a guitar added some welcome variety to the gameplay.
As expected, Naughty Dog put together a highly polished game that improves on the original in a number of ways -- but what about the story? Does Part II justify going back to the well with these characters and this world? The Last of Us remains one of my favorite pieces of media, and my reaction to a sequel was equal parts trepidation and excitement. Naughty Dog’s track record ultimately made me a full-on believer, and Part II didn’t let me down in the least, even though it evoked a totally different feeling to the original.
One noteworthy way that feeling is conveyed is through the music. Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for the first game was a masterpiece. There were plenty of moments where it was music purely for ambience, but there were also a number of memorable compositions that many fans see as a vital part of what made The Last of Us work. In Part II, however, Santaolalla’s music is far more understated and unsettling, or absent altogether. The first game had multiple recurring themes that help define the game, but there’s very little that is as straightforward this time.
From a narrative standpoint, Part II is far more complicated and ambitious than the original, which was a fairly linear story. The sequel makes effective use of flashbacks and some dramatic changes of perspective. The end result is a story that dives deep into cycles of violence to show how there’s always someone else on the other end of your gun, no matter how righteous you may feel.
Unless you’ve avoided every detail about Part II Naughty Dog has released, you know the basic story involves Ellie seeking revenge after her relatively tranquil life is shattered -- and throughout that quest, I almost always felt justified in my actions, rarely thinking about those on the other end of my vengeance. But like an addict, Ellie gets more and more obsessed, to the point where it jeopardizes everything she has in life. As with the first game, it’s not the most original story, but the way it unfolds is masterful, and Naughty Dog takes full advantage of the game medium to craft some truly shocking and memorable moments.
The Last of Us Part II shows off what Naughty Dog learned from the first game’s DLC, Left Behind as well as Uncharted: Lost Legacy. The latter game was meant to be DLC that expanded into a full game featuring side characters from the main Uncharted games, while Left Behind was less focused on combat and more on exploration and storytelling to break up the continuous darkness that is the world of The Last of Us.
Part II uses flashbacks to fill in Ellie and Joel’s relationship following the end of the first game, and it’s both an excellent narrative tool and a much-needed bit of downtime that focuses on the ups and downs the two have been through. In an unrelentingly grim game, I keep coming back to one particular flashback that was simply joyful in a way that is unmatched in the world of The Last of Us. Another flashback later in the game is the opposite of such father-daughter love, and those two sides of the coin show everything you need to know about how Ellie feels about Joel.
Perhaps my only main complaint is that the story slightly outstays its welcome. The game clocked in at 25-plus hours in my first playthrough, and a few times towards the end I was ready for it to finish, only to be met with more extensive missions. It almost feels like two games in one, and I found myself anxious to wrap up one story thread that was now on pause while playing through another. Of course, I plowed through the game at a pretty fast pace to finish it in time for this review; I might have felt differently if I gave it a little more time to breathe.
The good news is that the payoff to this meandering adventure is that much better -- once I completed the game, only some small parts of the story felt extraneous. Yes, things could have been tightened up a bit, but I don’t think any segment of the game felt out of place or like it should have been removed. It was all in service of a whole that you simply have to finish to fully grasp.
It took me nearly a week to start writing this article after finishing The Last of Us Part II. It’s technically exceptional, but a number of story beats and gameplay choices initially left me confused and cold. As with the first game, something this bleak isn’t necessarily “fun” in the same way an Uncharted game is. An undeniable feeling of sadness and loss permeates Part II, along with some shockingly brutal and violent moments, and it took me a long time to figure out how I felt about that.
But once I had processed it all, so much stood out: moments of extreme tension, moments that made me yell in shock or surprise, thought-provoking drama and even unexpected joy amidst the bleak reality of Ellie’s world. What Naughty Dog puts these characters through is oftentimes hard to experience, and if this is the last we see of them, it’s a bittersweet goodbye. But that doesn’t make the journey any less powerful, or any less worth taking.
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