“I know you wish things were different. I wish things were different. But they ain’t.”
It’s the perfect sentiment for The Last of Us 2, the follow-up adventure to Naughty Dog’s 2013 action-adventure and the studio’s swansong for the current console generation. It’s a wistful longing for the past that’s directly applied to Ellie’s desire to return to what was: a life before the Fireflies, a life before everything went wrong.
But it’s also a neat wrapper not just for Ellie, but for every other character, The Last of Us 2 itself, and maybe even Naughty Dog themselves.
Update 19/6: This story has been retimed following The Last of Us 2’s launch today.
The tale kicks off five years after the events of the original The Last of Us. Ellie’s grown up, and the void left by the Fireflies has been filled by the Washington Liberation Front and the Seraphites. What unfolds triggers a natural tale of revenge, and while the internet has done a good job of fleshing out precisely what that looks like, I won’t be touching on any main plot points here.
What I will say is that you’ll see the perspective of post-infected America from multiple angles, all of which get substantially more time and treatment than other games could, or would ordinarily, afford.
Indeed, much of The Last of Us 2 could be described as an exercise in excess. It’s not the longest game in the world, clocking in at approximately 20 to 25 hours depending on difficulty and your playstyle, but it often feels much longer than that.
And much like the original, it’s partially because of silence.
At times, the serene silence that fills Ellie’s world is replaced with unbroken hours of understated tension. There’s a segment of gameplay, enroute to one of Ellie’s targets of revenge, where the game puts you through almost two hours of repeated encounters. They’re not all high-energy gunfights or knife-edge escapes from hordes.
If anything, those are the exception.
Most of the game is more like this: You’ll see an abandoned library or a service station, only to see infected milling about. Do you sneak in? There’s only a couple from what you can tell, and there’s no visible spores through the window. But it’s dark. You’re not sure, and who knows what the screams will attract. Supplies only extend so far; you might survive just fine, but what about the next fight?
So you move on. There’s another building halfway down the block, seemingly empty. But smashing the glass with a brick triggers that rush of sound, the telltale warning that you’re about to be spotted. Where, you ask? There’s no HUD elements or visual indicators, and you couldn’t see anyone on ground level. Instead, it’s a spotter on the second floor of the building opposite, running a standard patrol.
Again, this isn’t a fight you want to take. So you duck down the stairwell inside the building, and begin exploring the basement. At least there’ll be some duct tape, canisters, rags, maybe explosives or scissors.
There’s just one problem: spores. The basement’s infected.
It’s entirely reasonable at this point to sneak away, crawling on arm and leg under trucks and crevices until you can weave your way through. You could find a way to bait the infected towards the Wolves, the moniker for the Washington Liberation Front and the sole target of Ellie’s revenge. You could try to stealth kill all the infected, since they’re not carrying scoped rifles and they don’t have the high ground.
All of these are valid options. If you like, the pause button will let you restart the game from the beginning of the “encounter” – the equivalent of what most games call checkpoints – or the most recent “checkpoint”, which will always be the point before you just made contact or spotted an enemy. It’s a supremely generous system, although the amount of dynamic checkpoints naturally decreases when you play on harder difficulties.
Sometimes you’ll pick one of these options, and it won’t work out. You’ll be left scrambling, sprinting Ellie behind walls and quickly falling to the ground, until the patrols back off and the sound gradually starts to fade. And then it hits: wait, where are you? Amidst the need for survival, you’ve forgotten to keep track of the buildings and the route you pledged to follow. So quickly, your eyes look to the sky, scanning the buildings and skyscrapers for landmarks that might light the way. You do this, because the game offers very little suggestion on the way forward.
But you’re never truly lost, and Ellie occasionally makes a quip about where she needs to go when you hit certain points. This is still a linear, narrative-focused adventure, after all.
Sometimes the facade wears thin.
Linear adventures demand that Ellie completes certain challenges along the way, regardless of their value to the player or the story’s best interest. That might mean successfully navigating 15 minutes, 30 minutes, sometimes an hour’s worth of encounters without attracting a single enemy.
Only to be thrust into an immediate showdown upon opening the next door.
Some of those challenges are a miserable reality of video games, like invisible walls or shrubs and objects that Ellie should be able to overcome, but cannot. Sometimes it’s the lack of agency through level design, forcing a drain on your health and supplies unbefitting of how well you’ve actually manoeuvred the streets. And sometimes it’s a painful, almost hourly reuse of the locked door trope. Sometimes you’ll reach the obvious end goal of an encounter — a garage door, or exit of some kind — and the game will happily let you walk through, in full view of however many Scars, Wolves or infected there are. Your ears will be blasted with the sound of being spotted, but the game is forced to let you proceed — you reached the end, after all.
This is part of the language of video games, or at least how we believe stories within a video game must be told. And it would be unrealistic, unbelievable even, for Ellie to avoid all combat, completing her journey in true stealth. The Last of Us 2 does at least give you more freedom than most in handling these encounters.
At times you’ll even have help, but that help often comes at the cost of all immersion. It’s hard to maintain a sense of dread and fear, crawling around on your ankles and knees, when your NPC ally decides to vault over a table, inches away from a clicker. It was a problem present in the original, where Ellie was practically invisible to enemies. It’s an unfortunate necessity of video games this generation: the gameplay would be completely broken if firefights broke out every time your allies were spotted. But as gamers, we have made much bigger concessions for immersion breaking bugs and glitches.
At some point in the next few weeks, you’ll find much of Ellie’s adventure, or at least the cinematic elements, re-uploaded in full. Naughty Dog games have always gotten this treatment; plenty of lesser, lower budget games with still frames and the barest of animation have their stories uploaded in their entirety.
Should you find yourself on these videos, grant me this one liberty: go back and compare the facial animations to the Uncharted games, maybe God of War, or, if you want a true contrast, something like Mass Effect: Andromeda.
There are plenty of shocking, dramatic scenes on their own. Some of those you might have already seen online, and they’re in the full game, unchanged. It’s a different experience in person, courtesy of Naughty Dog’s confronting sound design, but those story beats haven’t changed.
But it’s the smaller scenes that make the game.
Snippets of these have been teased already. Official gameplay trailers, E3 reveals and the like. But it’s the longer scenes, the moments between Ellie and Dina, or Ellie having a quiet conversation with Joel, that remained unspoiled, and the ones that feature The Last of Us 2 at its best.
They’re not dripping with meaning or grand philosophical insights on the Wolves or a post-apocalyptic America. They’re not jaw-dropping plot twists, or an outstanding individual performance. They’re the small things, the humanity that developers have struggled to properly capture for decades.
It’s the way cheeks move. The slight quivering or tilting of a lip. The small things you see in your partner, your family, your friends, the tiniest movements that video games so often capture so poorly. They’re supported with an understated, largely natural script that fits a group of people constantly tortured by the stresses of their past and the grim realities of today.
Not much is said in the best scenes, and what is said is often done quietly. Similarly, the game’s best moments of passion and anger are left unsaid. It’s the expression, the narrowing of the eyes, tightening of the jaw, grimacing and gritting of teeth. It’s raw emotion: the kind many studios would no doubt love to capture with vastly bigger budgets and an excess of time.
The Last of Us 2 has no such limitation. It is, after all, what a team can accomplish with enormous budgets, their pick of industry talent, and an astonishingly unhealthy amount of hours. It is refinement epitomised, the consequence of a studio betting everything on a certain identity. Our video games will be comparable to art, whatever the cost.
It’s hard to quantify as a consumer whether the cost was worth it. On the surface, at least, it’s effective.
Note: The following contains no spoilers for the story’s plot or character development. There are some light story elements referenced from the first hour, as well as spoiler-free references to later gameplay elements.
Ellie’s adventure isn’t complete with reconciliation, and that’s impossible without recognising the events from the original game. It drives not just the survival of Jackson and its main characters, but the other factions in Seattle and post-infected America too. Even the notes you find strewn across the living rooms, garages and disused camps grapple with the state of what was, and what society has become.
Some struggle to leave the past behind; others wish the present would take them so they can revisit.
That conflict is Naughty Dog’s constant. It sparks from the opening scene between Jesse, Dina and Ellie from the opening, through into Ellie and Joel’s current relationship, but also the wake of what Joel left behind. The Last of Us 2 is never heavy-handed about this, though. Much of that savagery is reserved for the infected, or the horrors of mankind, and the game happily serves up plenty of both.
For the main stars, their problems and lives develop behind the scenes. Most of the on-screen interactions are hesitant, sometimes avoiding the topic at hand entirely.
Take the start of the game. It begins with Ellie touring the main street of Jackson after an especially wild night: drunken parties, drunken fights and an uncomfortably awkward kiss from Dina in the middle of the dance floor. Sexuality isn’t exactly a progressive feature of the conservative, Wild West-looking Jackson, and one of the town’s elders was none too happy about it, prompting Joel to mount a fist-forward defence.
You learn about all of this after the fact, by the way. Returning to the bar at the pained requests of Ellie’s seniors, the drunken homophobe tries to make amends with a packed lunch and a halting apology. Ellie doesn’t want to be there, could care less about the apology, and expresses as much by maintaining the barest of social niceties.
When asked about the lunch later, Ellie replies simply: “Bigot sandwiches.” It’s about as forward as any two characters get about their relationship. One standout here, at least, is the protagonist Abby. A more brusque character, her fury is always upfront and honest, irrespective of the consequences.
But honesty is a challenge for the characters of Jackson. When asked about Joel’s past with the Fireflies, Ellie tactfully avoids the situation.
“He was a smuggler, and they disagreed about some goods,” Ellie says. “Guess they want payback.”
Not untrue, but also so staggeringly far removed from the reality of what is upending their lives. The infection, by this point, is almost a secondary concern to Ellie or the people of Jackson. They’re coping with the infected just fine. So well, in fact, that other stragglers occasionally Jackson’s quality of life and common comforts in their notes to loved ones. Electricity, clean water, structure, order. The things society left behind.
The infected is what it is. It’s the remainder of society that’s the problem.
It’s worth acknowledging how much games like The Last of Us 2, typically, are poorly served by the traditional review process. The pressures of time and the impossible act of juggling everything in the gaming world right now, particularly the always-chaotic environment of a pre-E3 June — which applies even more this year — means there is always a natural impetus to move through content as efficiently as possible.
Early on, in the first free-form section of the game, Ellie and Dina are searching for fuel. There’s a couple of notes along the way indicating where to head, but you’re largely free to wander as you see fit. It’s a structure that Metro Exodus fans will recognise well: it’s not an open-world, but rather a transition between a series of locations that are almost large enough to feel open-world in their own right. You’re still fundamentally heading from point A to point B, and those points will never change, but there’s plenty of potential variety along the way.
After finding fuel, Ellie remarked that it might be worthwhile checking out some other buildings for supplies. It wasn’t something that I’d bargained on, since I was already under deadline for the original preview embargo. I had largely everything I needed anyway, so there wasn’t much of an impetus to look for anything else. There is the rare possibility of finding a cache of extra pills, upgrading Ellie’s capabilities in crafting, survival, combat and so on. But mostly you’ll run into extra rags, blades, explosives and the various raw materials used for health kits, bombs, and so forth.
Even on the default difficulty, The Last of Us 2 is reasonably generous with supplies. You’ll rarely get a full piece of something, but you’ll often find enough in your travels that you’ll want for little more unless you really screw up a fight. That’s even truer on the lower (or customised) difficulties, where you’ll be walking out fully stocked after a couple of rooms. It’s generous, perhaps more than it needs to be, especially since the size of virtual Seattle means there’s always another room, hotel or abandoned coffee shop to loot.
But there is always a limit. Once Ellie has three of each resource, or one bottle/brick/rock, you can’t collect anything more. It doesn’t completely negate the value of exploring — it’s only possible to upgrade future skill trees by discovering discarded books on chemistry and such. But that hard resource cap, which is never far away, fundamentally works against the gamer’s natural instinct to wander. And The Last of Us 2 ensures that you get access to all your necessary skill trees.
It’s a strange dichotomy: the more efficient you are, or the more you avoid combat altogether, the less you need to explore. The game won’t stop you clearing out every nook and cranny, but any rewards you might hope for are extraordinarily diminished, unless you’re playing on the highest difficulties.
This doesn’t matter to the regular consumer, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on some inside baseball for a second. Naughty Dog and Sony deserve credit. While the traditional review process strongly discourages an exhaustive search through every nook and cranny, the publisher and developer has done their absolute best to give everyone the fairest possible shake. After the debacle that saw some of the game’s most prominent cut-scenes leaked, review codes — complete with specifics for what could be revealed under a preview embargo — were sent out almost three full weeks in advance, with approximately a full week to reach the preview content. Even local creators — and I can’t speak for the situation outside of Australia here — not looped in the first round of codes were still given almost a full fortnight, which is astonishingly generous under the current circumstances.
It’s worth acknowledging that this probably wouldn’t have happened, if it weren’t for COVID-19. Sony would have likely opted for curated preview events, seeding out review codes afterwards, which ultimately would have denied everyone an extra week with the game. For most, particularly the few full-time creators, that is still plenty. But for smaller sites, streamers, freelance writers and those looking to break into the industry, that added time means a lot.
So given all that, the flexibility and trust shown is uniquely uncommon. More importantly, it’s humane — particularly given the enormous mental and financial pressures many creators in this industry, or those adjacent, have found themselves under these last few months. Sony can’t fix those issues, but they did at least give everyone, from outlets and channels big and small, plenty of time.
There are parts of The Last of Us 2 that make me genuinely uncomfortable. I’ve a soft spot for all animals, and I’ve never enjoyed seeing them in disarray or discomfort in any form of media. I’m not giving away any spoilers or anything, but if you’re of a similar disposition, be warned. Innocent life has no place in this post-apocalyptic world, a lesson Naughty Dog reminds you of frequently.
But as miserable and unforgiving as survival is, Sony’s star developers have done a remarkable job of making Seattle accessible to people in the real world. Controls can be fully customised, a first for Naughty Dog and something that should be mandatory on all games, where possible.
It doesn’t stop there. There’s over 60 options, some of which regular gamers would definitely consider tweaking. Motion blur and camera shake can be minimised, or disabled entirely, in the accessibility menu. There’s a field of view slider and camera distance controls for those with motion sickness issues. You can enable a button to skip puzzles, because Naughty Dog warns in-game that “some puzzle progression may not be fully accessible” to all players.
Want extra vibration cues for combat and navigation? Turn it on. There’s double zoom for those with reduced sight. Don’t like spamming square for QTEs? Change it to a button press. Prefer the standard L2/R2 controls for driving the boat? You can toggle that too. Even the controls for Ellie’s guitar can be altered, for those who want to unwind with a little more rhythm.
All of this is possible because of the enormous privilege Naughty Dog has. Few studios in the world have, or have ever had, the resources, the hours or the budget to offer accessibility features to such a degree. Indeed, whenever you change any of the options, the menu says you’ll be sending telemetry data “for the exclusive purpose of analytics and improvement of accessibility features”.
In other words: we’re not sure how many people will use all, or most, or each of these individual features, but here they are. The Last of Us 2, in a way, will inform Sony and future PS5 developers about what accessibility features are most needed, what ones are nice to have, and — probably — what features simply aren’t used enough.
If only all games could afford this level of support.
Even then, you’ll do a lot of exploring. There’s so many transitory spaces in The Last of Us 2 — mess halls, waterways, parking lots, vents, libraries — that are so much larger than you would expect from a video game. Most of these serve no real practical function, but there are limits. You can’t re-explore the entirety of Jackson at will, for instance. But you can see enough of it, and walk past enough people going about their daily lives that it feels like a thriving, genuine hub of hope, as much can be possible under the circumstances.
Outside of serving as a greater dumping ground for rags, scissors and scrap, the grandeur has purpose. Freedom of combat requires space, and The Last of Us 2 is designed to enable any combination of crouching, crawling, sneaking, distracting and shooting you deem necessary. Even the forced encounters in indoor spaces feel less claustrophobic, courtesy of the options and paths provided.
There is a cost to this expansive world, though. The lengthy distance between engagements — or sometimes the lack thereof — often drags the game’s pacing down. It’s at its worst when all the life of a thrilling encounter slowly saps away at the feet of locked doors, jumping puzzles and monotonous traversal. Seattle at least looks incredible throughout, and the space and time it takes is at least thematically befitting of an overgrown, infected America.
There’s a generosity of perspective too, contextualising not just the events of the past but those in the present. The Last of Us has always favoured humanity, its flaws and fumbles, and there’s a lot of contemplation and character development through the game’s cut scenes and set pieces.
The quality varies wildly, and some scenes aren’t worth the lengthy payoff. The narrative lacks that tightness and steady rhythm that’s a hallmark of Naughty Dog’s best work. But on the flip side, it does expand the best parts from the original. The Last of Us was a story about the relationship of two desperate people, and the extreme measures to which they go to survive. It was a touching, relatable story in an infested cocoon. And comfortingly, The Last of Us 2 follows a similar tread. But instead of being a story about two people, it’s a story about many people, the ways their lives cross, and how the decisions they make along the way change them.
One of Uncharted‘s characteristic failings was that it was often, sometimes openly, blase about the violence necessary to maintain the facade of the “good guys”. There is no such thing in The Last of Us 2, only desperate survivors resorting to desperate violence.
It’s easy to hold up The Last of Us 2 as a showcase of blockbuster gaming. It is, on the surface, a shining example of what can be achieved with enormous talent, budget and an exceedingly unhealthy amount of time. It is full of beautiful moments, astonishing scenery and the kind of luxury that few games are capable of.
Like the gameplay in between, however, not all scenes are a masterstroke. Some are far closer to meandering, and some chapters and set-pieces would have been better served as longer cut scenes. The performances from all the actors are consistently solid, with their restraint well supported by some of the highest quality motion capturing this generation.
And it’s gone without mention for most of this review, but The Last of Us 2 is easily one of the most beautiful games this console generation. It’s not without the occasional texture pop-in and the occasional frame rate drop in certain instances. But for the most part, the performance was completely rock solid on a PS4 Pro.
What’s more important is whether Naughty Dog’s extravagance was worth it. It is undoubtedly a showcase of modern blockbuster gaming, the culmination of a publisher with the resources, support and talent that few can dream of. Naturally, that combination of resources begets a similar level of ambition — but ambition is often a double-edged sword.
For Ellie, the result is that her second outing will not be remembered as fondly as her first. It is still an adventure worth taking, and a technical marvel for hardware conceived and first prototyped over a decade ago. The combat has received a thorough upgrade, the environments spectacular, and there are some truly wonderful, touching scenes peppered throughout.
But there is a power to brevity, a power The Last of Us 2 forgoes once too often. Some journeys are best cut short.