Review: The Last of Us Part II
Image Courtesy of NME
By George Warren
[Disclaimer - This review contains moderate spoilers]
I have since played through this game and thoroughly enjoyed it. I have also read the “controversy” surrounding this game, and have to say it is far worse than any of the misery that this game so gleefully buries itself in. TLOU2 is a story driven survival/action game for PlayStation 4 that is about revenge, suffering, and trauma. These are ideas that are explored in painstaking detail, often to the detriment of gameplay flow. It will often break up the (already stretched) action sequences to stop and explore the actions the player has taken. I can understand that this game will not be for everyone, and I can definitely be accused of bias; Max Payne 3,one of my all-time favourite games, is notorious for its constant and unskippable cutscenes. In TLOU2 the cutscenes are replaced with egregiously slow walking sequences, and while they do flesh out both the world and the story, they work against the game’s improved action. With that in mind, I can understand a general disappointment an audience might have. Unfortunately, the reaction it has received appears to be the result of something more sinister, and much like the game explores, it stems from the worst side of humanity. It's a shame that even in 2020 a game with strong well-written female characters is considered garbage because of some supposed "SJW agenda.” It seems that gamers are the worst people to make art for.
Like many successful sequels, TLOU2 is far greater in scale than its predecessors. Calling this game Part 2 feels disingenuous. This is an expansion of the world. What happens when humanity survives? Ellie and Joel are a small, albeit significant, part of that world. What it loses in concision, it makes up for in world building and level design. The scale also applies to the gameplay, and minute to minute combat. Vast open areas with large amounts of enemies, and a robust checkpoint system that keeps you from having to replay large stretches of gameplay, but feels rewarding if you manage to succeed all in one life. It's the best type of cinematic gameplay, where you experience moments that seem straight out of an action movie, rather than experiencing it all in cutscene. For example; sneaking through bushes, picking off individual enemies with a bow and arrow, being spotted, running and hiding under a table only to be dragged out from under it by a tenacious NPC. Brilliant, unscripted, and tense.
Not all the gameplay succeeds in being as unscripted. Sequences in which you crawl through tight areas almost always end in being grabbed, yet the monster is signposted with an audio cue, so you as the player know there is an enemy nearby but are powerless to do anything. As such, it never comes as a surprise or an opportunity for gameplay; these enemies don't show up in your ‘Listen Mode’. So while the player knows it's coming, they have to go through the motions which creates a disparity. As an alternative, I would have loved to have them appear in ‘Listen Mode’, and have different paths as an option. Then it's down to you, the player, not to take shortcuts unless you know they're safe. The rest of the game is built around exploration and crafting. These are mostly left unchanged from the first game, though we do see one larger open area. While it was a nice demonstration of hardware improvements, its one-time-use felt more like a small aside rather than an interesting change to the core of the game. Still, with the game looking as gorgeous as it does, any chance to explore more of the post-apocalyptic world was appreciated[YD1] .
The visuals are stunning. Truly stunning. The level of detail is exquisite and absolutely necessary in creating a post-apocalyptic environment like no other. We may have felt something similar in 2013, and like its predecessor, it is pushing the boundaries of the console. I hate to double dip, but I am looking forward to seeing the inevitable remastering on PlayStation 5. The game runs at Sony's ‘cinematic’ 30 frames per second and while I thought I'd suffer coming straight off of TLOU Remastered’s silky smooth 60fps, I actually found the experience really enjoyable. Motion still felt smooth, fast, responsive, and the benefit was a more harmonious experience between in-game cutscenes and pre-rendered cutscenes, unlike the aforementioned Remastered which would switch between the two frame rates. On the Playstation 4 Pro this game uses both HDR and has a 4K mode, which runs at a native 1440p. I’m not a big 4K gamer, but I did play this in ‘4K’ HDR mode, and it looked spectacular. This is a series that has a strong style with lush green flora growing over the decimated cities, and High Dynamic Range really accentuates the contrast and creates a gorgeous and harrowing landscape.
"I know it's a f*****g mess. I know. But we can choose to be happy."
This is probably the biggest point of contention for the audience, which seems to have split the player-base in half. For me, I loved it. I believe Neil Druckmann writes and directs a game with loads of great themes to think about and explore. Here we really focus on the endless cycle of trauma; both the trauma of the existential dread from infection and the trauma of violence and revenge. Revenge is all-consuming. I can't think of a piece of media that gets this across better through its sickening violence and endless scenes of brutality. But the sheer destructive effect of revenge is poignant. If everyone's revenge is justified, then no-one's is. It's masterful storytelling, that often comes at the cost of the tremendous gameplay. The original story is certainly more concise, which can be seen in the campaign lengths of thirty hours vs. the fifteen hours of the original.
Gustavo Santaolalla returns to bring a very understated score. For this sequel there are far more tracks, but very few that rise to the surface. Most act as sonic ambience, which was a little disappointing. It’s hard to nail down and certainly none of it is bad. There’s only a few stand out pieces. Longing is probably the best of the soundtrack, and perfectly captures the balance of melancholy and hope that the series has presented.
This is a game that should leave you thinking. It has a lot to say, and for people who don’t want to hear that I can understand the frustration. But if you want a story that allows for active reading rather than passive observation until the next lot of killing, I think you’ll really enjoy it. But don’t worry, the killing is good too.