The Last Of Us Part II comes out next week Friday, June 19th. Before it hits shelves, your console’s drive space, or the many Youtube channels out there, we’re giving you this spoiler-free review in an attempt to fairly judge our experience after having finished the game multiple times (and then some). The sequel to Naughty Dog’s masterpiece take on the post-apocalyptic zombie action genre has been on every M-rated gamer’s mind ever since the ending of the first one blew our collective heads.
I had come into that game late, playing it only when the remastered version came out. Thankfully, I got to experience it spoiler free. I had many presumptions, being a horror and sci-fi nut in many mediums including videogames, and none of my expectations came close to encapsulating what a wild ride the first was: one truly had to see it to believe it – and that’s just saying something about the story. The sequel is an attempt to catch bottled lightning for the second time, and for a game that some will attest to needing no followup (indicating how perfect and complete the previous one was), it was going to be quite the feat to accomplish.
I’ll save you a few minutes of reading: it is the best game yet to come out this year. Maybe not best-selling, as Animal Crossing: New Horizons also just came out – but The Last Of Us Part II is already my contender for Game Of The Year, arguably, even over the Final Fantasy 7 Remake. We had to come up with a new rating past our usual Buy/Ignore/Wait verdicts just for this (and retroactively, for FF7R as well). I could end the review right now with just that, for fear of accidentally lessening the impact of how good the game is when played leak and spoiler-free, but If you still want to read more, thanks and go on ahead; we’ve got a lot of stuff to unpack – and I promise I won’t ruin anything for you.
This review is spoiler free.
Jackson, Wyoming – or where our story begins
The game is set a few years past the ending of the first, and we find ourselves back in the peaceful settlement our protagonists have joined. The timeskip alone tells us that a lot of time and events may already have transpired from the Joel and Ellie we know to the Joel and Ellie of this game. It’s pretty casual – drinks at a bar, awkward social situations, playing in the snow – life seems normal in the continental United States of Fungus. Well, yeah, except for that. The Cordyceps infestation is still very much a problem outside the walls of this prospering abode. We take control of Ellie, who’s now a lot taller from before, and even sporting a tattoo.
The small details in this first act begin to hint at a lot of things you will need to know: Ellie’s grown up, but the world is still the same as the first, seemingly normal and unperturbed by the disasters knocking outside the gates. One of our first tasks is to go on patrol around the settlement – and we are not told that “in today’s world, we go on patrol to check for clickers and other infected in the surrounding areas”.
We are shown Ellie going on a route and role that she hasn’t taken before, and therefore we, as the audience, inherit her eyes and POV. By this we know that Jackson is kept liveable by people who aren’t the same as the people from the outbreak – these are people who’ve lived decades past that (including Ellie and Joel) and that their collective experience in dealing with the Infected and life after the fall of the world has served them well. This is mere minutes into the game, but the rules of the world have already been set – and this is the first thing the game shows without outright telling, with little hand-holding.
Ellie knows what to do, and is raring to contribute to her community – but Naughty Dog still considers that not everyone has played the first before this one, and so we get a tutorial. Like in the first, controls and gameplay concepts are introduced as we go along a relaxed sequence after the introductory scenes in a cold-open narrative style (we jump into the story immediately, and merely observing and then trying lets us grasp what we have to do to play).
The controls feel very responsive and intuitive, even more than the first game – alongside the fact that numerous customization and accessibility options are provided well enough to aid any kind of player (so much so that it deserves a separate rundown and read through). Both the camera and how our character behaves with it have been streamlined in operation compared to the original, and it feels less constraining to lie prone or look over tight corners. In terms of controls and camerawork, The Last of Us Part II delivers with flying colors.
The tension is built up over the course of a few fights, QTEs, and a very open-world-ish series of “find an area and clear it of loot and enemies”. In a slight contrast to the first game, the world of TLOU2 appears more explorable and inviting; there’s even a dedicated jump button now, adding to the verticality of locales and your traversal options. There is stuff you can miss: it’s up to you whether you want to play this as quick as you can, or if you want to cross out every nook and cranny you can before going ahead – just be aware that environmental circumstances may not always allow you that leisure (i.e., being chased down by enemies).
That said, it feels natural where you can go and where you cannot: the areas are not so plagued by invisible walls, and the level design is very context-sensitive in that, as I’ve said already, observation alone lets you into a lot of information about what you can or cannot do. See that ledge? Does it look like you can step on top of it? Well, you can. If it doesn’t (there’s all sorts of garbage above it or something), then you can’t grab onto it and pull yourself up.
It sounds so simple, and really, nothing groundbreaking – but there lies an astounding level of polish and attention to even small things that may not even get seen. I didn’t feel bad about possibly missing loot to grab because I did want to push the story forward (or I did not want to risk bothering a clutch of infected), and I found myself thinking, what would Ellie do? I also got the feeling that I was being taught how to play the game again even if I had played the first, because it was such a smooth and engaging experience to do whatever it is the game hints at to progress the story.
That there is the key: TLOU2 has a habit of nudging you ever forward, egging you on towards uncovering more and more about the world and what’s happened to it, that the process of tinkering with what you find and dealing with obstacles you encounter already shows you a lot of the story – because the story is the juicy succulent meat of it all. The pacing shows us that this is a sequel to a game that made us cry and/or cringe at the horrors of both human and monster. It starts off slow, almost reassuring even, but the mounting suspense is grating and ever-present, and we are made to feel like Ellie does: a teenager that’s not so helpless against the world – but the world is still one unforgiving son-of-a-bitch too.
Seattle, Washington – or where our story unfolds
Seattle is huge. When we arrive downtown, there is an absolute TON of things we can immediately do. Ellie’s obviously not from this particular city (and so are the lot of us who haven’t been to Seattle, much less a fictional one ravaged by a destructive and fatal contagion), and procuring a map allows both Ellie and we, the player, to make sense of the surrounding cityscape. We’ve talked about the Finding Nora sequence a bit in our preview, so let me regale you with another sequence that separates this game from the first.
Downtown Seattle is a taste of The Last Of Us 2: Open-World: the less-than-linear approach was teased in the first act and now in this area, we really get to explore at our leisure. Ellie has the freedom to check out a number of spots on her (and our) own accord: we are not pressed by time nor circumstance – we can stay here for the rest of the game should we want to, looking for collectible trading cards or that one last bit of alcohol we need to make another molotov. Or simply, admiring the views, observing stupid roaming infected who can’t see us hiding in the grass, or riding a horse around pretending this is Red Dead Redemption. I’ve experienced minor clipping glitches such as the horse’s feet going through some stair steps, or Ellie getting stuck in midair after a short jump against a wall – nothing too bad as everything else looks gorgeous and well-placed.
And gorgeous is an understatement. The Last of Us Part II pushes the graphical boundaries of the PlayStation 4 Pro and just when you think you’ve seen great graphics, you haven’t seen The Last of Us 2 yet. Which leads us to think at what could be, with the PlayStation 5 just looming over the horizon.
This level of nonlinearity is reflected in the rest of the game after being introduced in a practically looser and less-hurried section of gameplay in downtown. At this point, there are encounters with clickers and other enemies, but nothing seems too daunting yet, so the exploration feels like something out of Skyrim where you’re more excited of what goodies you get to bring home rather than wary of what danger you can get yourself into.
Later on, the same non-linear concept is hammered on to everything you do – there are always multiple approaches to either combat or exploration, stealthily or not, and there will be loads of options presented as a situation unfolds. A wall may open up due to an explosion that alerts enemies but allows you a way through undetected, an infected may run after humans should one appear between you, and improvised weapons may become available from debris (so far, my favorite is a modified hammer). While it may have been a scripted event, the game always offers you a choice of how to go about things.
We get a few more toys to play with in Seattle, some of which were shown in the official State of Play and other previews, such as explosive arrows for use with the bow, taped-together melee weapons like a bat with nails on it, and it seems like we’ll want to use each and every one of these because there are quite a number of encounters that seem like killing everything that movies might be the only way to progress. By this time we’ll be getting adept at how Ellie deals with threats, whether with projectiles or by bashing their head or stabbing their necks.
One of the things you are taught is that stealth is as important here as it was in the first game, maybe even more. The enemy AI is much smarter but at the same time, Ellie is much more capable, as brought about by her age.
She is much more agile, and the rhythm of dodging and striking is another cool improvement, albeit a somewhat repetitive one. Still, figuring out how different enemies react to melee attacks is a fun dance. There are only a limited amount of stealth kill animations and it can get cumbersome at some point – but kills on stunned or surprised enemies make up for that, with some so wildly shocking that you’ll probably select your own favorite weapon like how I did – by their hit/kill animation.
Once we’re ready to set forth with supplies, a lot of which we’ve gathered from the unfortunate blokes who took time to write a lot of notes to tell us THEIR story, the plot is once again set in motion by Ellie finding clues that eventually leads her to what she set out to do by coming to the state of Washington. We’d arrived here clueless but driven, then after some preparing and equipping, we chase after our objective having survived a new city with its own brand of obstacles in a different state of dilapidation that riffs on the Salt Lake City and Boston of before: Seattle seems empty, but not quite.
While I was playing, I got to where I was without feeling like I was being told to do anything, like anything, or agree with anything: I got here because the game was showing me all these things that begged me to discover them. From the wayward note with a combination to a safe with medical supplies from an ailing husband to a pregnant wife now long-since dead and infected, to knowing that I was as disgusted as I was driven as I bury the blade of a machete into some screaming cultist’s bald head.
The clicker is in the details
Now that I’ve gotten most of what little of the story I can divulge (and the beauty of how it is presented), along with describing the gameplay that came along with it, I can wax further on everything else that made me fall for this game.
First off, difficulty options are more varied and customizable this time around. As I’ve mentioned in our preview, you can play to your own style, and adjust the difficulty accordingly, since some options will present a different experience from the defaults (i.e., more action vs. more stealth, or more punishment vs. less consequences). None of the options, even the easiest nor the hardest one, have taken my fun away.
Character progression is divided into item upgrades (via crafting recipes), equipment upgrades (via the workbench and scrap material), and passive upgrades (using vitamin supplements). Some parts of these are unlocked by finding magazines – “training manuals” – which I often wondered if they were possible to miss, but none have been required to progress in story, but all that I’ve tried sure helped in combat and staying alive while exploring.
The encounter variety is a huge plus too, considering I’d already found the first one a bit formulaic. Again, they already had a good formula, and it seems that Naughty Dog listened to a lot of feedback about the first game and its remaster, thereby now executing the same formulas with A+ levels of painstaking detail. It’s the same game, sure, but done by degrees better.
You know how in the first game you almost never got to use those bricks and bottles? You’ll be scrambling for them here in the second game. You know how in the first game the infected weren’t really THAT scary or intimidating once you get used to them? You will always learn to treat them with caution in the second game. Throw away your notions from part 1 because part 2 will chew it up and spit it out.
With enemies, there’s new forms of infected like the smelly-ass Shambler (Ellie describes how it smells vividly in both words and tone), and the soon-to-be-infamous Ellie-sniffing dogs, which is such a basic addition when you think about it, but it evolves the gameplay dynamics by leaps and bounds, forcing you to think and act on the fly.
On the human side, there’s the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), of which I’d rather not spoil anything about. Of course, there’s also the Scars – the creepy-as-hell madmen who communicate with surprisingly eerie whistles, who I don’t doubt you will both be excited and afraid to meet. I wish I could say more about them – but I’ll leave it by saying that they are as alive as our protagonists, calling each other’s names when someone disappears, crying for a dying teammate, and vowing revenge against us. They are all still human after all.
I still cannot get over how most everyone, if not everyone, in the world we encounter has a name, something we can connect their faces to. It makes everyone much more relatable, especially with the letters strewn around the world. Reading them is not a boring affair, and the world building accomplished by Naughty Dog is absolutely spectacular.
The audio-visual presentation is top-notch and is what I expected from a triple-A release from a triple-A studio like Naughty Dog. While I am no expert with the technicalities of videogame rendering breakthroughs of recent years – The Last Of Us boasts art direction and design that nearly no game I’ve ever played before has ever shown.
The sense and interactiveness of objects in and around the areas you can tread are a tour-de-force of handcrafted detail, with every placement feeling real and not a procedurally-generated decision. Everything in the world makes sense – a bottle of alcohol in a bar, or that pair of scissors in an office. There’s a logic and reason that pervades the world and it is seen through every detail.
The sound effects are as visceral as the graphical accompaniment, with each gurgle and scream you hear indicative of the pain you inflict or receive. Each moment and encounter in the world is an elevated experience because of the sound design, which creates such an atmosphere of dread and tension that is executed beautifully.
There is Johnny Cash in the soundtrack, and a few other gems I will not dare say because you yourself will want to hear it and go “damn, great taste”. The score is also very good in accentuating the penultimate word describing my experience, “tense”, but never forgets that there are calm and somber moments even in a world that’s already ended.
I could scarcely find anything else that was wrong or lacking aside from very minor nitpicks in the version I’ve played for 26 hours in the first run (a team member finished his playthrough in 35 hours), and another 15 or so (and counting) for my various revisits taking additional notes for this review (and replaying specific chapters at will). You read right, the game could take you anywhere from 25-35 hours, a far cry from the paltry game length of part 1.
There is no multiplayer just yet, similar to how the first did not have it at the outset, and I am excited to think about the possibilities that will present.
While the game plays at a steady pace of 30 frames, there are a few areas where it would dip, but not to the point of it being unplayable. Looking as good as it shows is already a feat on its own, so the minor fluctuations are forgivable.
That said, this release is already a monumental effort in terms of conveying a single-player experience that’s bound to stay with us for quite a while. It took me to school, and taught me a number of things I did not expect would get tackled in a videogame about zombies. I grew up, it seems, just like Ellie did, even if we aren’t the same age. This is one game that the story carries the gameplay more than most – but it is far from a cinematic novel. After all, my heart had skipped a lot of beats getting around insane humans and ravenous infected as much as my hands sweat from gripping the controller hard, especially in some really tight situations in the dark.
What we liked:
- World building and attention to detail is phenomenal
- Audio visual presentation is masterful
- Vastly improved gameplay
- Character animations are top notch
- Impressive accessibility options
What we didn’t like:
- Minor graphical hitches
- Frame dips in some areas
- Not getting to play it on the PS5 just yet.
Verdict: Buy it!
The Last of Us Part II is a triumph. Despite all the challenges, the game is strong enough to shrug it off and matter where it needs to the most. It’s not the most mechanically challenging or scariest game out there because it doesn’t need to be, instead it grips you in ways that you don’t really expect. Whether it be in the small details of the world or in its narrative twists, The Last of Us Part II is an experience that exceeds expectations.
The Last of Us 2 was reviewed on a PS4 Pro through a review copy provided by the Publisher.