The Last of Us Part II's best lesson is not one on the human condition, but on unhealthy fandoms and expectations
This review contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.
To discuss The Last of Us Part II today is to wade into one of the most toxic landscapes in games, conceived and operated by some of this hobby's most unreasonable bigoted participants. This is unfortunate, because Naughty Dog's latest is pretty spectacular.
The 2013 series debut was heralded as a swan song for the PlayStation 3, one that effectively raised the bar for dramatic storytelling while also making waves with its brutality and violence. It got in with its humans-are-the-real-monsters story right before the trope became a bit of a running joke. Giant Bomb's own Patrick Klepek wrote that the game "is not fun, at least not in the traditional sense, and that's exactly why it's so interesting." Seven years later, Naughty Dog's follow up is just as not-fun and interesting, and in many ways more so.
The sequel's most immediate problem lies in that seven year gap between releases. As with any meaningful story, its creators can only maintain ownership of the characters for so long. Eventually, and especially when there is a lapse in releases, beloved characters begin to fall into the hands of the audience; when there is an absence of official narratives, there is an emergence of head-canon, expressed plainly in the heaps of fan art depicting Joel and Ellie in loving father-daughter relationships, or other comical scenarios. That is to say, nothing particularly close to what their actual experiences are like with the world and with each other.
This is all fine and well, except when it influences how the audience reacts when the official narrative is finally continued years later, and seven years-worth of expectations are shattered when one of the main cast is viciously murdered shortly into the story by a newcomer. The contention around this twist has been entirely disheartening, since the game does justice by it; one just needs to play more than the first hour. And yet here we are, caught again in the cycle of death threats and subreddit outrage that the industry is hampered with every few months.
To be sure, there is absolutely a difference between the fans who did not expect this twist and are disappointed by its occurrence, and the dullards who cannot accept the fact that the game includes several LGBTQ characters. To conflate the two would be a terrible disservice to the former, and an overestimation of the intelligence of the latter. What's surprising is the lack of trust shown by fans of the first game, in the writing and in the storytelling that clearly was going to take the course of the game to unfold, as well as the mischaracterization that people have of Joel as a heroic father figure. I think a number of people who turned their back on the game's opening salvo would have come around on it were it not for that last point in particular.
Nevertheless, The Last of Us Part II truly does not pull its punches. As with the first game, the events of this story are shocking and merciless; characters are maimed and killed with the same ease as the player pulling off headshots in combat. Though it initially appears as a rather simple revenge story, with Ellie and her girlfriend Dina heading to Seattle to track Joel's killer Abby, the game pulls a Raiden halfway through, giving the player control of Abby herself to see her side of things. This isn't some brief diversion either; half of The Last of Us Part II is spent in Abby's shoes, getting to know her and her own group of survivors.
It's effective, and the game does a great job illustrating the cycle of violence that everyone in this world is caught in. Violence begets violence and no one is innocent, and yet these characters manage to carve out lives for themselves and fill the gaps with heartwarming moments of normalcy; an awkward date atop an old Ferris wheel, or an exciting trip through a dinosaur museum. Some of The Last of Us Part II's best chapters are spent in these moments, and Naughty Dog does a terrific job allowing these scenes to carry on as long as they do. The writing does trip up a bit when attempting to bridge the stories of Ellie and Abby into a lesson in forgiveness and loss, arriving a bit too abruptly to feel wholly satisfying. This is a fairly long game--I finished in just over 20 hours playing on Hard--and to only arrive at these conclusions at the very end definitely gives credence to the assertion that these characters are pretty bad at learning lessons. Regardless, this continuation of Ellie's journey is, for the most part, terrifically well-realized, thanks in large part to some truly outstanding performances from the entire cast.
Okay, but how does it play? I certainly didn't expect to evoke Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain at any point in this, but again, here we are. Structurally, this plays fairly similar to the first game. Encounters against humans and infected almost always begin from a point of stealth; you can throw bottles and bricks, craft traps and Molotov cocktails, and occasionally even find ammunition. The biggest game changer, and I mean this, is the ability to go prone. I love the animations at play here, especially the dive-to-prone that is very reminiscent of The Phantom Pain. But mechanically it's actually pretty important. Being able to lay low in grass and crawl around opens up new ways to navigate through encounters. It doesn't offer complete invisibility like other games, which is great; I had more than a few nerve-wracking moments where I had no choice but to lie still and hope that an approaching enemy would look over their shoulder as they passed. In one particularly memorable encounter in which I had no ammunition whatsoever, I was forced to crawl past several enemies on patrol like Captain MacMillan in Pripyat.
Combat against the infected hasn't changed much. Most of them are attracted to sound only, so being quiet is more important than positioning. The sound design here is wonderful; the infected sound terrifying. Similarly, doing battle against other humans has some unique audio cues. You'll often hear opponents scream the name of the person you just took out, and they'll react when you've run out of ammunition. The human A.I. is also far more interesting to fight against than the infected; they do a fantastic job flanking and picking their shots. Those encounters also tend to be more intense; bullet impacts are severe, and being attacked head-on can knock you on your back, scrambling to pull out a weapon.
In between these combat encounters are those quieter moments between characters, and it's here that Naughty Dog's attention to detail really shines. It's not just in the environments, which look phenomenal, but in the animations as well. A character who is afraid of dogs will hold her arm out defensively as one approaches; after being encouraged to play fetch, her arm is lowered when the dog returns. Ellie will occasionally tap her back pocket to make sure her switchblade is still there. More than once you get the opportunity to play guitar using an in-game chord system that is mind-blowing. There are so many examples that it's easy to say one of my favorite experiences in games this year has just been looking at The Last of Us Part II.
It's worth mentioning one of the game's most extraordinary successes: the difficulty customization and accessibility options. In addition to the standard easy-medium-hard selection, several variables affecting resource scarcity and enemy strength can be adjusted. And the game's accessibility options are more extensive than anything I've seen prior, allowing players to customize the HUD, add new mechanics like a scanning system or an objective pointer, and even tweak the A.I. to prevent enemies from flanking. It's remarkable, and it ought to be the standard for all games going forward.
Perhaps the only misgiving I have towards The Last of Us Part II involves those late-game stumbles in writing, as well as a final confrontation that felt wildly uncomfortable to play for more reasons than one. But I came away from the experience with the feeling that another spot had been filled on my future games-of-the-generation list, and it's mightily unfortunate that the release has been swamped in such hateful discussions. I get the feeling that the release was otherwise meant to be a cathartic moment for Naughty Dog, after endless delays, the story leak back in April, and the punishing amounts of crunch that seem commonplace at the studio. It's possible that, once the smoke has cleared and enough time has passed, the game can be reexamined by its detractors on its own terms. But it's unlikely it'll ever truly shake everything that has sullied its existence.