Unpredictable, divisive brilliance
It’s a dank, misty morning in Seattle. Ellie is being hunted.
As she drops into an abandoned hardware store, she looks through a window in a scripted moment that reveals one of The Last of Us Part II’s new enemies: attack dogs. As the dog’s WLF handlers discuss the sudden, brutal deaths of several of their comrades, the dog turns and barks at Ellie through the window, revealing her position. While the “Wolves,” can’t see her, they now know that someone is there.
Ellie quickly runs through a nearby door and takes cover behind a shelf before control shifts back to me. There’s no question or hesitation about what I am about to do. I ready my hunting rifle and train it on the door I just passed through, knowing full well I am about to end the life of a creature that has nothing to do with Ellie’s quest for revenge. But I don’t hesitate when the dog barges through the door.
While that was a harsh moment of survival, what’s about to happen to the dog’s handlers is personal. As they enter the room, I break through a nearby window, leap over the glass and dive down into the grass outside in a fluid swirl of animations. Before the Wolves know what hit them, they’re cold on the ground, two more victims of my trusty revolver. “Fuckers” Ellie spits as she dusts herself off, ready to hunt down everyone else between her and her ultimate goal.
The cycle of violence in The Last of Us Part II is stark. It’s why the game doesn’t demo well; without the proper context, Ellie, the once innocent yet incredibly capable 14-year-old girl from the first Last of Us, comes across as a homicidal maniac. But after experiencing the shocking developments of the first two hours of the game, I was right there with her, ready to hunt down every single person in Seattle to get revenge on what the WLF had done to Ellie and the other people of Jackson.
The original Last of Us weaved an incredible story through the enrapturing threads of love, loss and redemption. It was no doubt one of the greatest stories ever told in video games and raised the bar for every game that followed it.
But nothing can prepare you for The Last of Us Part II.
While the original included a memorable litany of fantastic moments and harrowing situations, I was rarely shocked by what was taking place. In Part II, I regularly had to pick up my jaw off the floor following a cutscene or gameplay sequence, finding myself in complete awe of what I had just experienced and questioning the actions of not only some of my favorite characters in gaming, but also myself. No other video game has made me feel this way. The Last of Us Part II once again raises the bar to a new, unprecedented height.
Much of this centers around the cast’s incredible, believable performances. Both Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker return as Ellie and Joel, and both add an unexplored level of depth to their characters. Joel in particular stands out as a much more nuanced character than was apparent in the original title and remains my favorite character from PlayStation, a lofty title to be sure.
But Joel and Ellie aren’t alone; alongside returning favorites like Tommy and his wife Maria, a new cast of characters including Stephen Chang’s Jesse, Shannon Woodward’s Dina, Patrick Fugit’s Owen, Alejandro Edda’s Manny and particularly Laura Bailey’s Abby add a ton of depth to the world, the struggle to survive, and how far each individual is willing to go for the people they love. The way the game weaves all of these characters’ stories together simply must be experienced.
While I quite enjoyed the gameplay of the original Last of Us, some criticized its loop as repetitive, especially once you understood the keys to success. But Part II builds on the solid foundation of the original to such a degree that I think even those who were turned off by the shaky gunplay of the first will come away impressed. The degree of choice at your fingertips as you navigate Ellie through the biggest combat environments Naughty Dog has ever crafted is impressive, particularly when you take into account the verticality many of them offer. The addition of a new dodge mechanic offsets Ellie’s reduced bulk and strength when compared to Joel, and leads to some particularly intense combat scenarios. Meanwhile expanded options including new weapons like crossbows and stun grenades, new upgrades like silencers, and new movement options like the ability to go prone and leap across gaps expand the range of options in each encounter.
The game also does a fantastic job of keeping players on their toes. While you could quickly grow accustomed to dealing with the packs of runners and clickers in the original game, there are several new versions of infected that will test the mettle of any player. However the real threats are the unpredictable human enemies who, armed with impressive AI, make every fight feel like a struggle for survival. The WLF are the main antagonists, but another sinister faction also makes its presence felt during Ellie’s quest. These “Seraphites” feel incredibly distinct, but no less dangerous. One particularly unforgettable scene involves a massive clash between the two factions that was so grand in scale, it reminded me of some of my favorite moments from the Halo series when the Covenant were pitted against the Flood.
All of this – the gameplay, the story, and the characters – come together to make The Last of Us Part II one of the most divisive, exciting and unforgettable gaming experiences of the modern age. The game takes some dramatic turns and ultimately tells a story that is surprising in both direction and scope. But even if the story I was told wasn’t the one I was anticipating, the one I got exceeded all of my expectations. It may just change the way you look at this medium forever.