In the first of our regular Away From Keyboard features, Nathan takes a look at The Last of Us Part II, an exclusive for the PlayStation 4.
Disclaimer: This review avoids major spoilers from the plot, but does discuss in-depth the setting and design of the game
People Ain’t No Good
The Last of Us Part II carries with it an unfortunate burden, the weight and pressures of a nostalgia so embedded in people’s hearts that it can provoke the disdain of its players should it fall short of expectations. And we, the players, set them high. The story of Joel and Ellie from the original The Last of Us has been cemented in the game’s industry as a moment of intense significance, representing an era when gaming was becoming more mature and mainstream, casting a wide shadow of inspiration ever since. To follow in these footsteps is bold and daunting for Naughty Dog to even consider, let alone achieve.
This game is an intensely personal experience for every player, and I believe you should remind yourself of this whenever you are reading or listening to reviews online, even this one. For this reason, I’ll only speak from personal experience from here on and not engage with the wider context of discussion surrounding TLOU2. I feel this is necessary to mention, because there are some broad disagreements across the fanbase at the moment of writing.
I Think That’s Well Understood
Getting right into it, what is great about The Last of Us Part II? Firstly, the visuals, the set-design and the entire effort within Naughty Dog’s art direction is magnificent. The artists, animators and mo-cap teams are a league above the competition, and it is plain to see.
Set for the most part in Seattle, the city feels alive and dynamic, revelling in the dangers of a place no longer lending itself to human habitation. Forests and dense foliage emerge amidst collapsed monuments to the “older world”, cementing the quiet dread of exploring places long abandoned. Harsh weather effects ripple with energetic momentum, battling against the player just as much as the infected “demons” who dominate this world. These are deadly and wonderous set-pieces and they fit perfectly into the sombre tone that TLOU2 engenders.
Secondly is the combat, much improved from the original with a more hands-on approach available to players as to how they will approach the multitude of events and encounters. It’s apparent that Uncharted 4’s dynamic traversal and combat has had some influence here, without going so far as to make it as bombastic as Uncharted’s romp-style adventure. I encourage everyone to choose a difficulty setting just beyond their comfort zone, as the decreased availability of ammunition and crafting resources in TLOU2 only enhances the harrowing moments therein when it feels like every odd of survival is stacked up against you.
Finally, is the acting and by extent the animation which affords these performances to carry a great deal of emotional weight and resonance. This was already firmly established in the original but has been elevated in the sequel - impressive given this time round there is a larger cast to contend with. Highlights of said cast of course include Ashley Johnson as Ellie and her development of a child’s perspective into one of vexation, malice, and despair. Also of note is newcomer Ian Alexander portraying the stoical and naïve Lev, who provides a great counterpoint on the subject of perceived innocence as the game evolves from its origins – the lengths at which characters would go to preserve or undermine said innocence.
You Can See it Everywhere You Look
And this is where I find the game has changed the most, it’s overall tone. In the seven years since The Last of Us’ release, Naughty Dog and everyone who fell in love with this franchise has grown; grown older, less optimistic, more cynical of others and sometimes allowing bitterness of the ‘other’ to take hold. The vision of TLOU2 has clearly grown alongside us. It is not a perfect story. It meanders a good deal during the mid-section, losing its pacing as a result, but rewards a deeper introspection than most other games allow for. Like finishing a book late at night and leaving the lamp on for 20 minutes just so you can absorb everything you have experienced. It goes to places uncomfortably grey, forcing you to endure moments of moral indecision and a tense and lingering unease.
Amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, this experience feels eerily tangible: looted stores, political tensions, spreading infections. It’s unsettling to say the least. But as an analogue to our own world, it creates a great discussion for how we might resolve the issues that Ellie and her accompanying cast deal with. Would we fair any better? Either way, Naughty Dog has earned its place once more in the annals of gaming history and we’re sure not to hear the end of it anytime soon.
Pros: Unparalleled world design, improved combat, stellar sound design and score
Cons: Pacing issues and a wandering narrative