Why would Naughty Dog make a sequel? Do we need this? Those are questions I heard whispered in the theatre when Sony unveiled The Last of Us: Part II at PlayStation Experience back in 2016. Completely understandable, as many, including myself, consider the first game's story near perfect with its amazing characters, incredible journey, and ambiguous ending. How could someone possibly build and improve upon that? Well, by doing exactly what The Last of Us: Part II does.
I say this because The Last of Us: Part II doesn't simply continue the story, it dives deeper into how people and relationships between them could change after going through what Joel and Ellie did in the original. It's difficult to say how without spoiling anything, but I'll do my very best to explain why this is a must-play for those looking for an astonishing and groundbreaking story.
The first thing you should know is that this journey will take you through the entire range of emotions. I can count the numbers of games that have made me cry on a single hand, and while Part II only got very close to making me shed a tear it sure set a new record in terms of the number of jaw-dropping and thought-provoking moments it elicited in me. A selection of games have dared to dip a toe into some of the same themes, but where most of them have shied away from going too deep for fear of being controversial or not having top-class writers - The Last of Us: Part II dives in without hesitation. To think that this game is published by the same company that have censored the smallest glimpses of butt in other titles is unbelievable, as I've played through sequences I've never seen in a game or to some extent any medium before. That's a hyperbolic-sounding statement that will certainly toss fuel on the fire for those who said that Naughty Dog had an agenda after seeing the brutal Paris Games Week 2017 trailer, so let me extinguish that right away. Every single one of these scenes feels earned and natural. Are some of the shocking? Sure, but none of them feels forced or out of place.
One of the reasons for this is that the game never lingers on them too long as it knows when enough is enough. You might even go straight into a light-hearted or at least calmer moment to lighten the mood or give you time to reflect. And it's this mix that keeps you immersed all the way through by showing some first-class character development. Understanding a person's actions is a lot easier when you see what they have gone through, both good and bad, leading up to it. Maybe it's seeing Ellie doing something different because she messed up in a similar situation hours before, or playing through a memory explaining her reaction after experiencing something. The flow between past and present - happiness and hatred - is so well done and the top-notch acting only adds to it.
Sequences like these require the best actors in the world to be believable and impactful, so Ashley Johnson, Troy Baker, Shannon Woodward, Laura Bailey, Ian Alexander and the rest of the cast gets a standing ovation from me. Johnson, in particular, has made my heart sting with screams of sorrow. Baker has made me laugh out loud with perfectly delivered dad-jokes and comments, and young Alexander makes quite the first impression.
Blending this fantastic storytelling, editing, character development and acting makes sure that absolutely no-one will sit there indifferent as the credits roll after what's definitely a controversial ending. Hate it or love it, The Last of Us: Part II isn't afraid to step on some toes and break new ground to tell a story like no other, and it does so brilliantly in my book. And I haven't even mentioned how much better the gameplay is...
Because there's no doubt that the most criticised part of The Last of Us is the gameplay, which is why this probably will be the biggest surprise for many. We're still not talking about anything revolutionary, but it's still so much better. Not just in terms of quality, but even variety. The incredible focus on accessibility can take a lot of the credit for the former, as I highly doubt you'll struggle to find settings that make the game feel perfect for you. Being able to change the strength of aim assist, sensitivity, button layout, crosshair, information on-screen, and so much more should make this an experience pretty much anyone can both play and enjoy.
"Enjoy" is obviously an important word here, and it's clear that Naughty Dog has listened to the feedback from both the original and Left Behind. The world is your playground this time around. Ellie being able to swim, jump, crawl and dodge gives you so many more options both when exploring, sneaking and fighting in a world made with these things in mind. I've played through the games three times on three different difficulties, and it's been amazing to see how many different approaches I've been able to take in the same encounters.
Playing on the lower difficulties will allow you to be more aggressive and is more forgiving in terms of both stealth and resources. Meanwhile, going through on the harder settings might force you to move from area to area, floor to floor as quietly as possible to take enemies out one by one with your unbreakable switchblade to find enough stuff to make a health kit, silencer, Molotov cocktail, upgrade your weapons at a workbench, or maybe even a single bullet if you're lucky. Even your enemies will behave differently. Maybe it's just a weird coincidence, but they seemed to be smarter and more tactical on the higher difficulties. Grown tired of enemies apparently not having any peripheral vision? Play the game on the harder difficulties (or adjust that part in the customisable difficulty option) and see how much more they naturally turn around to watch their backs while patrolling, call for backup and such. At least if they're not infected of course.
The cordyceps brain infection is still ravaging the world, and its effects have just become more severe. That doesn't just mean nature has taken back more areas, but also that you'll meet a couple of new enemy types. Runners, Clickers and Stalkers are still by far the most common, which is somewhat disappointing, but the new ones and how they're often combined with the others offers a nice change of pace. Especially when combined with human groups.
Yes, Left Behind's interesting "twist" is a more common sight in Part II. Being low on ammunition when encountering a group of soldiers isn't a big problem when a couple of infected are nearby. Just throw a bottle or brick to draw the attention of the infected and watch as beautiful chaos unfolds. Then you can either take care of the remaining enemies or have an easier time avoiding them entirely.
New infected aren't the only new enemy types either. Some of my most memorable encounters have been with the religious Seraphites. Predicting what enemies will do is a lot harder when these so-called Scars whistle to communicate. Did they find the woman I killed? Have they found me and plan to flank? The fact that they prefer a sneakier approach with bows and arrows doesn't make it easier. Be prepared to get close and personal to either slit throats or fight hand-to-hand. Dodging feels really good, and seeing the damage your switchblade or other melee weapons cause as the camera moves closer highlights the game's brutality. The tension can be exhilarating at times.
The amazing presentation helps a lot. I said it in my final impressions and I'll say it again: The Last of Us: Part II is the prettiest game I've ever seen. Having 300+ screenshots of a game on my PlayStation 4 Pro speaks for itself, but seeing it in motion together with sound and music is something else. These developers have thought of everything. Having enemies desperately grasping for your face and seeing the fear in their faces as you choke them. Hearing their friends nervously yelling their name when not getting an answer. Being able to break windows or use a rope to get access to a new area. Standing over an enemy pleading for its life after being severely injured and being able to just walk away. All of it helps bring both the violence and beauty to life in a way that is sure to make people question if we need PlayStation 5 right now.
You'd think that the incredible details would come at the cost of unique design, but that's far from the truth. I've never had this much fun solving puzzles and exploring in a Naughty Dog game before. Finding resources and collectibles is way more satisfying when you both feel like a genius and the environments are so big that you'll easily miss some of them. Take finding the combinations for safes as an example. Some of them can still be found in the interesting letters and notes that also function as fabulous ways of enriching the universe, but you don't necessarily need to find these to figure out the combination. The attention to detail is reflected in the environmental storytelling as well so you can often just pay attention to the stuff around you to figure out a solution. What password or combination would a person come up with while being in this room? Hm, the couple's 30th anniversary is marked on the calendar. Maybe it's the wi-fi password written on a poster in the lobby. I'm not alone in figuring it out, but I definitely feel like the smartest guy in the world when the safe opens up and a funny trading card and a bunch of resources await inside.
Fighting and exploring aren't the only things you get to do. In a world filled with hate and violence, it's very satisfying to just relax and take your mind off things once in a while. Those of you who have played Left Behind and/or Uncharted 4: A Thief's End know what I'm talking about. Playing a fully functional guitar and having a snowball fight are just two examples of how you'll be allowed to slow down once in a while and dedicate some time to yourself and Ellie. Having these moments of levity is just perfect in a game like this.
No game is perfect, however, and The Last of Us: Part II is no different even if its faults are very minor. How minor, you ask? So minor that some of them can only be seen or pointed about by a nit-picky bastard that likes to push games to their limits and look for absolutely everything in them. While I stand by The Last of Us: Part II being the most beautiful game I've ever seen, it also suffers from some weird visual quirks. I've seen tiny white spots suddenly appearing on the screen once in a while and the resolution being significantly lower on objects on the edge of the screen when turning around fast. These moments are so rare and brief that they never ruined my immersion, they just scratched it.
The same applies to the AI. Sure, seeing a partner in a position that should have got an enemy's attention or moving back and forth between two places without purpose can be annoying, but this is also rare and it usually happens because of something weird that I did, and so I can usually look past it.
Finally, we have the aforementioned lack of new enemy types. Encountering them in widely different areas and in different ways definitely helps, but it doesn't stop them from feeling a bit samey at times. Avoiding this in such a long game (I won't say how long it is here as it could ruin the effect of some sequences) is almost impossible, especially after playing long stretches. It wouldn't make much sense with the focus on realism either, so I've spent a long time debating with myself whether that's enough to hold it back from top honours.
No. That would be too harsh. The definition of a ten here is a masterpiece, and The Last of Us: Part II deserves that accolade. Its story shows that games don't have to be fun or comfort food all the time, but can also explore some of our rawest emotions and thoughts. You'll smile, laugh, cry and reflect alongside the masterfully realised characters as you go through this roller-coaster of a journey. You'll truly know what it would be like to live in a post-apocalyptic world after being in Ellie's shoes. The gameplay isn't a speed bump you have to cross to get more story - it's a vital part of the experience.
Whether it's crawling through the grass as other desperate survivors try to hunt you down, scavenging an office in a dilapidated skyscraper in hopes of finding much-needed resources, or taking some time off with your friends to actually enjoy life and forget about how vicious the world can be. Everything just feels so real thanks to the incredible graphics, sounds and general attention paid to the people and world around you, so I can forgive some very minor technical quirks and slightly repetitive encounters with enemies that aren't always the sharpest. The Last of Us: Part II just raised the bar in terms of how you blend gameplay and cinematics to tell a story like no other, which is why it's easily a game of the year contender.