Preface

This review may contain minor spoilers regarding certain aspects of the game, such as weapons, enemy types and collectibles, however, no major plot information will be revealed.

Writing this review of The Last of Us: Part II is one of the most challenging tasks which I feel like I have ever faced in my time reviewing games. While I have a great amount to say about Naughty Dog’s latest title, a project to which many immensely talented and passionate people have dedicated seven years of their blood, sweat and tears, I feel like nothing I say about this game can truly do it any justice. The Last of Us Part II pushes beyond what the video game medium typically achieves and manages to hook a direct line to your heart and pull you through a whirlwind of intense emotions, feelings and internal struggles.

Coming out of the experience of The Last of Us: Part II, you may even learn something about yourself, as a person. The game will make you question your own morals and what you would do for someone you care about. Is it right to do these things in the name of vengeance? The game presents you with a two-sided coin and you must reconcile in your brain if the actions of one are any more just than the actions of the other. You will be presented with these tough questions as you play through Naughty Dog’s most ambitious and masterful title yet, which truly feels like insanity to say, given the scope of their prior projects, yet, here we are.

I have no doubt that the story will be divisive. Not everybody who plays the game will be happy with the direction that Naughty Dog have taken. The team have done something brave in going against the grain of fan service and delivering something deeply compelling, shocking and emotional. If you have had certain aspects of the game spoiled for you, I would implore you to try to cast aside any preconceptions or assumptions of the game which you draw from them and enter this experience with an open mind and an open heart, allowing Naughty Dog to present the narrative to you in the way which they intended.

Let’s dive a little deeper into various aspects of the game, starting with gameplay.

Gameplay
Combat and Exploration

Though the original game was almost universally considered a masterpiece, one area which frequently garnered some criticism from certain gamers was combat, feeling it becomes somewhat stale in late game. Naughty Dog have clearly taken this on board and have dedicated a great amount of time to improving the scope and fluidity of combat in The Last of Us: Part II.

Your options for approaching an encounter are more plentiful than ever, with a much greater emphasis on stealth. Crouching, going prone and hiding behind obstacles are crucial tools for remaining undetected by both human enemies and infected. Weaponry available to you not only includes many of the weapons originally found in The Last of Us, but with some new options too. Personally, I found the bow to be extremely useful as arrows can now be crafted from relatively easy to find materials scattered around the word and the weapon is both deadly and totally silent. This makes it far more useful than in the first game, where the supply of arrows was incredibly limited.

In addition to these new options in your arsenal, there are also a wide array of limited use melee items scattered throughout the game. These vary from wooden planks, which are very weak with few uses, to hunting axes, which allow several uses before breaking.

The game frequently makes a point of punishing players for taking an all guns blazing approach to combat, as many of the areas in the game are extremely open and enemies can be scattered around you on all sides. Infected could potentially arrive as a small horde from a nearby building which you have not explored yet if you risk taking out an enemy near you with a loud weapon. These hordes are not limited to runners; you may find yourself in the tricky situation of dealing with multiple bloaters among a horde.

Outside of infected, you will also find yourself tangling with members of the Washington Liberation Front and the Seraphites. The Washington Liberation Front are a large group of survivors who have setup a base of operations in Seattle. They begrudgingly share this city with the Seraphites, a cult of fanatics who religiously follow their leader. The bow and arrow is the signature weapon of many Seraphites. These two groups are at odds with one another, however, Ellie will also experience her fair share of encounters with both groups as you progress through Seattle.

The game will put you in very tricky situations at times. For example, in one encounter, I had WLF soldiers approaching me from one side, while a large number of infected were present on the other side. If I were to use any loud weapon or miss a shot, both groups would have been alerted to my presence. You have multiple ways of approaching situations such as these due to the diversity of combat options which have been added to this game and it is solely down to you to decide how you wish to proceed.

Another area which has been greatly expanded upon is the skill tree and weapon upgrades. While I don’t want to spoil too much about any area, a huge number of skill upgrades will be available to you and you will not be able to fully complete all branches of upgrade in a single playthrough. Skill branches can be upgraded by finding new training manuals hidden in the environment, which will unlock a brand new branch. Some of these upgrades even unlock new combat options. Weapon upgrades have been given a similar facelift, with more impactful options available for every single weapon in the game.

A major focus on improving the aspect of exploration is something which is evidently visible in how The Last of Us: Part II plays. Not only are areas in the game more open than ever, offering a huge number of optional buildings to explore, more puzzles leading to safes which hold large loot piles and giving multiple pathways to the same point, but verticality has also been integrated heavily. Climbing on objects or up hanging ropes can lead to hidden entrances to buildings or secret rooms via a small, breakable window or a crack in the wall which can be squeezed through. For anyone who loves exploring every nook and cranny of a game’s environment for secrets, you will have a blast in The Last of Us: Part II’s world.

Collectibles (in the form of superhero trading cards) and artefacts are plentifully scattered throughout the world, offering a great incentive to explore every patch of this beautifully crafted world. Some of the hidden areas even contain entire scripted narrative events which are optional and can be missed, however, we’d recommend you take the game slowly and take the time to explore everything it has to offer.

Naughty Dog could not have done more to expand on the scope of gameplay and exploration in The Last of Us: Part II, which is their most open and expansive game yet. Next, we will discuss the impact of the story.

Narrative Impact

This section contains some minor spoilers. If you wish to go into the game entirely blind, you may want to skip this section.

As I stated previously, the narrative path of The Last of Us: Part II is not going to please everyone, however, Naughty Dog are not known for taking a safe and conservative approach to their storytelling; they take risks. As such, it is best to enter this game with an entirely open mind and allow game director Neil Druckmann and his team to show you their vision as they intended it to be told.

I will start by re-iterating that I cannot do this plot justice simply by talking about it, you must play the game to understand and appreciate what the artists and writers have created. The story in this game is potentially the most gripping, compelling and utterly spellbinding plot which I have ever experienced in a video game. Nothing I have played in memory has evoked such strong emotions within me as The Last of Us: Part II. The game brought me, a grown man, close to tears multiple times throughout its story. The storytelling is second-to-none and transcends what I thought was possible from a video game.

At the heart of The Last of Us: Part II’s plot is revenge. At times extremely violent, it will cause you to feel uncomfortable. It will make you question whether acts are morally just and will make you feel responsible for doing them. It is a carefully interwoven tale of different timelines, different scenarios and different points of view, filled with a number of flashbacks to fill in crucial story information from the time between the two titles. Every one of these flashbacks is crafted with just the same love, detail, attention and emotional weight as every other moment in the game. Naughty Dog manage to pull you through every emotion and feeling with this game. You will be gripped, shocked, excited, disgusted, horrified, upset, scared and conflicted.

The most important part of Naughty Dog’s successful storytelling is, in my opinion, the creation of compelling characters. While I won’t go into great detail on the diverse cast of characters present in the game, creating characters who feel like real people is, in my opinion, both the most important and most difficult part of storytelling. The Last of Us: Part II has done this in a way which I have never quite seen a video game do before and that is a crucial factor in why the game produces such emotional heft; I care about everyone in it. Representation has evidently been of key importance to Naughty Dog and the presence of main characters from minority groups does not feel shoe-horned in. It feels like a core part of their identity.

In terms of length, it is quite simply astounding what Naughty Dog have managed to pull off from such a plot-dense, narratively-driven game. The game took me upwards of 30 hours to complete, with absolutely zero filler content. You could potentially drive this closer to 25 hours if you ignore the optional, open areas of exploration, however, I highly recommend that you don’t skip those as they are filled with plenty of background plot themselves. I will not discuss any more of the narrative to preserve the experience, however, my words in this section do not do the game justice and I doubt any words will; it must be experienced first hand.

Graphics
Environment and Atmosphere

As is to be expected with Naughty Dog, The Last of Us: Part II is probably the best looking game on PS4 and PS4 Pro. The graphics are absolutely stunning, with beautiful textures, gorgeous lighting and a solid, stable framerate. The game feels like a preview for what upcoming PS5 games will look like.

The opening section of the game is the most breathtaking scene I have ever seen in a video game. Almost photorealistic at times, it serves as a warm, friendly introduction to a brutal, dark game. I am shocked with what Naughty Dog has managed to pull off here with the ageing Playstation 4 hardware.

Every environment which you will cross throughout the expansive, rich game will feel perfectly crafted for the situation, creating the type of atmosphere that will draw you deeply into the world and make you want to live in it until you finish the game. The city of Seattle is brought to life in stunning detail and accuracy and you will feel like you’ve visited it yourself after completing the game. Everything, down to the arrangement of books on a shelf, feels like it was put where it is with a purpose; nothing is there just for the sake of it. The eye for detail key to Naughty Dog’s ethos is astounding when you consider how ambitious their games are. Assets are rarely re-used and every area is complete with its own charm and intricacies, which is a mammoth achievement given how many different places you will find yourself passing through during the game.

Animations and cutscenes set a new high for the industry standard and feel like they are part of a photorealistic animated feature film with an enormous budget. There are many of them too; probably enough to fill multiple feature films when played back to back. The liberal use of them is a key factor in developing such a deep, gripping plot and Naughty Dog has spared no expense in that department.

Small, sometimes barely noticeable touches enhance the realism in the game. For example, when Ellie picks up a rope, hose or cable and walks with it, she will drop loops of it to lengthen the cord behind her on the ground. When walking backwards, she will pick up the cord and fold it back into loops in her hand. While this might not sound like a big deal, I imagine the physics and animation work required to make this look convincing were substantial. Ellie’s bracelet has its own gravity system to make it slip up or down her wrist when she is moving her arms around. These are two of many tiny details which go above and beyond to add immersion at the expense of significant developer work.

Sound Design
Voice Acting and Motion Capture

Naughty Dog leave no stone left unturned when it comes to their game design and this means that sound is just as heavily in focus as any other aspect. A stellar soundtrack accompanies this title, with music perfectly matching every scenario and environment in the game. Sound design is stunning and can’t be done justice without hopping into the world directly to experience it with your own ears at the right moments.

I touched on the quality of animation and cutscenes earlier in this review; this is, in part, due to the considerable motion capture efforts invested by the voice actors for the characters. The Last of Us: Part II has true to life facial expressions, adding to the ability of the game to make you feel like the characters are real people. Mouth movements match perfectly with the words spoken and the several romantic moments present in the game are brought to life with stunning realism due to the live motion capture sessions.

Dialogue is another key part of any convincing story and again, Naughty Dog do not disappoint. The game has a very substantial amount of dialogue (have I convinced you about the enormous scope of this game yet?) ranging from random moments of charming, character-building conversation between main characters as you are playing through the game, to lengthy dialogue-rich cutscenes and even in situations such as conversion between random enemies in the vicinity who are unaware of your presence. Every character in this game is brought to life and given the same attention to detail, no matter if they are Ellie herself or a Seraphite enemy who represents a one-time encounter.

Conclusion

This review could be two or three times as long as it currently is and I would still be unable to do the game justice. Naughty Dog have crafted an unforgettable experience which fires on all cylinders and have cemented themselves as the best storytellers in the industry. This is a game which you must play yourself, first-hand in order to truly appreciate it. I would strongly advise that you do not watch others playing the game before your own playthrough.

The Last of Us: Part II brings together every aspect of video game storytelling in a masterful way to create a special experience unlike anything I have ever played. In my own personal opinion, it is a contender for the best video game ever made, but certainly is a contender for game of the generation, at the very least. The story and its characters may end up being a divisive topic of discussion, however, this does not take away from the achievements of Naughty Dog in creating an experience which many studios could only dream of producing.

Our The Last of Us: Part II coverage will continue next week, with a gallery of beautiful Photo Mode screenshots taken throughout our playthrough. Look out for this on the game’s launch day with even more coverage to come!