The Last of Us Part II has been the most anticipated game to be released on PlayStation 4, serving as the console’s swansong before the release of the PS5 later this year – a billing the game proves itself worthy of.
Part II’s likely themes, plot and character development have been the subject of intense scrutiny and discussion since it was first confirmed in 2016.
But the final result is above and beyond what anyone could have hoped for or expected. The Last of Us Part II is the best game to be launched on this generation’s PlayStation.
It was almost exactly seven years ago that developer Naughty Dog released The Last of Us on PlayStation 3, a completely new franchise which became regarded as the best game of that console generation, and to some people, ever.
Now, history seems to be repeating itself because Naughty Dog has again managed to squeeze every drop of performance out of the PS4 Pro in its presentation of Part II, all the while telling a new story that never feels like it is leaning on the good will of the original.
In the sequel, players take control of Ellie, several years after the events of the first game and her journey across the post-apocalyptic United States with Joel, with the majority of its story taking place in a desolate Seattle – crumbling, flooded and overgrown after more than 20 years of exposure to the elements since society’s collapse in a deadly pandemic, now housing the warring factions that remain of humanity and of course, the infected.
The Last of Us Part II is a larger game in every sense, but the increase is scale is never clearer than in how much bigger each featured location is, and the levels within in.
Such is the size of the explorable areas that should players simply stick to the linear aims of each objective or they will miss vast swathes of this game.
New climbing mechanics mean ropes can now be thrown over objects and used to scale new areas previously unreachable – with additional interactions and items on offer should you choose to do so.
It’s not fully open-world, but it’s been designed well enough that it feels it, and that brilliantly plays into the menacing atmosphere of the entire game – more spaces mean more possibilities, but also more dangers and more enemies.
To ward off these threats, The Last of Us crafting system has been boosted too, with new survival and combat skills to be learned along your journey as well as upgrades and expansions to various weapons.
Much like the first game, Naughty Dog has perfectly struck a balance where the desire to explore constantly comes up against the sense of peril.
The urge of basic survival is there – resources such as ammunition and medical supplies are scarce and therefore precious, making every piece you find crucial, because menace is always just around the corner.
In these larger environments, general tactics have therefore never been more important too. The choice of stealth or strength is a vital decision which has to be made almost every time Ellie encounters danger.
Ellie may be older and more skilful in Part II, but so are her opponents. Enemy AI has taken a noticeable step up, with human groups better at flushing Ellie out of hiding, and the hordes of infected are more diverse (including new classes), also coming in larger numbers and being generally more formidable.
The game’s mechanics have been improved too – balance is now noticeably more realistic – so move too close to a steep drop at a bad angle and you’ll fall awkwardly, or attempt to dodge an enemy attack too early and Ellie will be just as vulnerable as if she’d been hit.
New features such as guard dogs who can sniff out your scent also force players to think on their feet, and reap the benefits or pay the price of those snap decisions. This game builds tension, offers relief and startles with terror in great doses during these moments.
All this is taking place in a world which is stunning to look at and explore. Naughty Dog’s game engine, which has been honed in Uncharted 4 since The Last of Us, renders a dark yet vibrant setting.
Light is used wonderfully in the game – in a world almost entirely lit by natural light the contrast between light and shade gives the world a dynamic character, with settings completely changing – in mood just as much as appearance – as brightness is added or taken away.
The result of all of this is a Last of Us experience that is even more enveloping than the original – it is a testament to the setting and the narrative that every emotional response to the game’s events are far greater anything else games will encounter anywhere else right now.
As has become the trademark for Naughty Dog, The Last of Us Part II’s story is a fitting sequel to the lauded original.
It is a story about hate, and how in just the same way as love, it can overpower and consume people, often at great cost.
And this is explored widely, across different characters and stories and in great detail, without getting lost or bogged down.
There is a huge amount of pain in this story, and such is the character development that during the key moments the player feels that pain too.
The realisation of closeness appears in subtle ways too – on some occasions, enemy fighters will cry the name of their fallen comrades, making those kills you make as Ellie feel that little more real because they’re no longer just another non-player character.
But it is the moments between the violence which leave just as much of a mark. Once again The Last of Us tells a compelling story that is always unpredictable and engaging, keeping the player compelled until the very last scene.
Part II’s story is also told with diversity at its heart. As well as the striking hate and violence there is love – budding relationships, a long-standing love triangle and even a sex scene.
There is also a diverse cast, perhaps the most diverse ever in a high-profile video game, in an industry which has been criticised for its approach to equality in the past.
Ellie, a gay, female protagonist, is joined by ethnic minority and transgender characters in central roles, and their stories are told without ever falling back on obvious plotlines or themes.
Instead, they give honest representation to those characters as individuals and their own journey as part of the larger Last of Us world – making the world richer for it.
The Last of Us Part II was a game that had a mountain to climb before it was even made – following a beloved, acclaimed original that fans begged for but many others thought couldn’t adequately carry on the story.
Not only has it successfully carried forward the story, but it has done so while also showing off, one last time, what the PlayStation 4 Pro is capable of performance-wise and once again setting the marker for storytelling in video games.