As we played through The Last of Us Part II, we were reminded of director James Cameron referring to his sci-fi action masterpiece Aliens as “40 miles of bad road.” Nothing comes easy over the game’s 25-plus-hour story and victories are almost exclusively of the Pyrrhic variety. It’s a relentless, exhausting journey that takes chances and turns some long-standing gaming tropes on their ear. It’s also one of the best games we’ve ever played.
Naughty Dog didn’t make a lot of changes to the original’s setup, especially when it comes to combat. Aiming can still feel a little shaky, which, coupled with the frustratingly low number of bullets you can carry, made stealth the preferred option throughout. Melee fights are intense and visceral as you dodge enemy strikes and counter with brutal blows of your own to create an almost choreographed feel. It’s delightfully savage.
By far the most significant addition is the ability to jump. While it doesn’t sound like much, the effect on level design is massive and fundamentally changes what moving through the world feels like, opening up new pathways and areas to explore. Even moving at a deliberate pace and searching for every possible resource and collectable we still ended up missing dozens of them on our initial playthrough, which speaks to how packed the game is with things to discover.
Inventory management still causes the occasional headache and prevents full marks in this area. As with the original, you’ll need to scavenge for resources that are then used to craft things like health packs, molotov cocktails, arrows and more. Much of this is assigned to the d-pad, and as you progress and collect more items it grows more cumbersome to manage. On the bright side, it’s extremely rare that it gets in the way during a critical time.
Visually, The Last of Us Part II sets a new standard for the PS4/XB1 console generation. The detail and world design are impeccable, and the lush way nature reclaims buildings is consistently gorgeous. Character animations are top notch as well, especially during combat where the game pulls no punches with its gritty violence. Cutscenes look amazing, and all of the actors involved deserve tremendous credit for their performances.
While more subtle than the game’s graphical prowess, the audio delivers on every front as well, from the sound effects with the pop of gunfire and cracking of bones to the subdued yet excellent soundtrack. Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker return to breathe life into Ellie and Joel once again, and their expected strong work is supplemented by newcomers like Shannon Woodward (Dina) and Laura Bailey (Abby).
Things pick up roughly four years after the conclusion of the first game with Joel and Ellie living a largely peaceful life in the thriving community of Jackson, Wyoming. That peace is quickly shattered, however, sending Ellie and her friend Dina off to Seattle for a reckoning. It’s a story that consistently defies expectation and delves into a lot of emotional areas, raising questions about things like the complexity of living with hate and desire for revenge.
It’s a darker, more nuanced story than the original, which featured great world building but was ultimately about protecting what you love at all costs. That relative simplicity of purpose is nowhere to be found here. To avoid spoilers there isn’t a lot else we can discuss about the story beats, but suffice to say there’s a lot to digest, and there were times where the game wore us down under its relentless sense of loss.
As with its predecessor, The Last of Us Part II features a mix of stealth, action and exploration. It’s noticeably cleaner and more intense, but the changes aren’t massive. For most of the game you’ll deal with one of three elements: the Washington Liberation Front (AKA Wolves), the Scars and the infected. There are times you’ll have the chance to pit one against the other, though not as often as you might think.
Each group offers unique approaches and necessitates different tactics. The Wolves are a mostly traditional armed militia, whereas the Scars typically favour bladed weapons and use whistles to communicate. The infected have been tweaked to be more dangerous, often by grouping them up with different types. For instance, runners are weak but can see you, so if you’re discovered the clickers, which are blind but much stronger, will activate and attack.
It makes for more varied combat, even if the aforementioned dearth of ammunition makes any non-stealth strategy feel unsustainable for long. If there’s a weakness here it’s in the lack of memorable encounters. There were a few fights here and there but by and large one scenario bled into the next to create a homogeneous feel, particularly with human enemies.
Pacing may also prove to be an acquired taste as Naughty Dog has no qualms about easing off the throttle and letting the story take the wheel. For the most part we found the respites to be welcome as the intensity (not to be confused with difficulty) of the fighting can be exhausting, but others may not appreciate the sometimes lengthy gaps.
The Last of Us Part II is a phenomenal experience that takes the kind of risks a less established studio couldn’t. It may only be June, but it already feels like the rest of this year’s releases are angling for second place in Game of the Year consideration.