Perhaps this year’s most eagerly anticipated release for the PlayStation 4, and perhaps any platform out there, Naughty Dog’s sequel to The Last of Us is finally here. The Last of Us – Part 2 was delayed twice, but the wait has been well worth it.
With over half a year to go, and the launch of two brand new consoles on the horizon as well, it feels odd to say this – but perhaps the game of the year for 2020 is already upon us. The Last of Us – Part 2 is so masterfully crafted it’ll be hard to match (let alone top) for other games coming out in the coming months. Not only does it feature Naughty Dog’s usual high standard of excellence, it also feels like it’s the culmination of everything that the developer learned over the course of this particular console’s lifecycle. In that sense, it’s not too unlike the first game, which did something similar for the PlayStation 3.
Part 2 of The Last of Us is a direct sequel to the first game, but the narrative jumps forward five years. Protagonist Ellie is now 19 and Joel is well into his fifties at this point. Without giving much of the story away, we quickly see Ellie transform from the innocent and careful young teenager of the first game to a young woman driven by feelings of vengeance. You still strike from the shadows whenever possible, but you feel like much more of an aggressor this time around.
The change isn’t without consequences for Ellie, who feels the burden of all this violence weighing heavily on her. The world she lives in, torn apart by the Cordyceps plague, pits people against each other as dangerous groups band together while others try to hide away from danger – with Ellie stuck in the middle of it all. Choices aren’t black and white here, and out of all of Naughty Dog’s games so far this is clearly the one that has the best defined emotional storytelling for its characters – it’s hard not to get upset at the events that happen, not to feel the rage the Ellie does, or feel the sadness she experiences.
The gameplay in The Last of Us – Part 2 builds on the foundations of the first game, but adds a few new elements through improved level design and new capabilities for Ellie. There’s more verticality this time around, which doesn’t just give more of a sense of scale to the visual experience as you peer ahead at what’s coming, but also changes the gameplay. You can use it to plan your next move or surprise an enemy from above, but enemies who are actually positioned above you will also have an easier time spotting or jumping you. In some cases staying out of sight isn’t enough either, since the game introduces dogs that can sniff you out no matter where you are.
Combat, and evading it, have also been improved. You can dodge out of the way of incoming attacks, and you can crouch to stay out of sight and use stealth to move past a possibly volatile scene. This is optional in most cases since Ellie can stand her ground, but play on a harder difficulty level and stealth becomes something that’s essential to survival.
What’s perhaps most impressive about The Last of Us – Part 2 is how seamlessly it blends its narrative with its gameplay. Every scene you play though, like every cutscene that unfolds, feels meaningful and full of emotional context – there is absolutely no filler and that’s especially remarkable considering the fact that the game has a runtime that’s about twice that of the first game.
Speaking of which, I can’t recommend enough that you should play the first game before starting with this one. This isn’t a standalone sequel, at least not in the sense where you can just jump in and have the same experience. A connection to the main protagonists has been the basis for developer Naughty Dog, and players will feel the same as they set off for part 2. Even if you’ve played it before… if you can muster up the patience then definitely play the first game again before starting this, so it’s all fresh – you’ll thank me for it later.
The Last of Us – Part 2 being developed from the ground up for the PlayStation 4 has also had its impact. Not only are environments bigger and more detailed than before (this is one hell of a swan song before the PS5 comes along), the character animation also does a wonderful job of conveying subtle facial expressions in a way that complements the already highly emotional nature of the narrative. Because of it, some of the choices you make are things you’ll come to regret, as you face the consequences of your actions through the lens of those whose lives you’ve touched as a result.
Resisting the temptation to delve more into the amazing story that the game holds brings me to the inevitable conclusion that this is yet another groundbreaking game for Naughty Dog. I’m inclined to say that their Uncharted games on the PlayStation 4 have titles like the recent Tomb Raider games following closely behind, but there’s nothing I can think of that compares to The Last of Us – Part 2. The best example I can think of is Red Dead Redemption 2, but even that amazing game doesn’t hold on to its momentum and features emotional highs like this one does. Too early for “game of the year” right now? Of course, but my prediction is that anything coming out for the next generation of consoles is going to have an extremely tough time matching what’s been created here. Naughty Dog’s latest is so refined, so expertly crafted and such a culmination of an entire console generation that it’ll go down as yet another all-time classic from the studio.