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The Last of Us Part 2 Review -- The Case for Social Distancing

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As society came to a screeching halt back in March, and many of us suddenly had an unexpected surplus of free time on our hands, I found myself revisiting the 2013 masterpiece, The Last of Us. The Last of Us was set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a global pandemic. The game followed Joel and Ellie, two survivors who set out to travel across the United States. Developed by Naughty Dog, it was an intense journey, as Joel and Ellie had to face hordes of infected and some of the worst sides of humanity as the game explored the darker side of survival. However, what made The Last of Us truly stand out was how, even in that brutal setting, Naughty Dog managed to tell a story filled with hope as the relationship between Joel and Ellie developed. The Last of Us was my Game of the Year in 2013, and combined with the fact that 2020 has been largely defined by an actual global pandemic, there was no way that I was passing up The Last of Us Part 2.
There will be some spoilers for The Last of Us, but if you haven’t played it by now, that’s on you.

The world of The Last of Us follows the aftermath of the collapse of society due to a global pandemic caused by a highly infectious strain of the Cordyceps fungus that turns humans, essentially, into mindless zombies. In The Last of Us, Ellie was immune to the infection, and her journey with Joel was built around delivering her to the Fireflies, a militant group of idealists trying to save society, to try to find a cure. In the game’s climax, Joel discovered a cure would require sacrificing Ellie, and not willing to lose the girl he had come to see as an adopted daughter, Joel fought his way through the Fireflies, escaped with an unconscious Ellie, and then lied to her that there was no cure. The Last of Us ended with Joel and Ellie arriving on the outskirts of Jackson, Wyoming, a community of survivors that was attempting to create something that resembled normal society from before the pandemic. The Last of Us Part 2 picks up a few years after that. Joel and Ellie, now in her late teens, have settled into life in Jackson. They have roles in the town, participate in community events, have close ties, and Ellie is even involved in teenage drama. While The Last of Us focused on telling its story from Joel’s perspective, Part 2 puts players in control of Ellie. Ellie isn’t the young teenager players knew from the first game. She’s becoming an adult, and as such, she’s discovering herself. In the game’s early moments, players get to see how the simple and idyllic life in Jackson has allowed Ellie to have a (relatively) normal life. She’s involved in teenage drama, has a complicated relationship with her maybe-girlfriend, looks to art and music to express herself, has a rebellious side, and is often the case with teenagers and their parental figures, has grown distant from Joel. That life is shattered when a group of outsiders attack Jackson. Against the advice of those who care for her, Ellie sneaks out of Jackson on a revenge-driven mission that forms the basis of a powerful and heavy story.

Ellie’s journey takes her to the long-abandoned ruins of Seattle. Some time following the infection, the government’s disaster response forces were overthrown by a group called the Washington Liberation Front or WLF. By the time Ellie arrives in Seattle, this militaristic group has long established itself and controls the city, but is currently at war with an opposing faction called the Seraphites. The Seraphites were once led by a woman who preached that the fall of the old world was brought about by humanity’s reliance on technology and machines and this group resemble an underdeveloped cult. While the WLF and their tactics resemble those of the modern military, the use of trained dogs, military style checkpoints and patrols, and modern day weapons, the Seraphites are more primitive and are more inclined to attack from places of cover, use bows and arrows, and communicate through various whistle sounds. As Ellie traverses Seattle in search of her targets, the game pits her against both these factions and groups of infected that occupy various parts of the city.

From the start, Naughty Dog stated that they wanted The Last of Us Part 2 to feel like a brutal commentary on violence, and a number of design decisions were made with that goal in mind. For instance every enemy has a name, their allies will respond emotionally to their deaths, and even dogs will react when you take down their owners (by the way, there are dogs now and you will have to kill them from time to time). And while these changes certainly adds an element of realism to the game, at the end of the day, it feels like a cheap tactic because this is a video game that forces its players to eliminate countless enemies to progress its narrative. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when you can avoid some enemies. But there are also many encounters where trying to leave early will alert the enemy and get you killed. More often than not, the game wants you to fight your way from one objective to the next. Also, I don’t remember the camera angle in the first game zooming in so much when you were killing someone, which is another change that feels like a cheap trick. While the gameplay falls short in this regard, the story of The Last of Us Part 2 feels more successful, with a few caveats. Without going into spoilers, the story of Ellie’s single-minded focus on revenge, the parts she’s willing to throw away and things she loses along the way, and the brutal lengths she is willing to go to accomplish her goals, certainly elicits an emotional response from players. However, and don’t get me wrong, the first game was also fairly brutal and dark, but it juxtaposed that darkness and brutality with hope. In addition to the fact the entire premise of the first game was about whether Ellie could be the cure for a world ravaged by a horrible pandemic, her character brought a lightness to the game’s narrative. From the puns she told, to her cheerful demeanor at times, and especially the familial relationship that developed between Joel and Ellie all gave players a sense of hope. Part 2 doesn’t really have that. While it is successful at telling a dark story, and maybe one that is more realistic in the world the games establish, I would argue that this focus comes at the cost of player enjoyment.

A number of reviews have praised the game’s graphics, and while I agree that Naughty Dog has done an amazing job crafting a beautiful game, most of the game is spent in the overgrown ruins of Seattle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Seattle looks bad. Quite the opposite. It’s just that visually, Seattle doesn’t feel that distinct from the other overgrown cities that dominated most of the first game. Also, and this is admittedly a minor issue, I do have some doubts regarding the extent that nature would overtake such an urban expanse. All that aside, while most of the game is spent in the ruins of Seattle, the game’s opening deserves special praise. Part 2 opens in the snow-covered mountains of Wyoming and from the way the snow falls off tree branches if you bump into them to the way your tracks in the snow seemingly stay forever, the game’s opening act sets a stunningly high bar. As detailed and beautiful as the world of The Last of us Part 2 is to behold, the character designs leave quite a bit to be desired. Not the main cast, mind you. Characters like Ellie have lots of little details that shed clues about their personalities and pasts. However, the rest of the characters that fill the world feel like they received barely enough attention. For instance, giving each enemy their own unique name felt like a waste when I found myself wondering if there were only two character models for the generic Seraphite soldiers, one for males and one for females.

Like its predecessor, The Last of Us Part 2 is a third-person survival action game. While players are given an arsenal of firearms, ammo is not exactly plentiful and Ellie must rely on stealth to get through most encounters. Although the gameplay is largely unchanged, the encounter design in Part 2 is definitely an improvement over the first game. The plentiful options for cover feel more natural and building around Ellie’s handful of new movement options make the world feel less like a video game. Ellie can squeeze through the narrow cracks in the walls in the crumbling buildings in the abandoned sections of Seattle, crawl through the overgrown grass, and go prone to hide beneath neglected vehicles and rubble. It also helps the enemies will also use and check these environmental shortcuts and hiding places, which makes them feel like they exist for more than just their role in a video game. Ellie can also jump which expands on her exploration options, but this mechanic feels clunky in most scenarios. Part 2 also does an excellent job using elevation in multi-tiered areas that add a new dimension to encounters, stealth, and combat. The game’s listening mode, which allows Ellie to identify and locate distant enemies based on their sounds and movements, also returns and is one of Ellie’s most indispensable tools. Although, I thought the feature was toned down a little and felt like it took a few upgrades before it was as strong as during the previous game. Speaking of, like the first game, players are encouraged to scour the world for collectables, resources, and materials to upgrade Ellie’s arsenal and abilities which is another factor that encourages players to defeat every enemy. When Ellie initially arrives in Seattle, players are given a large area with multiple buildings to explore and the game leans towards an open world approach. Thankfully, this section is short-lived as it embraces some of the worst parts of open world games. While there are later sections where players are given multiple routes through an area, for the most part, the game is very linear.

One of the most memorable aspects of The Last of Us was Naughty Dog’s ability to maintain a high level of tension throughout almost every encounter. It didn’t matter if you were in a room full of humans or infected, progressing towards your objective was a stressful affair. Years later, I still remember feverishly pressing square to execute take-downs, even though repeatedly smashing the button didn’t actually do anything to speed up the process. And while Part 2 puts players in many similarly challenging positions, that sense of tension is largely undermined by the game’s checkpoint system. The game is very generous with checkpoints, to the point that it seemingly gives players a checkpoint after every clean stealth kill. While this sounds great on paper, it really hurts a game built around stealth and resource management. In the first game, you could spend fifteen to twenty minutes clearing a room or encounter, set off the last enemy or two, and then have to quickly decide if you wanted to die and lose all that progress, or use some of your limited resources. Not only did this change alleviate much of the game’s tension during encounters, it also reduced the pressure to use supplies and ammo. It got to the point that I was getting frustrated that I had to leave ammo behind because I wasn’t using it and the game limits how much players can carry.

The Last of Us told an emotional and powerful story. Following the game’s brutal opening, it established that Joel was a hardened survivor in a world where emotion and hope were liabilities. When Joel met Ellie, she was just baggage that he was tasked with transporting. But players got to experience a journey where the hardships they experienced together changed Joel until he saw her as a surrogate daughter, and that journey drove the game’s climax. When Part 2 was announced, I was apprehensive as, apart from one lingering question, I felt we had seen Joel and Ellie’s story to its conclusion. The Last of Us had established an interesting world filled with the potential for other powerful stories. So why continue with Joel and Ellie? Having played through this game, it doesn't help that it feels like Part 2 wants to tell two stories. And while players are invested in Ellie’s story because The Last of Us already did the heavy lifting to get players to care about her, her story feels tangential to the more interesting story of the conflict and events in Seattle. On the other hand though, having experienced the complete story that Naughty Dog wanted to craft with Part 2 I can, for the most part, understand why they chose to tell that story the way they did. I have my opinions on that story, but can also admit that the changes I have in mind would have been a completely different experience.

From the moment it was revealed, The Last of Us Part 2 was one of those games that faced an insurmountable hurdle. Its predecessor was nearly universally praised, and while gamers were excited when Part 2 was announced, many doubted if it would be able to reach those same heights. And then came the leaks. I will admit that I avoided most stories and discussions about this game once the leaks started because I was planning to pick it up and didn’t want the story spoiled. There are a lot of people whose minds are made up without even having played the game. Some of them made their decisions based on accurate information from those leaks, some of them made their decisions based on inaccurate information (and some based on their biases or preconceived notions). I accept that there’s nothing I can do to convince any of them that The Last of Us Part 2 is worth playing. However, if you’re not in those camps, and you’re debating picking it up, I recommend The Last of Us Part 2. The game undoubtedly has its flaws and it doesn’t reach the same heights as the first game, but it is still a good game that tells a powerful story. And it feels weirdly timely given the whole global pandemic.

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves ~ Confucius 

All images owned by Naughty Dog.