The Last of Us Part II Review
Solid gameplay holds up a less enjoyable narrative
It's not often that a developer can claim to have two breakout hits in their portfolio within the same decade, let alone on a single console. But Naughty Dog have done just that - first creating the great Uncharted franchise, and following that up with The Last of Us, a tense third person post-apocalyptic survival adventure. The game featured cinematic action, atmospheric environments, memorable characters and unflinching violence. Its likeable protagonists had great chemistry, and the stealth-focused gameplay held solid against both humans and infected enemies alike. The sequel, The Last of Us Part II, continues to build on much of the same foundations, and while it still offers a great experience, it's perhaps not as strong as the original debut.
In the first game, players assumed the role of Joel, a man tasked with taking a young girl named Ellie across the USA in hopes of getting her to the Fireflies, who promised to create a vaccine using Ellie's immunity, to help against the infected that overran Earth. After a lengthy and often harrowing journey, the pair got to their destination but Joel refused to let Ellie die for the sake of a potential cure. Ellie was shielded from this truth, as the pair found a new home in the human settlement near Jackson, Wyoming. The game begins a few years later, as the pair have adjusted to their new community, and perhaps don’t have as much to talk about anymore as they once did.
But one day, as Ellie returns from a regular patrol, she learns of trouble. Joel - a man who's had to sacrifice, but also hurt a lot of people - hasn't been seen for hours. The events that follow set Ellie on a path of vengeance, and take her to Seattle, where most of the game takes place. It's in these collapsed buildings, caved-in concrete streets, all overgrown with vegetation and crawling with threats, that she must satisfy her craving for retribution.
During parts of her travels through the city, Ellie is joined by new companions such as Dina, her newly found girlfriend, and friend Jesse. Ellie spends the most time with Dina, who seems to be very carefree and while the pair love each other, their chemistry never clicks. Dina goes along with Ellie as her companion, rather than believing in the mission itself, and so only serves the dilute the atmosphere with too many romantic proclamations. Thankfully, the narrative soon finds a reason for her to stay behind. With the Fireflies gone, Ellie will instead encounter the WLF, a military-focused survivor outfit, as well as a cultist-like group that prefers to use stealth and bows. There was some potential to explore these factions and their structure/motivations further, as well as why the two are in conflict. At the end of the day however, they’re just bad guys that stand in your way.
The story of Part II can't help but use plenty of clichés. Much as the first game followed many zombie movie/TV tropes, the second chapter focuses more on human drama - ironically, a sophomore effort cliché in itself. Without getting into spoilers, the events that unfold are either predictable within the setting, or they happen so unceremoniously that it carries little emotional impact. There are actions and traits to the characters that don't make a lot of sense in the context of the game world, but rather appear to be channeling some sort of political message. The game also keeps seeking to replicate the "Giraffe scene" from the first game, and it rarely works. The characters are not as likable and most aren't well developed, especially on Ellie's side, so there's nothing here to match the companionship and chemistry of the original title.
A unique aspect that fans will recall from the first game is the chapter where we get to play as Ellie. The sequel doubles down on this idea, quite literally. The story is structured as a series of days in Seattle, from two different perspectives. While it may seem interesting in theory, the execution leaves much to be desired. For one, fans of Ellie will be disappointed to know that her story is only half of the adventure, and the other perspective will get to do some things that fans may not be pleased with. The other view point also has a bigger and more diverse cast, and to be frank, more memorable levels because they take place later in the game. But the biggest missed opportunity is the fact that the two narratives only marginally interconnect. They are largely separate adventures with such limited crossover, the concept of duality is barely utilized; they might as well not have happened within the same timeframe.
The sheer amount of narrative content to get through also presents plenty of pacing issues over the game's 20+ hour running time, finding over 80% of all collectibles. In addition to having to tell two stories, one after another instead of alternating them, there are also numerous flashback sequences. The tension of the overarching plot just gets lost a lot of the time, as you try to put the pieces of the timeline together and struggle to recall the current predicament. Simply trying to reach a destination on the horizon turns into hour-long detours and action sequences. While there is opportunity here to address concepts like the cycle of violence, the game instead opts to try and incite shock and tears, a bit too obviously. One flashback sub-story focuses on emotions specifically, and it's spread out across the entire game - maybe for creative reasons, or maybe to inject something heartfelt in the midst of the main story that's not as engaging.
So while the voyage and characters are not as endearing this time around, the gameplay mechanics remain largely the same. This is still a third person stealth-survival game in which you'll spend a ton of time maneuvering your way around dark and dangerous buildings, open outdoor areas, and tight spaces. Because we get two perspectives, the game actually is able to simply re-use the same locations; though that's not to suggest it's done for the sake of stretching out the content. The sections of levels are still pretty distinctly split up, featuring entrances and exits beyond which enemies will not pursue. Some sections are free of foes, while others have them spawn in as you progress. Controls are still very grounded, though you do occasionally get to climb a rope, and the new ability to jump lets you awkwardly scramble across gaps.
The biggest gameplay change is the size of the levels. Early on, players will visit a small corner of Seattle where you can freely explore a few buildings packed together, and ride a horse between them. This isn't a huge area; it’s structured similarly to the ones in the recent Uncharted games. But even as you continue on and the levels become linear, there is still often a ton of side buildings and abandoned shop fronts to bash the windows in. Levels are quite sizable and if you want to explore thoroughly, it definitely takes a while; it's impressive to see the many different ways to traverse an area. There are also collectibles to find, and the occasional light traversal puzzles. A more direct puzzle mechanic is unlocking the occasional safes, their combination revealed by an obvious clue in a note, or is simply written on the wall of the next room.
But the one downside of such design is that it brings the pacing down even further. You do need to explore - as resources are as scarce as ever, and new weapons and some perks are surprisingly not on the critical path - but this means you enter every room, and run to every surface, looking for interactive items over and over. This gets repetitive when stretched over the game's campaign, not helped by many shelves and drawers being empty. The safes and environment traversal puzzles do help inject some variety. Still, no situation or story beat is too intense for Ellie to skip the perimeter sweep of every single room, even as others may be waiting or in danger.
Much the same as in the original game, you will be collecting crafting resources, weapon materials, ammo, and pills. The interface remains simple and functional. Ammo you need for obvious reasons, when things get hairy and weapons must be used. The weapon materials are used at work benches you encounter along the way, where guns can be improved to add scopes, reduce sway, increase reload speed, and so on. The pills are used to unlock passive perks in one of a few different linear skill trees. You can unlock more effective med kits, raise your stealth awareness, become more deadly in melee combat, and so on. This time around, to unlock new perk trees you need to first find training manuals that are often not on the main path, which is an interesting design choice. Last but not least are the crafting resources; you'll collect duct tape, water, cloth, and more in order to craft usable items such as bombs, silencers, med kits, Molotovs, and more. These items are just as infrequent as the ammo, and so must be used with care. But with enough patient exploration, you will be more than ready for the challenges ahead.
The enemies that stand between you and your destination are either humans or the infected. Whoever you’re facing, there are a number of options on how to get by them. Largely, the game encourages stealth, and eliminating enemies remains entirely optional as there is no experience system and they rarely have materials. So the choice becomes yours - do you have the patience to wait for very long periods of time and find the opening in random enemy paths, do you move fast with kills along the way, or do you just risk it all and sprint for the far end of the level where the exit lies. When remaining in stealth, you can use the familiar Listen mode that shows nearby enemies through walls. Sneaking up behind an enemy lets you perform a silent takedown, which lasts a few anguishing seconds.
Enemies have good vision, especially during daytime, so you must move swiftly between cover. Audio cues indicate when you're being seen by someone. New to the sequel is the ability to hide in patches of tall grass, Uncharted style, or go prone and crawl under certain objects and debris. These help expand your stealth approach options. Still, the game features some intensely draining sections that make you take things very slow and check for surprises around the corner. The second half of the story in particular has a few grueling encounters that are quite memorable, thanks to tight corridors and a plethora of enemies.
Sometimes, though, things don’t go according to plan, so the bullets start flying. With limited ammo and floaty controls, this is not an overly enjoyable third person shooter, so it really is the last resort. It does feel satisfying to use the shotgun, but the other weapons have a lot of sway, even when fully upgraded. Most foes go down in a few hits, but if some get close you'll have to use melee to bash them around. The fist fights remain simple, though you now have a Resident Evil-like dodge that must be utilized to avoid incoming blows. The combat still feels a bit awkward in this franchise, and so the few forced scripted combat encounters are annoying as they chew up valuable ammo.
Ammo will usually be in short supply. Thankfully, you can have a couple of weapons equipped, while others can be relatively quickly swapped to from your backpack. Pistols, shotguns, the bow, and more are on offer to deal with threats. You can find more weapons by carefully exploring every nook and side-path. Only the pistol (with a temporary silencer) and the bow produce quiet results, so if the ammo is running low, it's best to avoid combat.
The two types of enemies present their own challenges. The infected walk slow and are easily manipulated with distracting noises, but if you're spotted they are hard to lose and swarm you fast. Joining the typical basic zombies is a new variation that makes almost no noise and likes to attack from cover. The Bloaters have been replaced by Shamblers, larger enemies unkillable by stealth that spew gas if they get close. The infamous Clickers are still blind, and very deadly, also requiring you to walk extra slow on approach. There are even boss fights, seemingly inspired by the likes of Resident Evil, and they are action focused.
Encountering human enemies offers more variety. They will also follow patrol paths, and if they find dead bodies the area they will begin sweeping searches. Eliminating them one by one is quite similar to dealing with infected, but one new element is the dogs and their handler. The dogs will pick up and follow your scent through the level, making them a constant threat even if you hide effectively from humans. It's a big step up in terms of difficulty when maintaining perfect stealth. When the firefight does break out, the enemy bullets hurt - and you often get knocked down, but can remain in this position to shoot back. It's also possible to lose the alert and re-enter stealth, as enemies reconverge on your last known position.
Your travels through Seattle will make you cross paths with both human and infected enemies at about an even rate, though the two rarely intersect. In fact, when they do, things get a bit awkward as the AI is not quite sure how to handle itself. Elsewhere, when you're spotted by infected, they simply rush to attack you from all angles, and the humans begin trying to perform some strange maneuvers to flank you that has them running around a bit loopy. Sometimes enemies start searching for you in the opposite direction of where you were last seen, and sometimes they don't really react to finding bodies. There's definitely something left to be desired with the AI behavior, at least on Moderate difficulty.
As a first-party exclusive title, and one that focuses on a cinematic approach, there's no questioning the game's presentation prowess. The Last of Us Part II looks very good on the base model PS4, offering sharp visuals with high resolution textures, great lighting effects, and moody vistas of the city. The details of each abandoned building and forgotten tunnel continue to be impressive. Ellie's animations are smooth and precise for the most part, though things can sometimes look a bit awkward during melee combat in particular. The audio design is equally strong, with good voice acting, great sound effects and environmental sounds that add to the strong atmosphere. The framerate stays locked in, and on the whole the game performs solidly, as exclusives usually do. There are occasional small issues - enemies spawning in front of you, visual glitches - but these are rare.
The game also offers welcome modern options, such as encounter select. The difficulty can be adjusted at any time now, which affects the resources you find and how aware and punishing the AI is. There are also tons of accessibility tweaks, anything from solving the puzzles for you to always highlighting foes automatically. After you beat the game, you can start again with New Game+, keeping your weapons and perks.
But perhaps the most impressive part of the package is the motion and facial expressions. Sure, there are plenty of games these days that pour resources into highly detailed faces, but Part II stands out in its purely natural feel. It's almost on the levels of LA Noire, but without the uncanny valley; the emotions and small facial expressions look stirringly realistic, and the game's best moments come during natural small talk, rather than the pre-planned dramatic scenes.
The Last of Us Part II is a sequel that builds on a solid foundation, but fails to capture the lightning in a bottle that was the first game. On paper, it's a bigger game - the levels are large, exploration plentiful, enemy and item variety slightly expanded, and it has a pair of adventures to get stuck into. And yet, while still propped up by its solid gameplay, the characters are not as endearing, and the story struggles under its own weight and structure. This is a great looking game, but just like its narrative, it may just prove to be a tale of two halves between fans of new and old.
A digital code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.