The Last of Us 2 review (no spoilers): PS4’s most anticipated release delivers on the promise of the first, but only half the time
The Last of Us was undoubtedly a masterpiece. Released towards the end of the PS3’s natural lifecycle, it told the oh-so-familiar story of an undefined infection spreading across the United States and rendering the world a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The story of Joel and Ellie touched the hearts of gamers across the world, resulting in sales of more than 20 million units when you include its fantastic PS4 remaster.
After a gruelling story which sees the central characters go from unwilling travel companions to de facto father and daughter, the game ends with a huge moment that would change the pair’s dynamic forever. Fans were understandably desperate for a next-gen follow-up to one of the best-reviewed titles in PlayStation history, and when Naughty Dog announced that it was coming, the hype train went into overdrive.
Four years later, The Last of Us Part II is splitting audiences right down the middle. Many have dubbed it another masterpiece from the studio seemingly incapable of producing a bad game, while others have shunned it for a variety of reasons varying from the entirely valid to the frankly ludicrous. After a full playthrough of the game ourselves, here’s our The Last of Us 2 review. And don’t worry, it’s spoiler-free!
Let’s just get this out of the way: The Last of Us Part II is bloody beautiful. The game makes maximum use of the PS4’s graphical capabilities, delivering an awe-inspiring range of sprawling landscapes, realistically claustrophobic indoor settings, and impressive lighting effects that enhance the experience ten-fold.
As the primary playable character, Ellie certainly serves as the highlight of the visual evolution from the first game. In the five years since the events of The Last of Us, she has grown from a bright-faced young girl to a moody teenager with nihilistic tendencies. The facial effects she displays – from wide-eyed optimism as Joel teaches her how to play guitar, to sheer desperation as she faces the challenges later – are realistic and cinematic.
The cast of supporting characters all look fantastic, too, serving as rich additions to the cast. Everyone’s emotions are on clear display, making the story believable and engaging at almost every turn.
Ellie certainly serves as the highlight of the visual evolution from the first game.
In terms of environments, TLOU2 absolutely nails the visuals. From the moment you start your story in the open world of post-outbreak Seattle, all the way to the ending on a fog-covered beach, you’ll be blown away by the landscapes you encounter. What sets the game apart from other graphically-impressive titles, though, is the variety on offer. Like in the first game, the great outdoors is counterbalanced with the oppressive interiors.
Particular graphical highlights include a passage early on, when Ellie and Dina are exploring an industrial building drenched with red lighting and water leaks, and an epic part of the story later on when you make your way through the fires of a certain island. How my launch-day PS4 kept up, I’ll never know.
A big shoutout has to go out to the teams who worked on the character models for the enemies as well. Returning infected like the Clickers and Bloated look just as menacing as they did before, while the few new additions elevate the shock factor to new heights. This is a spoiler-free review, so we won’t go into too much detail, but for those of you who have played it: how terrifying and awesome was that new infected in the hospital?!
Naughty Dog made a big deal about the importance of sound in the run-up to the release of The Last of Us Part II, and you can certainly see why once you’ve played it.
Sound is exemplary in all three departments: music, sound effects and voice acting. The first is pretty self-explanatory if you played the original Last of Us game. Gustavo Santaolalla returns to compose the score again, assisted ably by Mac Quayle of Mr. Robot and American Horror Story notability.
The game’s soundtrack is just as good as the first, mixing reflective passages of classical guitar music with more foreboding, sinister compositions to suit the ever-threatening mood. Guitar plays a central role in the game’s story, as Joel makes good on his earlier promise to teach Ellie how to play. Throughout the game, she plays excellent acoustic renditions of songs such as A-ha’s “Take on Me” and folk classic “The Wayfaring Stranger”, which we first heard the characters’ voice actors play beautifully way back in 2017.
Sound is exemplary in all three departments: music, sound effects and voice acting.
Speaking of voice acting, Ashley Johnson (Ellie) and Troy Baker (Joel) prove in The Last of Us Part II that they are still two of the very best in the business. Johnson seamlessly evolves the Ellie voice to reflect the passage of time, while Baker’s delivery of the ever-more-gravelly Joel is just music to the ears as always.
Once again, the supporting cast shines through with their voice acting. Laura Bailey (Abby), Stephen Chang (Jesse), Shannon Woodward (Dina), Patrick Fugit (Owen) and Ian Alexander (Lev) all put in excellent shifts, bringing great life to characters that could easily have been forgotten when contrasted with the headliners.
It goes without saying that we highly recommend you play through the game with a headset to enjoy the full impact of the music, voices and effects. It’ll help you with the game, too.
Gameplay can be forgotten in the run-up to a game with such a highly anticipated story, but The Last of Us Part II shines surprisingly bright when it comes to how it actually plays.
Much of the formula is unchanged from the first in the series: move from place to place, loot everything you can find, kill stuff, and repeat. But with just a few basic additions, Part II massively improves on the gameplay of its PS3 predecessor to make it much more fun to experience.
The most striking change comes as soon as you make it to Seattle, the setting for almost everything post-prologue. As Ellie and Dina enter the city on horseback, you are given the freedom to explore a number of different locations on a map in any order you please. Naughty Dog are known for largely linear experiences relying primarily on story, so to be able to explore and choose your own path (at least for a while) is a brilliant change.
With just a few basic additions, The Last of Us Part II massively improves on the gameplay of the original.
There are several changes to how the characters move and interact with their environment. You can now use crouching to hide in tall grass (be careful of Pokémon!), and this is taken one step further with the hugely welcome ability to go prone. This also allows you to hide from enemies under objects like vehicles and tables a la Alien: Isolation, adding a whole new dimension to encounters.
On the subject of encounters, combat is much improved from TLOU1. You can now dodge incoming melee attacks in order to land a counter, and when playing as Ellie you now never have to worry about shivs, as she constantly carries a knife for unlimited stealth kills. Enemies are much more responsive and inventive now too, learning your behaviour and reacting to what happens in fights. Dogs are introduced as well. Oh god.
Along with enhancements to crafting and upgrading mechanics (you can now make silencers!), these changes make The Last of Us Part II much more than just an interactive movie. It loses just a few points for insisting that I hold the triangle button to move stuff out of the way of doors, and for making me play guitar so many times.
Now, here’s where it gets a bit tricky.
Audiences are splitting down the middle based on whether or not they like the story in The Last of Us Part II. I mean, how could you possibly top the first game? It was so perfectly paced and balanced.
At the best of times, the story of TLOU2 is enthralling. At the worst, it’s quite frankly tedious. Naughty Dog pulled the old Metal Gear Solid 2 trick of advertising Ellie as the sole protagonist, before surprising everyone with a new playable character, Abby. Obviously we won’t go into her story here, but essentially it’s happening at the same time as that of Ellie, linking everything together.
The prologue sets everything up perfectly. The story’s motivation is there, a link with the events of the first game is teased, and all the key players are introduced. For the first half of the rest of the game, you play as Ellie alongside a few different partners. The story moves slowly, but everything makes sense and plays out in real-time. There are some great flashback passages, which fill in the gaps between the two games with charm and class.
At the best of times, the story of The Last of Us Part II is enthralling. At the worst, it’s quite frankly tedious.
Once you get to a certain point, the focus switches to Abby. Here, the open-world facade falls through and it reverts almost entirely to full-on linear adventure mode. Not a problem, just a bit of a shame given the first-half promise. Naturally, this new character’s story has a lot of flashbacks to flesh out her background, but they quickly become confusing and infuriating. They happen far too often and sometimes add little to the overall plot.
Your enjoyment of the Abby storyline depends largely upon whether or not you connect with the warring factions storyline and two key characters introduced partway through. I, for one, didn’t. I understand the part they play, but for them to hang around for so long and dictate so many actions we take ruined the promise of such a bold narrative decision. I just didn’t care about what was happening and found myself rushing through certain parts.
Remember in the first game when Joel gets injured and you play as Ellie for a while? That passage worked so well because it was just the right length and gave us a chance to connect with a character who up to that point had been the sidekick. Giving someone a co-protagonist role is a super bold move to make in modern triple-A gaming, and one that I applaud to no end, but for me it just didn’t pay off this time. I always yearned to return to Ellie.
Once the stories converge, a final passage of the game plays out in real-time. A third faction is introduced – which in my opinion is a huge missed opportunity to give a return to Abby’s old group – and both characters’ stories come to an end. The ending itself was satisfying enough, and the outcome was exactly what was needed.
When looked at as a whole, the story of The Last of Us Part II is engaging, emotional and generally well-told. The low points don’t take away from the high enough to make it a “bad game” by any means, just one that was a bit too indulgent in certain areas and as a result made it unbalanced.
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The sound and graphics are impeccable, pushing the PS4 to its limits
Several much-needed gameplay mechanics are added and enhanced
Naughty Dog made a number of bold decisions, most of which pay off
The dual-protagonist storyline is a bit unbalanced and sloppily constructed
New enemies and threats are introduced, but arguably not utilised enough
Holding triangle all the time to open doors is nothing but tedious
Overall, The Last of Us Part II is an epic, enjoyable follow-up to the first game. It’s not quite as strong in the story department, but returning to that world is a joy for the most part. You truly feel like you’ve endured the same hardships as Ellie by the end, made all the more exciting by the brilliant additions to the gameplay.