The Last of Us Part II review – It wishes it was John Wick
Platforms: PlayStation 4 [reviewed]
Release Date: June 19, 2020
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Naughty Dog
Sequels are a tricky thing. In film, sequels are usually something met with trepidation. For every The Godfather Part II, there is a, well… The Godfather Part 3. This has changed in recent years though, as film sequels tend to have a much better track record than they used to overall. But games have always been a different story. Sequels are usually a prime opportunity to fix what may not have worked in a first entry, and the development team behind a successful first entry typically has enough experience to make the second time around better overall. Halo 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, Street Fighter 2, the list goes on. But once in a while, we get a sequel that reminds us of that stigma that has plagued film for decades. A sequel that not only adds nothing new to a franchise but actively takes away from the previous installment making it worse by association. It brings me no pleasure to inform you that The Last of Us Part II is undoubtedly one of those sequels.
The time leading up to The Last of Us Part II was tumultuous, to say the least. Even before we saw any of the game, the idea of a sequel to the critically and commercially successful The Last of Us seemed like a fool’s errand. The first entry ended on one of the strongest endings a video game has ever had. Emotional and open to interpretation, it was incredibly well done. Even the developer themselves, Naughty Dog, said that they had no interest in a sequel unless a good story came their way. But after the game’s existence was officially announced, tensions started to ease up until the most recent months leading up to the game’s release. Former Kotaku writer Jason Schreier wrote a scathing report highlighting the awful working conditions at Naughty Dog. Something industry insiders had known for quite some time but had now come to full light for all to see. Then to add fuel to the fire, the entirety of the game’s ending leaked online.
The second time isn’t the charm
Without getting into specifics, the general consensus of the game’s ending was not good. It was hard to find any positive responses to what appeared to be the game falling flat on its face. We were told context is important, that we can’t know until we play the whole game. A fair enough sentiment. Then the game’s director Neil Druckmann went on a strange Twitter tirade, blasting anyone who seemed to have even the slightest negative opinion on the game. This is all to say that it became impossible to come into this game with a completely clean slate or “open mind”, mostly thanks to Naughty Dog itself. But, for professionalism’s sake, I did my absolute best to try and be as open-minded as possible. As futile as that had become due to the discourse surrounding the game. In the interest of fairness, we will start off with what the game does well. Because there isn’t that much.
Graphically the game looks absolutely stunning. It is easily one of the best looking games of this generation. Which isn’t surprising. Naughty Dog has always been known for their visual prowess, and the best looking games tend to come near the end of a generation’s lifespan as developers have usually mastered a console’s hardware by then. But this isn’t without its own drawbacks either. (I know, I know, I said I’d remain positive here…) The game suffers similar issues to Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2. Although RDR2 is a far superior game to The Last of Us Part II, both games suffer from their respective developer’s slavish devotion to “realism” for the sake of it. Seeing the gorgeous, realistic, well-animated sequence of Arthur skinning an animal is fun to watch the first time. Then you see it about 9 million more times throughout the course of the game, and it not only gets old, but frustrating. Similarly, seeing Ellie or Abby take apart their guns during the weapon upgrade animations is beautiful and well detailed and fun to watch the first time. The first time. At a certain point “just let me play the video game please” becomes the more prevalent thought over “wow what beautiful animation.”
Credit where credit is due
The game also has the best accessibility options I have ever seen in a game. There are a plethora of options available for players with hearing and sight-related conditions and disabilities. It is so in-depth in fact, that every developer now has a responsibility to do the same for their games. There is simply no excuse anymore.
The gameplay in The Last of Us Part II is more or less exactly the same as the first game. A few quality of life changes have been made like being able to put away bricks and bottles into your inventory like other weapons. Also, you no longer have to constantly craft shivs to take out Clickers, as Ellie now always has access to a switchblade. The game controls well and is a marketed improvement over previous Naughty Dog titles like the early Uncharted games. There is only one notable change overall, and that is the ability to go prone while sneaking around enemies. But The Last of Us Part II is much more action-focused than the first game. Because of this, going in guns blazing can be just as preferable as being stealthy, as long as you have the resources. When you find yourself full of ammo, molotovs, and pipe bombs, there is just no reason to be sneaky.
Metal Gear Duh
But when you do decide to be sneaky, this highlights another huge problem with the game. The AI is dumb. Like dumb as a sack of wet rocks. I struggled in the earlier combat sections of the game because I assumed the game was smart. It is not. Once I discovered this, the stealth sections became an absolute joke. I would kill an enemy, wait for their comrades to find their body, and then kill them. Rinse and repeat. It got to the point where I had a pile of 3 or 4 bodies all stacked in the same corner. It was comical. Not to mention that the enemies in the game have the peripheral vision of Doctor Doom with a bad case of pink eye. Stealth became a Tom and Jerry cartoon as I simply stood slightly to the left or right of an enemy and waited for them to turn a corner and stealth kill them. So, in the end, combat either boils down to playing Call of Duty single player on easy mode or a Splinter Cell stealth section where every enemy is wearing a blindfold.
But, to be fair, Naughty Dog has never been known for their gameplay. Even Uncharted has been known for clunky controls, especially when it comes to combat. Although that has been improved in later entries, and this is reflected in The Last of Us Part II. The combat controls well, even if it is completely braindead. But The Last of Us is a series built around its story. It is a narrative game first and foremost, and that is where almost all of the faults in the game lies, in its writing. The Last of Us Part II is one of the worst written AAA games in recent memory, in a field not particularly known for great writing anyway. It is very hard to discuss why the writing is so bad without getting into specifics but I will try my best.
As deep as the theater kid’s poetry book
The pacing of the game is completely off. The first 12 or so hours of the game are unbelievably boring. Within that first 12 hours, there are maybe about 3 hours of actual video game. Which means not counting talking, walking, or walking and talking (something the game is very fond of doing). This picks up later in the game as more combat sections are added, but as we discussed already that introduces its own slew of problems. The story has a lot of shock value solely for the sake of it. There are a lot of moments designed to elicit a response from the player, but they all fall completely flat because there is no set up for them, and subsequently no payoff. Either that or they are so obviously telegraphed from miles away that when the incident does happen it, again, holds no emotional impact. The game is also miserably, comically bleak. Now the first game was also dark, but the big difference is that there was still an element of hope involved.
When Joel’s daughter dies at the very beginning of the first game (don’t talk to me about spoilers, you’re reading a review for a sequel of a seven-year-old game) it means something because we had time with them before everything went to hell. Now personally I love a good, dark story. One of my favorite series is Berserk by Kentaro Miura. Berserk is aggressively dark and mean spirited. It makes Game of Thrones look like Sesame Street by comparison. But it works when in comparison to The Last of Us Part II. Why? Because we get to see the characters in Berserk when things are good. We get to see their personalities, hopes, and dreams. So that when everything goes horribly, irrevocably wrong (and boy does it), it has meaning.
Edgy like a dull spork
This is perfectly encapsulated by the start menu of the two games. In the first game, a guitar is sat by a window as light shines into an obviously dilapidated and abandoned room. It is foreboding and dark, but there is still an element of hope, which is the main message of the first game. Now compare this to the second game. A derelict boat in the middle of a dark sky on the verge of a massive storm. Darkness, bleakness, and nothing else. This isn’t helped by the fact that almost every character is either an asshole or an idiot, and there is nobody to really root for.
Established characters perform complete 180’s, becoming completely unrecognizable. The motivations of almost every main character are nonsensical, and every character seems staunchly against learning any kind of lesson. People aren’t always the best at learning lessons or dealing with the repercussions of their actions, granted. But when your actions have repercussions that are slammed into your face over the course of 3 in-game days, it becomes almost comical how staunchly any character refuses to see anything beyond the most immediate and current results of their actions, or planned actions.
Ready to have your mind blown?
Then we run into possibly the biggest problem with the game’s story. Its overall “message”. I am going to tell all of you reading this something shocking. I hope you’re ready for this earth-shattering revelation…
Violence… is BAD.
Everyone, please contain your gasps.
All kidding aside, I am presenting this message on the same level as the game expects you to receive it. This most basic concept of human morality is something that apparently Naughty Dog, or at least Neil Druckmann, feels needs to be explicitly, loudly, and painfully obviously stated. However, despite all this, throughout the course of the game, you amass a body count that would make Frank Castle jealous. Which brings us to another one the game’s biggest issues. Ludonarrative dissonance. This is something that most people talking about games view as something of a taboo to discuss, and I don’t understand why. Basically the concept is that a player’s actions in gameplay vary wildly from what is presented in the story sections of the game. Previously, this was most greatly exemplified by another Naughty Dog title, Uncharted. Nathan Drake is presented in the story sections of the game as a fun, quippy, dashing rogue of the Indiana Jones caliber.
But during the actual gameplay, you’re murdering swaths of people. It causes a conflict between the game and the story. But now The Last of Us Part II reigns supreme as the absolute champion of ludonarrative dissonance. Because, while this is a problem in a game like Uncharted, it is never the main focus of the game’s story, so it allows some level of separation. This is not the case with The Last of Us Part II. Because this is baked into the game’s core themes, it comes off as even more disingenuous and stupid. This is only heightened by the fact that this is a video game and has things like difficulty settings, weapon upgrades, and other trappings of the medium designed to make killing people easier and more efficient. But nowhere is it more apparent in how much this message fails, than in one of its most blatantly cheap ways to tug at your heartstrings, the dogs.
Throughout the game, dogs are presented as a new enemy that must be dealt with. Not only are they an enemy, but a particularly annoying one. As they can follow your scent and force you to move constantly, which can put you in the line of sight of other enemies. So dogs are presented as an enemy to be dealt with quickly and with great prejudice. Using trap bombs, taking out their handlers so the dogs have nowhere to go, etc. But because this is a video game, and dogs, like every enemy, are a hindrance to your progress as a player, with the ultimate goal of completing the game, I have absolutely no issues exploding these doggos to kingdom come.
I love animals as well. But this is a video game. So because I am not a psychopath and am able to tell the difference between reality and fiction, becoming the ultimate pupper snuffer in the game has no effect on me. So when you come to a section that forces you to kill a specific dog in an unskippable, unavoidable quick time event (not one of the dozens you have killed beforehand, mind you), and then has you interact with said dog in a flashback (to remind you that the dog was alive before I guess…?) it not only rings hollow but cheap and lazy.
Do you feel sad yet? How about now?
Which really cuts to the core of the game. This is not a story that needed to be told. When critics compare this game to something like John Wick in a negative light it comes across as disingenuous at best, and hypocritical at worst. The overall story in The Last of Us Part II is an incredibly basic one. Something that an intern would throw out in a pitch meeting on the first day, within the first hour. John Wick (and its subsequent sequels) tells this same exact story, except miles better and more competently.
Every bid to tug at your heartstrings in The Last of Us Part II is cheap, lazy, cliched, and done better not just by hundreds of movies, but dozens of other games as well. Including the first The Last of Us. I find it completely bewildering that anyone who has watched movies, read books, or even played other games before, finds any of the cheap emotional ploys in this game effective, let alone meaningful.
So… Crash Bandicoot looks fun.
The Last of Us Part II is one of those rare sequels that not only fails to expand on its world and characters in thoughtful or meaningful ways but actually reaches backwards in time to tarnish the legacy of what came before it. A sequel on the same level as titles like Devil May Cry 2 and Resident Evil 6. To be put on the mental shelf of “forget this ever happened and pretend it doesn’t exist”. Because, if you don’t, it will only tarnish your fond memories and experiences of the first game.
This review is NOT based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. As I suspect no Sony first-party game will be after I publish this…