From the very start of The Last of Us: Part II, Naughty Dog snatches your full attention, drawing you in like a moth to an open flame.
The opening credits play out like something from a Tarantino flick; setting the scene, building a sense of tension, dread and apprehension slowly and deliberately.
Sombre acoustic guitar riffs are plucked without any discernible rhythm – giving you that weird feeling that something isn’t right as you’re reintroduced to a decimated urban sprawl of Americana.
We meet our main characters again a few years after we left them in the first game, and Ellie continues to tend to her emotional bruises as Joel tries to make amends. You can argue it’s a slow start, but Naughty Dog is outlining everything that’s on the line here, everything its cast – and you – have got to lose.
From the off, the cinematography seizes your attention. Game director Neil Druckmann has an eye as good as any of the most notable directors in cinema, and being reintroduced to returning protagonists Joel and Ellie is done delicately, emotionally, tentatively.
Sometimes, in its lingering shots of nature and staccato conversation, the game feels like a Terrance Malik film. Sometimes, in how it frames its heroes – and villains – in the world, it feels like a Steven Soderbergh.
There’s no denying the influence of TV and film, even in these early hours.
The problem with comparing games to films is that they don’t stack up. A film can’t spend two hours teaching you how it’s going to pan the camera, linger on the props, stitch action into exposition.
Cinematic games love to savour their tutorials, pretend that your offing of fifteen zombies means more than it does.
Yes, the opening hours of the game are slow. Tense, but slow. Forcing you to observe the spoon-fed humanity of its cast – complete with all the tropes of failed relationships, incongruent parent/sibling bonds and unrequited love – the front-end of this cinematic masterpiece can feel bloated.
Burdening you with mechanics upon mechanics is enough to blunt your enthusiasm for this beautiful slice of Americana…. Until the game’s earliest – and maybe most gripping – payoff.
A few hours in, and it all makes sense. It all clicks. The simplicity of the revenge story organises itself in your head, and you – Ellie – hit the road with your girlfriend, Dina.
As you make your way from Jackson, Wyoming to the city of Seattle, your PlayStation 4 will start wheezing with effort as it works to unpack what may be one of the most beautiful games on the system.
Broken cities being overtaken by nature form the backdrop for intense and inventive set-pieces leveraging water, flora and concrete.
Everything comes together in a naturalistic way – though you know you’re playing through levels with waist-high cover and conveniently spaced out zones, Naughty Dog’s designers have gone above and beyond in the way they bring their world to life.
You’re not just playing through levels, you’re playing through a city. You can lose yourself in it; believe in it. You don’t get to experience that level of thorough immersion in a lot of games.
The developer loves dropping ‘dog leg’ design into its crumbling buildings whose sole purpose is to hide an infected monster and scare the bejesus out of you. The tension – whether it’s in combat, in narrative, or in your own head – is erratic. Irregular. Impossible to predict.
And the result is that you’re carried through the game on the back of either adrenaline, fear or instinct – or in some cases all three at the same time.
At its most simple, The Last of Us, Part II is a stealth game and a survival game. You’ve got very limited resources, you’ve got practically no ammo, and you’re almost always going to be on the brink of death.
Similarly to the first game, improvisation and crafting on the fly become integral to understanding how to survive.
Explore, scavenge, and shank a zombie if it gets too close.
Your ‘drone’ or ‘horde’ zombies aren’t too tricky, just don’t let them see you; sneak up behind them and stick your knife in their head. Or use some rags and a bottle to make a silencer, if you’re feeling fancy.
But it’s when you hear the dolphin-like barks of the Clickers… that’s when your heart jumps into your throat. Hardy, aggressive and fast, these fungus-headed infected are the unofficial icons of the game for good reason.
The Clickers define the gameplay when it comes to the infected, with Naughty Dog leveraging sound, sightlines, inventive prop placement and intelligent AI to pile the pressure on Ellie. Pile the pressure on you.
Later on, you’re going to start to encounter humans and – in some cases – their dogs.
Being tracked and forced to move in and out of cover whilst avoiding alerting their handlers resulted in some of the hardest encounters the game had to offer. But it never felt unfair, or sadistic.
There was always just enough crafting material to provide an out, always just enough bullets to let you commando your way out of a firefight if things were in dire straits.
Paired with some of the most true-to-life animation you’ll see in gaming this generation and lighting effects realistic enough to blow your mind, it feels like every encounter matters. That Ellie’s single-minded mission cannot fail, no matter how bleak it’s all getting. No matter how much blood is on her hands.
The most horrific things that happen in this game aren’t because of the living dead, the feral, berserker zombies. No, it’s all mankind.
The game’s most harrowing, you’ll-go-to-bed-thinking-about-it moments don’t come from the jump scares in dark rooms – from the shambling, clicking undead.
What you see people do – willingly, wantonly, and single-mindedly – is the stuff that sticks to the inside of your head like soot.
Aside from Naughty Dog’s psychological horror fakeouts that toy with your anticipation and kick your heart into overdrive about three times an hour, there’s also the complete unpredictability of the plot.
The developer wants you to know this is a game about empathy, about breaking down tribalism and exploring human understanding at a macro level. And some of the choices it makes as a developer succeed – brutally – in driving that message home like a stake through the heart.
And perhaps the most impressive thing throughout it all is that it treats its characters like humans. There are queer narratives, religious narratives, parental narratives, coming-of-age narratives and even comments on gender expression and identity in this game… but not once do these issues feel forced, crowbarred in for effect or agenda.
Instead, Naughty Dog manages to make you connect with all of its cast on an emotional level, and see them for the humans they are beneath the survivalism and the bravado.
If you play this game and come away from it harbouring a grudge against the developer for using a female character to communicate agency, for focusing on the young, raw love of its central female couple, then you’ve failed to understand the game at its most basic level.
Naughty Dog, in placing a 19-year-old woman as one of the angriest characters you’ll ever meet in a game in the centre of this ultra-violent, revenge-fuelled story, breaks down a lot of gaming tropes and rebuilds them in a critical, affecting way.
Not to spoil anything here, but the ending of the game runs off the back of one of the most devastating and cathartic set-pieces you’ll have the pleasure of playing. It’ll leave you staring at the start screen – which takes on a whole new weight after the ending – slack-jawed and spent.
This game works hard to get in your head, and once it’s in there it wants to stay lodged in like a spore.
The Last of Us, Part II – Verdict 5/5
The Last of Us, Part II outshines the original in practically every way. The game takes level design, combat, stealth, AI and interactive narrative and uses each element to elevate the other.
Unpredictable, intelligent and self-aware, this game seems to pride itself on digging into your head and staying there – allowing its themes and messages to grow and mutate long after the credits roll.
Naughty Dog knows just when to take your tools off you, remove the safety blanket and provoke you. It weaves inconsistent pacing and tension together masterfully to leave you as scared and vulnerable as its protagonists.
This is a game that’s going to be talked about for a long time to come, and with good reason. A masterpiece.
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