The thing about humans, the one truth, is that no matter how bad things get, people tend to survive and find a way to flourish. The world of The Last of Us, a world where a new dark age has come after a fungal infection turned the majority of the population into walking zombie-like nightmares, still has places where life is hard, but it is good. Like Jackson. Children run in the streets, a nearby tavern serves beer after a hard day of tending fields or patrolling for stragglers. Life has found equilibrium and though the threat of a migrating horde is always looming, people have carried on with their lives. Well, most of them have. Some haven’t learnt to let go.
A few years have passed since the long journey of Ellie and Joel began, and the while the two definitely love each other, life has a way of making it hard for two people to be close. Considering the trauma both of them have been through and having to learn that some people can’t be trusted at all, life has left some heavy baggage on both of them, and at times, it feels like they don’t know how to fit in with others. They have seen what humans are capable of. They know what they themselves are capable of, and their choices have weight. Even in a world without formal law systems, choices have consequences. Sometimes they just take a long time to appear.
The pursuit of revenge
Ellie finds herself in Seattle shortly after the game starts, on a mission for revenge. It gives her focus, drives her on and to her, it seems like an answer to the haunting images that hound her, both in her dreams and while awake. Seattle looks pretty different from Boston. Here the group that worked against FEDRA, the WLF, used much more militant tactics than the Fireflies ever did. Sections of the city lie in ruin, thanks to bombs being dropped on infested areas as well as terrorist trouble spots. Between the bombs, the ravages of time and some torrential downpours, Seattle is lush and green, beautiful in how nature has reclaimed it, but also dangerous thanks to broken highways, slippery paths and crumbling buildings.
Not every room requires some puzzle to unlock or get through, and not every building is home to a nest of infected or a small army of hostile people.
In Seattle, Ellie is left with many questions. Why are there infected all around? Where are the people? Why are the many checkpoints and entryways to the city not being guarded? It seems pretty sloppy compared to Boston and Jacksonville, but she is on a mission. To get revenge. But first, she needs to find the target of her fury.
Better and smoother
Playing The Last of Us II, I can feel how Naughty Dog has learnt from the previous game and the differences between Uncharted and TLOU. The first title insisted on big action setpieces one after another, large hordes of Clickers and Runners in every part of a level, except for those areas where a traversal puzzle blocked your way. TLOU2 understands that a moment of quiet is required for conversations to breathe, for the characters and the player to think and process what is happening. Not every room requires some puzzle to unlock or get through, and not every building is home to a nest of infected or a small army of hostile people. It shows an understanding of the difference between Uncharted and TLOU, and gives the game its own space to stand alone.
Not that this means you won’t be solving traversal puzzles or finding places filled with large groups of enemies. When you approach a base or fort belonging to the enemy, you will become keenly aware of how outnumbered and outgunned you are, and some buildings require clever use of ropes to get around obstacles created by the decay of time and neglect. But sometimes, just sometimes, you are on the road, riding a horse and enjoying the way the sunlight moves through the trees, talking to a friend and looking through old buildings for supplies and ammo, with no fighting to interrupt the conversations. In these moments the voice actors and the music shine brightest. There were times I felt like I was in the room with them, sharing a quiet moment with a lump in my throat.
Early on, the game showcases how the world has opened up to allow for more exploration. Things are still very linear, but there is room to go wandering off the critical path to find valuable upgrades and gear. When arriving in Seattle the game teaches you quickly about this: nearby buildings that you can explore get marked on the map with a question mark, and Ellie crosses them out after finding something good inside them. Exploration always feels rewarding, whether it is ammo and crafting goods, a book that gives you a new skill tree or a brand-new weapon for your arsenal.
This exploration also teaches you that sometimes entering a building means no backing out until you are done, and to expect problems wherever you go. Once I was pretty chuffed to find a cool Easter Egg, only to nearly die as a place I had just cleared out suddenly attracted several infected. Making a beeline for the door was cut short abruptly by the yells of Runners and the telltale rolling clicks of a Clicker. Thankfully Ellie still has that trusty flick-knife, meaning you can stealth kill Runners, Clickers and any humans that you get the drop on. This small change is pretty fundamental. While Clickers can hear you easily if you move too quickly, even when crouched, you can slowly whittle the enemy numbers down if you so wish. Being able to use stealth to completely clear an area and not wasting your precious resources feels amazing when you pull it off, but sometimes things go wrong and you need to scramble to deal with enemies with frantic gunfire and a Molotov, or work out how to leave an area in a hurry, leaving the enemies behind a locked door or two.
The gameplay of The Last of Us II is vastly improved. Guns feel satisfying, fights are frantic rushes to use the right weapon for the situation and thanks to the lack of ammo and materials, you often scrape through by using something less than optimal for the situation, but if that is the gun that has full ammo, you better adapt and use that full one. Of course, careful stealth and planning work so much better than a gun can, and I often felt that the mightiest weapon in my arsenal was the brick or bottle. Tossing them at an enemy stuns them, giving you a chance to grab or strike them, ending a fight quickly or catching a guard before they shoot or call for help. Even when things go sideways, there are so many routes to use to break line of sight and try to hide. Enemies don’t have perfect knowledge of your position, and returning to undetected is easy if you are quick. Sometimes it is better to make a run and fight from a defensible position or to lay low and wait for people to separate and search the grounds for you. Just be careful, as they will search hiding spots near where you were last seen. Watching enemies can help you work out the best way to dismantle a group, but honestly the most important thing in this game, in all aspects, is sound.
It is a hefty adventure, but I never felt it had overstayed its welcome and while the story can be pretty hectic at times, I felt a sense of satisfaction as the final credits rolled.
Speaking of smooth experience, I can’t believe how well this ran on a base PS4. There was only one area in the whole game where I saw a slowdown of any kind. The rest of the time everything was smooth and steady, letting me enjoy the sights and the action without getting pulled out by technical problems.
Stop and listen
Sound plays a pivotal role in this game where you are often in dark areas trying to sneak around. Besides the normal sounds and barks of enemies to help you find them (something many games do already), Naughty Dog has gone above and beyond in tying sound design to important game elements. A noise starts if an enemy is becoming aware of you, allowing you to back away quickly or go prone to hopefully avoid detection. Enemy attacks have an extra sound to help you time your dodges and listening mode lets you hone in on footsteps and heavy breathing noises. A lot of this was done as part of the hard work to make The Last of Us II as accessible a game as possible. Completely customisable difficulty options, full captions, large fonts, colour blind modes, direction prompts, dodge prompts, detection indicators and even being fully invisible while prone are just some of the many options that have been included to make sure that anyone who wants to play this game, can play it. You can read more about it here to see just how much went into it.
Right from the beginning of the game, there is a focus on guitars and the importance of music and song. Ellie plays the guitar, with your help strumming the controller’s touchpad, and sings at several points, showing her current mental state. Music is pivotal to the game and as such, the composer has done a masterful job of having a single acoustic guitar add its voice to a scene, like a lonely traveller telling a tale. It is raw and powerful, and having it as an in-game item as well as the centrepiece of the soundtrack gives it incredible potency. It reminds me of a country song, something about the woes of the road, the tough hand life has dealt and I can almost imagine Johnny Cash singing along, woefully.
There are so many themes to this game that I want to unpack and discuss, but the risk of spoilers is so high that it will have to wait until people have their hands on the game. As someone who felt the gameplay got in the way of the story being told in TLOU1, this game left me with no such reservations. It is a hefty adventure, but I never felt it had overstayed its welcome. The story can be pretty hectic at times, making this a fairly heavy game, but I felt this immense sense of satisfaction as the final credits rolled, watching the journey of Ellie as she discovers firsthand how obsessive love and revenge can make a person.