Platforms: PlayStation 4
Release Date: June 19th, 2020
Developer: Naughty Dog
ESRB: M for Mature
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It’s been seven years since The Last of Us, one of the industry’s most highly regarded games, cementing Naughty Dog’s status along with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Just as Naughty Dog’s classic released at the tail-end of the seventh generation, its sequel launches months before the PlayStation 5. It’s Naughty Dog’s most ambitious project, utilizing eighth-gen hardware to tell a morose narrative about meaningless revenge and how emotionally-infused decisions perpetuate an endless cycle of death. It’s twice as long as the studio’s last two games, but length and ambition don’t equate to quality. It understands The Last of Us’ formula better than Uncharted 4 understood its franchise, but it shouldn’t be evangelized in the on-going, overtired debate about games as an art form.
This review’s narrative section will be left vague to avoid spoilers. The Last of Us Part 2 takes place five years after its predecessor’s conclusion. Ellie is this game’s lead. She’s still emotionally driven and loud-mouthed with an aversion to authority. She showcases immature moments, but she’s more level-headed and respectful toward superiors that reciprocate that respect. This is a more grown-up Ellie.
After a series of events, Ellie sets on a vengeful tale leading her through Seattle. This vindictive questline sets its characters up for introspection. Violence was a means to an end in the first game, treated as nonchalantly as sipping a cup of coffee. It reeled back on occasion to make players feel bad about their actions, but the next day was another day.
Part 2 reframes its violence in an interesting way. With less experienced characters, abhorrent actions are made to leave a more lasting impact because these people don’t understand the gravity of their actions. Joel crossed hundreds of people, but he never acted recklessly. Any person he wronged, he did so for his own or his loved one’s safety. It uses its characters’ naiveté to reinforce its world’s harsh nature. It’s less concerned with normalizing violence than it is demonizing it when perpetrated in the name of self-interest.
Dialogue is no worse than previous Naughty Dog releases, once again showing up other developers in the art of subtlety. In one mid-game moment, Ellie returns to someone, shaken up after killing somebody. She sits next to this person, forming only one cohesive thought: “I made her talk.” She doesn’t say how she feels about the situation and neither does the person consoling her. It’s through facial expressions and mannerisms that one understands Ellie’s trauma and her partner’s pain witnessing Ellie in such a state.
These intimate moments are peppered throughout the narrative, but their infrequency makes it more difficult to connect with on the same level as the first title. The first game’s simple plot was the vehicle driving Ellie and Joel’s relationship. Part 2 begins with a simple plot, but layers so many plot threads through its second half that it creates a disconnect. There were moments during the story’s second half that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a soap opera or anime. Its off-the-rails events muddle the deeper human moments between these plot beats.
The Last of Us Part 2’s minor additions and refinements make encounters more exciting. Ellie can crawl, hide under trucks, beds, and craft and shoot while laying prone. She can even dodge-roll from her prone status, leading to intense cinematic moments as NPC’s tower over Ellie, winding up an axe swing. There are new craftable weapons and items including explosive bows, silencers, and incendiary shotgun shells.
Melee combat still involves repeatedly mashing square, however, the new dodge mechanic forces players to be more alert. Paying attention to the enemy’s telegraphing pays dividends when it results in such gruesome counterattacks. The Last of Us Part 2 introduces one new major infected enemy type along with its more varied human adversaries and dogs.
Shamblers elicit a similar degree of dread to that of the first game’s clickers. They’re also blind, but their larger stature and more acute senses make sneaking past them heart-pounding affairs. Clickers and standard infected haven’t changed much, but stalkers are a different story. They’re more agile and frightening than before thanks to their heightened survival instincts, making them more prone to run and hide after a quick strike. Set within more open-ended environments, there are less choke points to funnel them through, forcing players to be more alert.
This alertness extends to human encounters. Taking a page from Uncharted 4’s improved AI, humans are more interesting adversaries because they can’t be exploited as easily. One faction constantly whistles as a means of indicating they’re alive. When one of its members fails to whistle back, their friends search cautiously. On occasion, dogs patrol areas with humans. Able to sniff Ellie’s scent, these encounters force constant mobility. It’s only a matter of time until the player’s exposed, breaking out into nail-biting combat.
Combat Reinforcing Themes
AI takes advantage of the larger spaces as much as the player. There are so many avenues through each combat space that make a ghost run possible. By the same token, though, after being exposed, those avenues become death traps seeing as enemies can attack the player from so many directions. The original title’s environments were too constrained for an NPC to show up unbeknownst to the player. In The Last of Us Part 2, however, prepare for constant surprise flanks.
Long gone are the original game’s rote routines enacted by exploiting AI within a limited move set, replaced by an elegant dance between predator and prey as a battle’s distribution of power changes. It’ll leave players distraught, gasping for reprieve from the relentless onslaughts. No modern game captures the futility and vulnerability of survival combat in the same way as The Last of Us Part 2.
This combat acts as an extension of the narrative’s core, reinforcing the notion that murder shouldn’t feel good. It should make one want to escape or end the section as soon as possible. Even the most desensitized gamers might wince and groan at some of The Last of Us Part 2’s violence.
Melee combat, in particular, is brutal. The fluid animations and camera work make every impact meaningful. Even after 20 hours, it carries the same weight as the first time.
The Visual Splendor
It’s no secret that The Last of Us Part 2 is one of the generation’s most stunning games. As with last gen’s greatest technical feats, expect The Last of Us Part 2 to stand toe to toe with many early next-gen titles. Character models sport insane details from a chunky character’s skin folding into a double chin while looking down to reflections of light sources in their eyes. That’s to say nothing of the superb skin shading, hair rendering, and materials. Clothing sports such high resolution textures that a simple up-res on PS5 would make a world of difference for in-surface detail.
Naughty Dog’s latest iteration of its in-house engine also sports convincing indirect bounce lighting, with the flashlight’s glow influencing the surrounding environment. Sometimes, the glow is pronounced in the case of a bright red soda machine in a dark room. In other cases, such as when aiming at objects inside a drawer, it’s much more subtle.
As expected, no one in the console space handles foliage-rich scenes like Naughty Dog with an absurd density of interactive plant-life. Despite the game’s visually consistent nature, it’s not as mind-blowing as Uncharted 4 at the time of its release, which had no equal at that point aside from Quantum Break. In 2020 with the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X in the console space along with several multiplatform games such as Control and Red Dead Redemption 2 pushing technical boundaries, it doesn’t engender the same sense of awe as Naughty Dog’s previous efforts.
This minor, iterative step isn’t helped by hackneyed PlayStation 4 Pro support. Naughty Dog may be the undisputed kings of attention to detail, but Insomniac and Guerrilla Games made better use of the Pro hardware with high quality checkerboard rendering in Horizon and top notch temporal injection in Spider-Man and Ratchet and Clank. A basic bump to 1440p is all Naughty Dog offers on Sony’s premium machine. Coupled with temporal anti-aliasing and film grain that can’t be turned off, image quality on PS4 Pro pales in comparison to other first-party releases. It’s temporally stable with next to no jagged edges, but it’s too soft to do justice to the high quality assets.
One could also nitpick pixelated reflections and low resolution textures in select instances, but few titles form such a visually complete package. If only Naughty Dog had a better handle on PS4 Pro support. It was excused in Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy. However, with The Last of Us Part 2 being the first full-fledged post-PS4 Pro release, its mid-gen support leaves much to be desired.
Where The Last of Us Part 2 Falls Short
As discussed earlier, The Last of Us Part 2 revels in its violence and storytelling. It’s littered with strong character moments, lingering on subtle expressions and mannerisms to communicate emotion. It understands body language. Unfortunately, The Last of Us Part 2 is sometimes so wrapped up in its message that it comes across as self-absorbed.
Naughty Dog treats this game as a drawn-out Western, hoping its cross between human drama, gruesome murder, and mundanity forces audiences to reflect on the adventure. This would succeed if not for the bloated run-time and uneven pacing. It relies so closely on its laurels that it fails to fill the space between plot beats and character-defining moments. The Last of Us Part 2’s filler feels ripped out of a Shonen anime.
The first game’s opening hours are slow, but they’re purposeful. Once the plot picks up, there’s rarely a moment without some sort of world-building, cinematic, or in-game dialogue to enhance the player’s connection to the world and its inhabitants. Part 2 eschews this tight pacing in favor of drawn-out gameplay sequences with little dialogue. The first game succeeded because of Joel and Ellie’s dynamic. With the focus shifted away from two characters building a relationship to a bigger picture plot with a larger scope, it misses the mark.
That’s not to say intimate moments don’t exist. They’re just more spread out through the 20+ hour run time. Taking a step back from dialogue and examining the bigger picture, this scope presents problems the original title didn’t face. Without spoiling anything, several scenes are shown out of chronological order. However, two major cinematics present themselves too late to carry the impact they intended. With a more purposeful use of these two cinematics, Ellie’s relationship with Dina would come across stronger earlier as would the ending.
The Last of Us Part 2’s core message concerning revenge loses steam because of its ending, which doesn’t seem consistent with Ellie’s character or growth. This is in stark contrast to its predecessor’s perfect, nuanced ending. Unlike that game, Ellie doesn’t experience natural character progression here. She’s the same person for most of the game except two scenes. There aren’t layers to her character in the same way as another character.
Not Quite a Swan Song
The Last of Us Part 2 is a great game. Fans of the original will like what it has to offer. It’s a narrative-driven action game with survival-infused combat. It has the same strong character interactions and natural dialogue for which Naughty Dog has become famous. Unfortunately, that strong writing is buried underneath an overly-long production with poor pacing and an unjustified ending. In a way, The Last of Us Part 2 echoes Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Both titles make strides for their respective franchise’s mechanics while losing sight of their IP’s core strengths. If it were five to seven hours shorter along with repurposing some of its cinematics, it could have come closer to reaching its predecessor’s lofty status.