The Last of Us II is a cinematic masterpiece, filled with some of the best writing of any medium, so I want to be as respectful as I can to anyone not wanting that spoiled for them. To that end, this review will be the lightest of touches on anything story related, aiming to preserve the experience. That said, some parts of the ending of the first game are mentioned, so please tread carefully if you’ve not finished that quite yet. Enjoy!
It’s been five years since the events of The Last of Us. Ellie (now 19 years old) and Joel have found some measure of peace, living in a tight knit community of survivors including Joel’s brother Tommy. Hunting infected has become part of the routine — normal, if that’s a thing in a world shattered by disease. The thing about normal is that it rarely stays that way. The different types of infected are well known, as are their weaknesses. So much so that patrol groups routinely hunt them down and kill them on a regular basis. But it’s never really the obvious threats that endanger humanity — it’s humanity itself.
The Last of Us and its sequel are both games of scarcity. Food, fresh water, weapons, ammunition — everything is in short supply, but nothing more so than compassion and humanity. As a deeper realization that this world is not getting better sets in, those who have the means to band together look to take by force from those who have chosen instead to try to peacefully survive. When this threat touches Ellie’s community directly, our adventure begins. As I mentioned before, I’m not going to focus on the storyline as that would ruin the experience. Instead I’ll focus on the broad strokes of this 30+ hour experience.
While much of the game does take place in Seattle, that’s not the only place you’ll be visiting. Taking a page from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, there are now open world areas that let you reach out and explore with little more than a map and a general idea of where you need to go to push the story forward. If that worries you as open environments tend to mean “bring your own fun” nonsense, rest assured that Naughty Dog has balanced these parts perfectly. It’s open enough to stretch your legs, but the game is quick to remind you that the world is far from empty with story beats that pop up without warning.
The parts that are linear are fully masked by the side missions to find things like collectable trading cards and the always-present hunt for supplies. You’ll also find story snippets such as a woman who has barricaded herself in a conference center while her husband goes out and tries to find meds for her. Unfortunately, a thorough exploration of the area will also turn up the remains of her husband who didn’t quite make it back. Finding these connected moments bring the story to life, even if the participants in said story have succumbed to the horrors of the world around them, and their last moments are conveyed with hand written notes and touching goodbyes.
One element of The Last of Us that gets polished to perfection in this sequel is the ever present tension. Combined with a stellar soundtrack, the tension ebbs and flows to the point where it becomes anxiety-inducing. You’ll feel the sense of paranoia build as you’ve had too long of a stretch of quiet. There is always a sinking feeling that the entire world is ready to blow up at your feet, and you see that reflected in Ellie’s interactions with those around her.
A few elements of the first game have been retooled. Previously, you had a handful of skills you could upgrade for Joel, including crafting and healing speed, listening mode distance, health, and weapon sway. Naughty Dog has amped that to 11 with The Last of Us Part II, giving Ellie just a handful of similar skills to start with, but growing that to five separate categories as you find training manuals in the world. These open up skill trees underneath survival, crafting, precision, stealth, and explosives. These grant far more flexibility in your gameplay choices than before, offering upgrades to health, longer lasting gun suppressors, or better bow handling, just to name a few.
Similar to the improvements to the skill system, the weapon bench sees an upgrade. Now, we see Ellie physically attach scopes, range finders, and other items to the weapons, as well as taking a rasp to the grip to improve the palm weld. Beyond the visuals, these also play into the “play your way” approach, though there hardly seems to be enough spare parts in the world to upgrade everything — choose wisely.
Beyond the skills and weapons, there are a few new traversal mechanics that help Ellie tackle the world. Again, straight from Uncharted 4, we see the use of rope mechanics. You’ll use them to climb, swing, and solve a few puzzles. That’s great, but the moment that Ellie jumped in the water and didn’t drown was a cause of genuine celebration. Gone are the pallet dragging puzzles from the first game — Ellie can handle the water just fine. You’ll also have a few travel options including a horse for some sections, and even a boat for a few flooded areas.
The Last of Us has always been about stealth, but there is a greater emphasis here. The first title was about staying out of sight, but now there are a few new elements to raise the tension a bit. Ellie can hide in long grass or in overgrown brush. She can also go prone and climb underneath vehicles and lay under structures. Laying underneath the forest floor undergrowth will raise the hair on the back of your neck as enemies damned near step on you as they walk by with the sound roaring in your ears indicating that you are close to being spotted. Worse still, they’ll now bring dogs to sniff you out. Ellie leaves a scent trail (which you can see with the listen mode, making it more of a “sense” mode), and the dogs can catch on to that. You can distract them and their handlers with a well-thrown bottle, but that won’t deter them for long. These dogs will force you out of position, ensuring you don’t just hang back and wait for opportunity. When you face dogs, everything gets a lot more difficult.
Combat is a bit different in The Last of Us Part II. Where Joel was able to rely on his strength, Ellie has to use her agility. As a result, melee is more kinetic and relies on dodging and counterattacks. You’ll need these skills to face off against some of the new types of infected, as well as the two new factions in the game. I won’t ruin these other than to say that the sneaky Stalkers can all die in the largest bonfire you can possibly make. I don’t know which designer at Naughty Dog came up with them, but good job, you magnificent bastard.
One of the ways that Naughty Dog has brought this world to life is a staggering attention to detail. At one point you end up in a museum that has a planetarium. You might spin the planets and say “that’s neat” and move on, or you might notice that Venus doesn’t seem to rotate. That’s because a full “day” on Venus is a whopping 243 days (instead of just 24 hours here on Earth). Similarly, Ellie ejects a round from her firearms for safety before working on them, she fingers the correct frets on her guitar as you strum the touchpad, and she covers her face before she smashes a car window.
The Last of Us Part II has a target frame rate of 30fps on the PlayStation 4 Pro, running at a crisp 4K with full HDR (though it would have been nice to see a “performance” option like we did in God of War). Not once, no matter how chaotic the scene got or how many high-poly assets were on screen, did I see a single frame rate wobble or hitch. Additionally, I never saw any hiccups or stutters as the game loaded. In fact, my only real technical note I have is that I did see (albeit extraordinarily rare) the odd level of detail mipmapping pop on a particular asset. It’s so rare that it’s hardly worth mentioning, and going back I couldn’t replicate it in the places I originally saw it. Knowing that assets are streaming off of a mechanical drive and that Naughty Dog has somehow managed to camouflage those limitations is absolutely astounding. I can only imagine what they’ll do with an SSD in the PlayStation 5, but I can say that we’ve not seen environments this richly detailed.
While I thankfully only need the subtitles due to my own hearing damage, The Last of Us II has the most extensive accessibility options I’ve ever seen in any game, on any platform. There’s even a text-to-speech option! Adding backgrounds to subtitles, directional indications to identify who is speaking, color blind choices — there are pages upon pages of choices to tune the experience for any need. I racked my brain trying to think of anything else they could have put in and I came up dry. It’s rare to see this level of effort in this area, but it’s incredibly appreciated.
I want to acknowledge again just how fantastic the storyline is in this game. Neil Druckman teamed up with Halley Wegryn Gross of Westworld fame to bring this world to life for the sequel, and it shows. This violent world has a sinister undertow, punctuated by quiet moments that still somehow run a current of tension through it as you wait for the other shoe to drop. It’s in these quiet moments that The Last of Us II shines brightest. The character interactions are genuine and real, the people involved are fallible and deep. This dead world riddled with danger and disease is alive with the duality of nature — as cruel and unflinching as it is inevitable. The protagonists have settled into this new normal which only amplifies the danger all around them, but in it they try to steal away real moments to make it all worthwhile. Genuine affection, the struggles of a new relationship, the heartbreak of loss — these things make us human, they exist in the story beats between the chaos, and they do so honestly. It’s rare that games nail the storyline this perfectly, but The Last of Us Part II is, in a word, perfect.
The Last of Us Part II
The Last of Us Part II is a stunningly beautiful and impeccably written story of family, consequences, horror, and loss. It pulls you in and holds tight, forging a deeper connection with Ellie, her fellow survivors, and the hostile world in which they live. From start to finish, this could be the best game on the PlayStation 4 -- ever.