Sleepless in Seattle
So apparently Naughty Dog, second to creating some of the most iconic gaming experiences of all time, have this neat little strategy whereby they develop and release end-of-cycle video games that define a console’s entire commercial run.
When The Last Of Us released on the Playstation 3 back in 2013, a mere four months before the arrival of Sony’s Playstation 4, it was hailed as a crowning acheivement for story driven games, incorporating movie-like quality narrative with personable, structured characters unlike anything the gaming industry had experienced before. When the inevitable question arose from friends or colleagues asking my opinion of how good it was, my reply would simply be, “It’s the best game of this generation”. Many echoed that same opinion. So it’s worth citing that I write this article as a fan first and a critic second purely because that game sits atop a pedestal in my mind that very few experiences have occupied in 25 years of gaming. The expectation for the sequel was immeasurable.
I’m going to disclose a couple of things right out the gate before diving into The Last Of Us Part II. For me, this is the best game of this console generation. I said it. It’s also graphically the best looking game I have seen on a console. In fact, if the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X have launch titles parring the fidelity of TLOU II, I for one would be entirely satisfied. The graphics defy the hardware to the point where it doesn’t even make sense to me. I literally, without exaggeration, found myself strolling through a woodland scene as Ellie and said, out loud, to myself, “How have they made it look this good?”. Seattle’s landscape is truly remarkable. Dilapidated buildings that coax cautious exploration, fatigued storefronts and alleyways peppered with artefacts from a long forgotten era, foliage suffocates structures whilst annihilated skyscrapers peruse the horizon. All remnants of the devastation inflicted through the military’s attempt to neutralise the virus. I say bravo to Naughty Dog and bravo to whatever dark magic they’re harbouring over there in Santa Monica.
What a wonderful world
The Last Of Us Part II picks up roughly 5 years after the events of the first game. Joel and Ellie are now living within a settlement in Jackson, Wyoming under the de facto leadership of Joel’s brother Tommy and Tommy’s wife, Maria. It’s clear from the offset that Joel and Ellie, while mimicking a father-daughter relationship, have an unspoken tension between them. For Ellie, the unanswered questions for what happened at the Firefly hospital five years prior looming over her yet to simply ask Joel may confirm her deepest fears. For Joel, the unbearable guilt of his decision to save Ellie at the cost of a vaccine has tortured him through every waking moment.
Ellie is a bit older now and while still young, she carries the scars of a person shaped by the fallout of the Cordyceps virus that devastated mankind. Her journey has been hard and the people of Jackson get this, Ellie is a valued member of the Jackson community and a credible soldier, assigned to small patrols tasked with clearing zones of infected and protecting the settlement alongside new pals Dina and Jessie, two of the game’s excellent supporting characters.
Joel has aged too. No surprise given the hell he endured during the first game. He and Tommy have seniority in Jackson and take the bulk of responsibility in allocating patrols and for the overall safety of the residents. It’s a civilised place with a sort of hierarchy, farming allotments, even a nice little bar to let your hair down at the end of a busy day carving up infected.
The story kicks off during a routine patrol when Joel and Tommy deviate in order to save the life of an opposing faction’s member and because I don’t want to spoil the events of the game that’s all I say about it. TLOU2 is better experienced without prior knowledge of what’s to come, yes spoilers leaked ahead of the game’s release but if like me, you didn’t read any and have managed this far without doing so then please refrain until you’ve played it. You owe it to yourself.
Where all the wild things are
The Last Of Us’ gameplay earned a reputation for fear inducing moments of tension and angst. These unpleasant emotions have returned for the sequel and to make matters worse Naughty Dog have thrown in a couple of additional enemy types for good measure. Clickers retain their signature din and clinical senses, stealth is preferred to take them out as melee attacks can be risky or alternatively look to avoid them all together, once alerted you’ll have a few seconds before becoming overrun with swarms of infected. The infected grunts themselves are more palatable in how you tackle them; most can be snuck up on for a silent takedown, melee attacks with either fists or weapons will do the job (until they break) or you can employ the use of the pistol’s silencer attachment for a quick, clean kill. Shamblers on the other hand, TLOU2’s newest infected enemy, relinquishes your right for a considered approach.
These gruesome brutes are formidable, smashing through furniture as they charge toward you inside a shop then hurling noxious missiles that can turn you into Kentucky Fried Ellie. Every time one appeared my heart rate tripled.
I think I see something
As well as the infected, Ellie has two other factions to contend with. The WLF (Washington Liberation Front or Wolves for short), a paramilitary organisation fighting over territory with the Seraphite’s (or Scars), a primitivist cult. Each present their own challenges in how best to defeat them.
The Scars are equipped with bows and arrows coupled with eagle eye accuracy, they communicate effectively through coded whistles that inform their brethren of your position, conducting wide searches to root you out or flanking the player competently. The Wolves are more militant therefore guns are what you need to worry about, again they can effectively coordinate attacks and cover ground but they also implement the use of dogs; my new nemesis. Dogs are able to pick up your scent, which you can trace through the L1 button’s Listen Mode, forcing you to negotiate dangerous ground where risk of alert is probable as you try to shake the scent, throwable objects such as bottles or bricks can be tossed as a way to throw them off but often I found myself hiding then making a well placed headshot to eliminate the canine threat, which I then felt immediately terrible for doing.
The use of Ellie’s new found ability to go prone proved invaluable in surviving these bouts. A lot more verticality is introduced this time around, with Ellie being much more agile character allowing her to scale walls to access higher ground or suddenly drop to the floor and crawl through tall grass to evade peril. It’s a simple yet instrumental change in how skirmishes play out.
The challenges each enemy provides, along with their necessary solution, make each encounter varied, exciting and terrifying all at the same time. It’s tense and at times exhausting.
As with the previous game you have the ability to craft items and weapons such as medikits, explosives or attachments.
Same gig, pick up the necessary resource then once you have enough for a recipe you can craft a set amount of whatever it is you choose. Workbenches are back too, letting you upgrade a firearm’s performance such as increased damage output, improved stability, attaching scopes and much more.
I can’t comment on the availability of resources for other game modes but on Hard mode I needed to explore each and every corner of the map in order to guarantee sufficient supplies for crafting, failure to do so would have landed me in compromising positions had I not been able to retreat and quickly craft a medikit or additional ammo. The same applied to collecting pills used for upgrading what is essentially the game’s skill tree. There’s plenty of modification to be had over the course of the game’s 25 or so hour campaign.
Weapons feel and sound excellent to use. The handling of which have much improved over the previous game whereby each weapon feels impactful in their own way. For smaller groups the pistol served me well, the silencer was crucial for safe passage but if things went south I could switch out to the shotgun or rifle and go loud with devastating effects.
What’s left of us
All of the components in The Last Of Us Part II work together in a cohesive dance of expert precision. The gameplay is responsive and engaging, constantly pushing and pulling you between serenity and terror. Seattle is a desolate playground of harsh realities and savage brutality, forcing the player to make uncomfortable choices in a land marred by devastation whilst simultaneously driving a crusade for vengeance. Bold new themes and identifiable characters are inserted with such delicacy and attention to detail that they allow the story to take centre stage in an exhibition for one of gaming’s finest achievements to date. The pedestal in my mind has received a new occupant.
The Last Of Us Part II surpasses the heights of its predecessor, delivering a sublime, nuanced experience that represents the perfect culmination between cinema and video games. The bar for what this industry can accomplish has been raised significantly making this not only an unmissable experience but for me, the greatest game of this console generation. Congratulations Naughty Dog, you did it again.