The Last of Us Part II Review: I won’t take the easy road

The Last of Us Part II is not a game for everyone. It’s a game that builds on the original in unexpected ways. It seeks to challenge the player emotionally and philosophically, posing hard questions to which you may not have an answer. It’s likely not the game you are expecting at all. And that’s part of what makes it Naughty Dog’s magnum opus.

Home to Jackson

It has been several years since the conclusion of the original game. Joel Miller (Troy Baker) made the choice to save his ward, Ellie (Ashley Johnson) from undergoing an operation that would have killed her. The operation would have used Ellie’s natural immunity to the cordyceps virus to create a vaccine. A single selfish act extinguished any hope for humanity’s recovery.

When Joel and his brother Tommy found a new home in the town of Jackson, Wyoming, Ellie went with them. Jackson is as close to a city as the world is ever likely to see again. It boasts uninterrupted power and water, paved streets, working vehicles, and a meager economy. Nestled in the Jackson Hole valley, it is a safe-haven from the ravages of the virus. There Ellie has begun to settle into a life of semi-normality. She has taken up residence in Joel’s garage, and patrols with Joel and Tommy to keep wandering infected at bay. She has a crush on spirited girl-next-door Dina (Shannon Woodward).

When a group of military types called the Washington Liberation Front arrive in Jackson, it triggers a series of events that change Ellie forever. Consumed by rage, regret, obsession, and revenge, Ellie finds herself in a war between the WLF and a mysterious religious order called the Seraphites.

I can’t say much more than that without giving away huge portions of the story.

What I can say is that when we’re talking about a sequel to a beloved, unexpected classic, expectations can be difficult to manage. You should attempt to manage them though. You should not go into The Last of Us Part II expecting a rehash of the original. If you are expecting another sometimes-spooky, odd-couple-on-a-mission-of-mercy story then you will be disappointed. It’s not the same game.

Indeed, I can see this disparity being one of the things that will divide fans. I fully expect The Last of Us Part II to cut its fanbase cleanly down the middle. There will be those who love the bold, risky, and often ugly turns it takes. The philosophical questions it raises. And there will be many who feel utterly betrayed by this game after the journey they undertook in the original.

This is not to suggest that you won’t find plenty to enjoy. There is so much to admire here.

Just give Ashley Johnson another BAFTA now

Writers Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross have taken a lot of risks with their script. Their story plucks Ellie from a life of relative safety and hurls her as far from it as possible. Much like the world in which she lives, Ellie will never be the same. She cuts a frightening figure — a wounded, dangerous animal in a world that is literally and figuratively rotten. It’s heartening to see a creative team brave enough to reshape one of their most adored characters in this way.

Actor Ashley Johnson is given a monumental task in conveying it all, body and soul. She makes Ellie’s grief, her pain, and fury, believable. This is true even if (and perhaps most especially when) we don’t agree with her. It’s a career-best performance. She’s going to win the BAFTA again. What’s more, her co-stars Laura Bailey and Shannon Woodward will give her a run for her money. The Critical Role team will not be able to bail on The Game Awards again this year.

Graphically, The Last of Us Part II represents the PlayStation 4 operating at the peak of its capabilities. I know this because the fans on my poor PS4 Pro were screaming in pain the entire time. It’s Naughty Dog’s dedication to the kind of minutia that other devs would neglect in the name of time, workload, and budget that set The Last of Us Part II‘s visuals apart.

Character models and animations are detailed and expressive. Naughty Dog has mastered the art of inserting the subtle physical tics of its performers into each character. This creates a level of immersion that only further serves the story at hand. Ellie does her best to hide when she’s been hurt, but Johnson’s physicality makes it easy to tell when its just a scratch and when she really is badly injured. Naughty Dog has even gone so far as to apply systems to Ellie’s level of exertion — it takes your actions into account to determine how tired it thinks she should be. If you sprint, go prone, rise to a crouch and sprint again, Ellie will physically and audibly recover from that in a realistic way.

Special mention must be given to Naughty Dog’s environmental artists and designers. There is such an obvious eye for detail in every single square foot of every single map. The city of Seattle, where much of The Last of Us Part II is set, has deteriorated to the extent that it now comprises multiple biomes — city streets, forests, lakes, and mudflats. From the depths of its sewers to the tops of its decaying skyscrapers, Naughty Dog has poured time and resources into making them feel real and lived in.

Every house or apartment I entered on my journey was decorated differently, such that its possible to draw a clear picture of who lived there. One apartment was full of computers, D&D books, Warhammer figures and anime posters — a nerd den. One spacious loft clearly belonged to a single mother of two, her Live Laugh Love decor, family photos and tastefully minimalist furniture gnawed at by the elements. Music stores hang era-appropriate real-world posters for albums that should have dropped in 2013 but, in this alternate reality, never did.

Small changes for a bigger impact

There are really only a handful of changes to the core Naughty Dog school of design. It’s possible to feel the influence of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy here, which appears to have been a successful testbed for implementing larger environments. The Last of Us Part II features some of the largest and most complex levels in any Naughty Dog game to date. It encourages the player to poke around in every dark corner for supplies and collectibles by filling them all with places to explore — caves, parking garages, sewers, collapsed buildings, empty houses, stores, and apartments are all fair game.

You pick the bones because that’s what someone living in a decaying city like Seattle would do. Mechanically, I trod through flooded basements because supplies are scant and I’m on the hunt. On a meta-level, I did it simply because I genuinely wanted to. As mentioned earlier, the environmental design is so good that I wanted to poke around just to see more of ND’s skillful work.

This gives way to the second new design consideration — multiple paths. The Last of Us Part II works harder than its predecessor’s gestures at the idea that you can traverse every area differently. This is still a Naughty Dog game and is an inherently linear experience. What you get to decide is the manner of your initial approach. If you’re feeling confident (and supply-rich), you can go in guns blazing. You can also keep low and quietly murder every enemy in the vicinity without ever raising suspicion. Or you can take a non-violent approach and simply stealth your way to freedom without ever firing a shot or taking a life — beyond the special few in the WLF that Ellie has marked for death, anyway.

Your enemies are fairly clever though. There’s some path switching to keep you on your toes — frequently an enemy I was tracking would abruptly double back or change direction right as I made my move, leaving me exposed. Instances like these are thrilling because they’ll often be the moment your entire plan comes undone. Complicating matters further are the introduction of guard dogs. They are fast, they mess you up if they catch you and, worse, they can latch onto your scent and follow you as you crawl through the undergrowth. There’s no hiding from the dogs. Encountering one or more will alter your plans substantially. You have to keep moving or they’ll catch you. Trouble is, moving around a lot increases the likelihood of being caught by a guard. Do you stay, do you go, or do you fight? You have to pick your moments.

Though The Last of Us Part II offers this three-prong approach, it’s clear that it wants you to avoid open combat. Ellie automatically drops into stealth the moment enemies are detected so that she can get the drop on them. Fleeing from a firefight is a perfectly viable strategy, as breaking the line of sight puts enemies back into search mode. On several occasions where I messed up and didn’t have the supplies to fight back, I simply ran for my life in hopes that I could reach the next checkpoint and recompose myself. Consider that your fourth option.

.44 pistol under my head

Infected enemies also return from the original game, with the standard Runners, Clickers, Bloaters and Stalkers all showing up at different times. They remain relatively easy to deal with provided you can get the drop on them. Conversely, a new infected called a Shambler is a real mongrel to deal with. Covered in heavy biological armour, the Shambler’s goal is to get close to you and release a cloud of poisonous spores. They have excellent hearing and move with surprising speed. Like a Bloater, there are no stealth takedowns here — it’s either avoid them entirely or hope you have enough in the shotgun to put it down.

Crafting and upgrades return and are your major reward for exploring every ruin. Crafting now pulls from a total of six-t0-eight core ingredients and doesn’t use more than two or three of them at a time. Ellie can create health packs, special ammunition, trip mines and throwables like Molotov cocktails to help give her an edge in combat. Character upgrades are based on five separate upgrade paths that are unlocked by finding specific books throughout the campaign. You unlock each individual upgrade by spending medicine pills that Ellie finds in the world, most often in bathrooms. Most of them provide percentage buffs to her overall performance — faster crafting, better weapon aim, larger health pool, etc.

Weapon upgrades are unlocked with spare nuts and bolts also found in the wild. These can be used to beef up your artillery by adding scopes, expanded magazines, and increasing overall firepower. It’s likely that you won’t be able to unlock everything on a single playthrough, especially on harder difficulties where supplies are more scarce. You can continue to unlock skills and upgrades in the New Game+ mode unlocked after completing the campaign.

Obsession cuts like a knife

In The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog pulls back on certain facets of their now-famous style guide. The eye-popping Naughty Dog moments — extended cinematic set-pieces that pull the player into the action — are still here, but they are much fewer and farther between. The same goes for the developer’s reliance on cutscenes. They have been greatly reduced in number. The Last of Us Part II preferrs it when Ellie’s single-minded journey in your hands.

This is a very deliberate choice — the things you will see and do as Ellie are hard to stomach. They are hard to believe, and they can be hard to accept. But that is entirely the point. The Last of Us Part II’s greatest hope is that you will be anything but comfortable while you play it. It wants you to think about what it is that you’re doing. It wants you immersed but still able to see Ellie’s actions and decisions from an externalised point of view.

What a line to tread.

That The Last of Us Part II manages to pull this off is perhaps its greatest trick of all. I have spent the entire time I was reviewing this game pining for the moment I would be allowed to talk about it publicly. I look forward even more to debating its finer points with others who have played it. That is, ultimately, what it wants — to have a hard conversation with its players, its characters and the industry within which it resides. The first and most important thing any work of art must have is something to say. As wrath to admit this as the wider industry seems to be, Naughty Dog has proven over and over that there is room at the AAA level for games with this much to say.

Whether its fans are interested in hearing them out remains to be seen. I sincerely hope that they will.

Final thoughts

The Last of Us Part II is a challenging game by design. That’s an interesting point for a video game to make. This is a medium that values mechanical challenge over story almost every time. Naughty Dog wants the themes and concepts it has placed on the table to challenge the player as much as any gameplay hurdle. And for those open to difficult conversations, there is much food for thought here. It doesn’t ask you to like what Ellie is doing nor embrace the person she has become. It simply asks that you try to understand, to empathise not just with her plight but that of the people she hunts, too. To see a developer take their prized Faberge egg and remake it with a blacksmith’s hammer is remarkable, and it has led them to make a remarkable game.

Druckmann and team could leave the series here and it would stand as one of the great narrative one-two punches in the history of the medium. If Naughty Dog ever produces a third, it will be a very difficult act to follow.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Gorgeous visuals; A worthy and hard-edged sequel to a bonafide classic; Incredible performances
Lowlights: Intense violence may be too much for some players
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Available: June 19, 2020

Review conducted on PlayStation 4 Pro with an early access code provided by the publisher.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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