The following review contains spoilers for The Last of Us from 2013. Minor spoilers for Part 2 are in the main review and MAJOR spoilers are below the Spoiler line.
Background and Setting
In 2013, the Playstation 3 was coming towards the end of its life cycle making way for he PS4. One of the games closing out the cycle would be one of the most well received games of all time. The game’s much praised story is actually very basic. In 2013, a wordwide pandemic spreads, turning its victims into crazed zombie-like humans. Based on a real life fungus called cordyceps, it spread rapidly among humans. We first meet Joel and his brother on Outbreak Day when everything turns badly. Trying to escape their town, Joel loses his daughter to gunfire from a federal soldier ordered to kill on site.
Fast forward twenty years and the world has devolved into barely functioning one, with Americans living in designated militarized quarantine zones. Joel is a grizzled survivor smuggling things past FEDRA, the military law. He and his partner Tess end up taking up a job to escort a 14 year old girl named Ellie, to meet a resistance group called the Fireflies. They find out along the way that the reason she is important is that she is immune to the disease that has devastated most of the human population. The idea is for the Fireflies to get her to their own lab to hopefully make a vaccine to save the world.
Tess, dies along the way, and the Fireflies they were supposed to meet are dead from a FEDRA raid. Joel plans to take her to Tommy, his brother who lives in Jackson Wyoming and may still has contacts with the group. Initially planing to dump her with his brother so Tommy can take her the rest of the way, he finds there is now a bond where he feels obligated to take her all the way.
They finally make their way to the lab located in Salt Lake and it turns out that it is possible to make a vaccine, but they have to take out her brain, which of course would mean killing her. Joel makes the decision that he will save her and rescues her from the hospital while she is still sedated. When she wakes up, he tells her there was never a cure and that there were dozens of others like her and no vaccine was found. Roll credits as they head back into Jackson.
The Last of Us Part 2
Four years have passed and Ellie is now eighteen, starting a relationship with Dina, another girl from Jackson. It is alluded to that there is some tension between Ellie and Joel. After a violent and tragic incident while on patrol (you can probably figure out what that is), Ellie decides to seek vengeance on the people responsible. Dina decides to accompany her on this journey that leads to Seattle, the city where the people she seeks come from.
As opposed to a long travel across the country, we quickly get to Seattle. From there, we begin a slog of a game where I guess the player gets used to the mechanics of stealth, combat, and scrounging for supplies. This a a pretty standard way of getting the player used to the game mechanics.
Once in Seattle, Ellie and Dina are on an ongoing hunt for the revenge. Along the way as well will be, of course, “infected.” New types of infected are introduced that were not seen before in the previous game, including a stalkers, who are wild and feral and the shamblers who are much tougher than the bloaters from the first game.
The biggest threat in the city is actually the humans, the paramilitary outfit calling themselves the WLF, the Washington Liberation Front. What is intriguing within the story of the game is that Ellie and Dina have appeared to stumble into a war between the WLF and another faction, a group of religious zealots calling themselves the Seraphites.
About halfway through the game, though, the narrative flips and you play as Abby, the main character on the opposing side, a WLF member who is a tough and seasoned trooper. It begins at the point of the eventual showdown between the two. Her story is a reflection to the days that Ellie spends in Seattle but it does not play outr concurrently. So ten or fifteen hours as Ellie, then a switch.
The game plays out as a semi-open world of Seattle, there is much to explore and many drawers and cabinets to scrounge for supplies such as ammo, and ingredients to craft things such as healing items (alcohol and a rag, combine as healing items in the game, even for gunshot wounds. You’ll have to accept that in this world.) Unfortunately much of that becomes tedious as you’ll often find drawers or cabinets empty.
There are a couple of ways to play it such as stealthy where you can sneak up on enemies and perform stealth kills with Ellie’s trusty, and seemingly indestructible switchblade. Abby doesn’t have the luxury of an indestructible switchblade, and must, just as the first game, craft shivs. Really, a military group has access to guns and ammo, but can’t have even the simplest hunting or combat knife?
Just as in the first game, you can choose to play stealthy or go in guns blazing for most areas. Or you can do a combination of the two, sneak up, eliminate lookouts and go guns blazing on only a handful of enemies. There is, however, the added danger of trained dogs that the WLF use nd they can sniff out Ellie even when laying prone in tall grass. Yes, you do have to kill dogs in this game, and that sucks.
There is much to like about this game, and the first thing that most, even the haters will like is that the graphics quality really follows the high standards that studio Naughty Dog had set with the previous game as well as the Uncharted series. Backgrounds and art design are incredibly photo-realistic and capture a city that has decayed from a combination of deadly pandemic, fighting, and rising sea levels.
Character models do seem to suffer a bit even though, just as the previous game, the game characters were motion captured. At times, there seem to be odd expressions on their faces even as they are doing nothing. New types of infected (don’t call them zombies because they are not) are creative, especially one particular boss-like one that is encountered about two-thirds into the game.
The game, however, suffers from pacing issues, especially in the beginning of the game, as it tries to introduce multiple characters into the game. The original primarily focused on three, then two characters that we follow for the game. Tertiary characters in the first game, came and went as the game progressed. But in Part 2, supporting characters stay within the game most the time, so they show up multiple times. The game also feels stretched out with additional obstacles and detours for simple things like going from one end of the street to another. It feels padded just to stretch out the gaming hours needlessly and becomes repetitive.
The most contentious part of the game will be the story. There are various reasons other critics will pile on about why they dislike the game and some are genuinely valid, others not so. To me, the story works overall, though as I’ve said before it does suffer from some pacing issues. There are also issues with how some of the supporting characters are treated or portrayed. To be clear, this game is not about good people. Ellie may have been a spunky innocent young teen with charm in the first game but she’s now grown and seen her share of bad things and participated in bad things. Abby is someone we meet who is already had her share of killings. This isn’t a story about good people doing bad things. This is a story about bad people who end up doing horrendous things.
Perhaps we are spoiled on the John Wick body count revenge where a simple act makes a person seek bloody revenge on hundreds of cardboard personality goons. The Last of Us Part 2 does not approach revenge so easily. Sure at first we may be along for the ride and cheering each act of bloody violence on, but it soon becomes apparent that both characters have lost something in themselves though blind vengeance, lose, and pain. Since this is a narrative driven game, you have no choice but to play along with the story beats as violent acts often cross the lines of even video game norms. Often times, especially towards the end portions of the game, I found myself just wanting peace.Was vengeance really worth all this bloodshed? The old saying of digging to graves when you seek revenge applies here as seeking violent revenge kills part of one’s humanity.
There are, of course, people who are going to be upset because the idea is that revenge is bad. They’ll criticize this game for having a weak story. The first game had one of the most simplistic of plots and multiple instances of arriving at their destination only to discover that “the Princess is at another castle.” The first game was a work of genius because everything clicked in the way the story was told and in the interaction of just two main characters. It doesn’t work as well in Part 2 as there are multiple characters throughout the game and differing points of views. It’s as if Naughty Dog tried to make their video game version of Unforgiven, but fell short.
In the end this is a solidly made game. The gameplay is very good, and can be very tense at times. The added ability of going prone in stealth mode is very welcome. The added Seraphite enemy battles can be especially tough as they are much more aware and use coded whistles to communicate with each other. The whistling can be grating, as it is meant to be.
Not everyone is going to like the game. I get that. It definitely has some issues. But if you are going to bash on it because it features a gay character, and a trans side character, maybe you should re-examine how you feel about gay and trans people in the real world.