The Last of Us Part II Review: Spoiler-Free Impressions and Gameplay Videos

Sony Playstation

The Last of Us Part II is a masterpiece.  

Naughty Dog has exceeded gargantuan expectations and provided another monumental, instant classic

After the success of the Last of Us in 2013 on Playstation 3 and the Remastered edition in 2014 on Playstation 4, many wondered if Naughty Dog could manage to top what has become such a defining game for the medium. 

The Last of Us Part II is filled with intense and visceral story beats and gameplay, expanding on the first game in ways gamers expect. With or without the background of the first edition, this is an emotional game filled with jaw-dropping moments that will define the totality of the series.

Story and Setting

Immediately, the introduction scene does an excellent job settling the gamer back into the world of The Last of Us. It’s presented in a compelling way that will likely force a rush of emotions for those returning from Part I to prepare for the continuation of what was an emotionally taxing journey.

Every year, the medium continues to push forward across different aspects of gaming. Naughty Dog leads the way with impeccable character models, animations, voice acting and lip-syncing that feels lifelike. This is all coupled with environments that feel lived-in thanks to the immense detail throughout each area. 

Physics and animations appear natural, such as seeing snow fall off tree branches as your character brushes by or the way the lighting crosses the screen, whether it’s from the sun or a flashlight. The musical tones are carefully constructed and enhance the experience, while other scenes are left with silence so the player can feel the gravity of the moment. Naughty Dog is excellent at allowing moments and revelations to resonate instead of pushing too quickly to the next story beat. There’s plenty of sequences like this throughout Part II, and it helps the pacing of this lengthy game, which is even more expansive than Uncharted 4 was in 2016.

The opening scenes provide a sense of serenity that is necessary for fans after the way Part I ended. These scenes represent the culmination of everything the people in this world fought to build to survive and live a life resembling the normalcy they experienced or were told about before the outbreak.

Teaser trailers provided glimpses of Ellie and Joel living in Jackson, but they didn’t do Jackson justice, as you finally get to see characters living how we hoped they could in this post-pandemic world.

Gameplay Impressions and Level Design

From a gameplay perspective, the tutorials are woven into the opening act to make sure they don’t feel like a slog or burden. Controlling your character feels incredibly smooth, responsive and nearly flawless courtesy of arguably the best character designs and animations in gaming.

Characters have realistic facial animations and muscle definition that you can see throughout the game. For example, scars and blemishes from one scene carry over to future scenes as you would expect. This is the equivalent of Batman’s cape and suit showcasing damage in the Arkham games, but it’s taken to another level as NPCs experience the same. This is important to constantly illustrate what the characters are experiencing and convey the ramifications of their decisions on the rest of the world.

Whether it is on foot or horseback, the movement usually feels perfect. The inputs overall are accurate and don’t feel like they’re about to do something you didn’t want to have happen during your gameplay. 

The only potential slights with movement will be when controlling the boat and jumping across platforms. Navigating by boat will likely feel unnatural compared to how smooth and effortless it is to navigate Ellie, but it makes more sense because of the chaotic water, so this may have been by design. There’s also an option to switch the controls for driving the boat.

When jumping across platforms, Ellie still isn’t as nimble as Nathan Drake in the Uncharted games since The Last of Us is more “grounded” and “heavy” with its gameplay. Naughty Dog did a good job making sure Ellie controls differently than Joel did in the original. It can sometimes be difficult to nail the exact timing for a leap, so unless the player selects the assist option for cues with leaps and jumps, there will likely be some mistimed sequences. One awesome option available in the accessibility menu prevents the player from falling off ledges that will kill the player, which is something more games could benefit from since it’s usually silly when a player unknowingly falls to their demise when they couldn’t see because of the camera. 

It is impressive in this regard that there are more than 60 options in the settings to tweak the experience for each person’s comfort level. Among the many Naughty Dog included are options to tweak difficulty; a full suite of combat accessibility options; the ability to remap buttons, adjust HUD, enhance Listen mode; optional navigation cues; skip cutscenes; replay cutscenes while they’re happening and many more to create a custom experience tailor-made for each gamer. 

In recent years, gamers have called upon developers to make games more accessible and inclusive. Naughty Dog continues to be among the leaders in this, and hopefully, the options presented here will become commonplace as the industry tries to find ways to expand its reach to anybody remotely interested in playing top-tier games. 

It’s evident that a great deal of time, attention and thought was given to providing the gamer with their own sense of almost open-ended customizable ownership to the game, which is impressive for a studio that is regarded for their linear style of games.

The expanded map was definitely a potential concern heading into Part II since Part I was such a leap forward for linear-style, narrative-driven games. Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy didn’t exactly benefit from deviating from Naughty Dog’s norm when those games provided bigger areas to explore.

The appreciation for the expanded map size will likely vary depending on the gamer. At the least, Naughty Dog did a great job of sprinkling enough collectables and rewards for the gamer to find so they don’t feel like they’re wasting their time looking at every corner of the map. 

More importantly, there are cues littered throughout to make it feel less formulaic than just stumbling upon items in the wild, and letters help you spot certain locations you might want to visit or even revisit.

Naughty Dog provides reasons for a lot of the items and resources that are still available to find, which is better than thinking people in this gruesome world just haphazardly forgot to take necessary resources with them on their own journey for survival.

The best part of the expanded map is the phenomenal level design that capitalizes on Naughty Dog’s revamped gameplay, which is its best level design and gameplay to date. Naughty Dog clearly took criticism of its gameplay from Part I and the Uncharted series to heart and expanded on the visceral combat from Part I. There are far more combat scenarios in this game than Part I, and more importantly, the mechanics, environments and variables push an incredibly wide open and unique gameplay experience each session, even when repeating an encounter. Naughty Dog managed to expand upon Hideo Kojima’s near-perfect sandbox approach seen in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

The dodge, squeeze through, prone and glass-breaking mechanics displayed in the jaw-dropping E3 2018 gameplay trailer left many wondering just how scripted those encounters were, but it is part of the normal gameplay and feels incredible.

These mechanics push Naughty Dog’s gameplay to another level, not just from their previous games, but also many other games on the market. They open up so many more combat, exploration and puzzle possibilities and fit so perfectly into this more grounded universe of survival. It may well be difficult to go back to other stealth games that don’t have these advanced mechanics.

Naughty Dog didn’t stop there with the level design, because the increased verticality from Uncharted 4 made its way to The Last of Us to create better sandbox areas for more unique combat encounters. The player can naturally jump between floors in a building or climb trucks to try to get the jump on an enemy, just like they can go prone in the grass and beneath vehicles, or squeeze through bookshelves and cracks in walls to circumvent enemies or obstacles.

Each individual mechanic may sound basic, but the implementation for the gameplay feels perfect, realistic and gritty. It’s also implemented in a way that the player can’t abuse mechanics because the enemy will ultimately catch on. The only slight with the dodge mechanic might be if the gamer feels the camera is working against them, but there’s options to toggle the field of view and camera distance if it becomes an issue.

Runners, Clickers and infected enemy types are even more unsettling with their animations and sound effects than they were in the original game. They also feel stronger and more aggressive to play against. The new Shambler infected is definitely a sight to behold, like the Bloater was in Part I, but they create even more tension with their nonstop aggression. 

Enemy human NPCs each having their own names is a great touch and a way to make the game feel more alive and realistic. It’s awesome when they call out for—or about—another person, for example. More importantly, human enemies are unique to their faction, which impacts the weapons they use and how they communicate during battle. For example, Seraphites, commonly known as Scars in the game, whistling to communicate if a body is found or they see your character keeps combat experiences varied and makes them feel like a unified group. The same is said for the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), commonly known as Wolves, who completely differ in their combat approach from Scars. It all makes for far more engaging and tension-filled encounters.

Of course, a major option for the player is being able to “skip” many encounters by avoiding enemies altogether by stealthily making their way to the next location like a ghost. This is the trickiest when encountering the WLF because they too have loyal companions.

Dogs disrupt the flow of stealth and may be the scariest of all the enemies because they can sniff out your scent and force you out of hiding. In Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy, there was a much greater emphasis on expanding gameplay by encouraging movement. It makes it much more challenging to stealth your way through areas to eliminate each enemy, and oftentimes the player is better off to stay on the move and just escape before being overwhelmed by the enemies because the dogs can so quickly pick up on your scent if they get close. Thankfully, it only takes a handful of seconds to load back into an encounter after a failed attempt, and the checkpoint system on the standard (moderate) difficulty level is incredibly forgiving.

More so than any Naughty Dog game prior, there’s more excitement entering combat sequences because you want to use all of the mechanics, exploration options and weapons at your disposal in an attempt to methodically eliminate the enemies during this combat “puzzle.”

Crafting and upgrades are streamlined overall and offer enough choice over time to where the gamer will need to contemplate which they really want to prioritize. It’s definitely worth exploring the map to find materials to enhance abilities. If the player feels like the map is too big to explore and they’re spending too much time, they can toggle an option to enhance Listen mode to ping where available items are located. The crafting animations never get tiresome, especially when upgrading weapons at workbenches—it’s a great touch to see the upgrades being crafted in real-time and they only take a few seconds.

During combat, you can still use bricks and glass bottles to distract enemies, but breaking windows with them continues the expansive gameplay as it allows the gamer to disperse enemies or even pit certain groups against each other as you watch the mayhem unfold.

The enemy isn’t the only A.I. with improved intelligence, as the critique from Part I about Ellie getting in the way or being invisible to the enemy has been addressed. In sequences with an A.I. companion, they are actually helpful a lot of times in combat. The companion may not attack every enemy each time (even when you would think it would make sense for them to help), but they are highly useful, and there’s even a toggle in the options to make them more or less aggressive in these sequences.

Perhaps just as important when with an A.I. companion is that they’re actually useful in exploration instead of just letting the player do every single thing like in most games. For example, they’ll participate in how to exit enclosed areas. This makes the characters feel more realistic and lifelike in this journey instead of just being flat characters who mindlessly follow the player.

Audio and Sound Design

The companion isn’t the only one to provide potential audio cues. There’s plenty available, such as an enemy in grass, the breaking of glass or the movement of steel chains. There are even options to provide audio cues for combat and traversal.

Overall, the audio design is extraordinary. If playing with headphones, the player may well hear more sounds than when listening from the television—for example, hearing lifelike flies buzzing close to your character. Rain outside in the wild sounds different from the rain pouring into a building and hitting the cement. Footsteps, looting, gun mechanics and taking a bag on/off all sound realistic.

The sound design is always impressive in Naughty Dog’s recent games. The sound levels match how close or far away your character is from the person speaking or music playing. The sound is even different if your character is standing inside a truck instead of outside it, for example. 

Naughty Dog continues to be the best in the business when it comes to voice acting and direction. Ashley Johnson as Ellie and Troy Baker as Joel deliver fantastic performances once again worthy of award nominations. They aren’t the only actors, of course, as players are introduced to other characters whose voice actors truly bring to life, which is difficult as many players have seven years of history with Joel and Ellie. 

Naughty Dog does a great job of allowing players to hear tales from characters during their journeys throughout their games, which Santa Monica Studios took to another level in 2018’s Game of the Year God of War.

These storytelling techniques return in The Last of Us Part II in a major way, which is much-needed because of the wider scope of the game. It’s not just because of the map size, but because new characters are introduced and we get to feel more connected to them, whether it’s them learning about Part I or getting insight into their own experiences. There is a lot of dialogue between characters while out in the open areas, and it all feels natural. There’s also enough time between dialogue where there’s silence to make that too feel realistic.

Ellie’s journal is another source to help the player connect with the characters. Some games often repeat what the gamer just discovered when it comes to journal entries, but here you see drawings and read Ellie’s inner thoughts to help further define who she is as a character and her growth since the first game. There’s great Easter eggs to Part I and even The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC, which is a must-play if fans have not experienced it yet.

When a game is this advanced, it’s natural to think about nitpicks. In survival-genre games, there’s often an exploration critique for when players have to go around pressing a button to pick up each available resource one at a time. In the alternative controls menu, there’s an option to toggle on the ability for the character to automatically pick up nearby ammo and ingredients. This is brilliant because characters so often speak about resources and not leaving something behind or letting them go to waste. It’s understandable why the option is off by default, but it makes sense to turn it on for the narrative and, more importantly, helps keep the gamer moving forward instead of spending so much time picking up items. 

One critique from a narrative perspective may be there are too many hard cuts to a black screen as a transitional method. However, when there is a natural transition from cutscene into gameplay, it is incredible how flawless everything looks when the game is put back into the player’s control. This was phenomenal in the original Last of Us, the Uncharted series and God of War, among other titles, but The Last of Us Part II arguably looks and feels the best.

Conclusion

The Last of Us ended in such a magnificent, powerful and unforgettable way that many felt content to leave the characters and the emotional impact there. The phrase “there’s two sides to every story” is truly reflected with The Last of Us Part II. The first game is paced tighter, but the creative decisions made in Part II are necessary for the player to experience the totality of The Last of Us universe. 

Director and co-writer Neil Druckmann told The Verge’s Casey Newton the first game was about unconditional love, while Part II is about hate and revenge. That sentiment is certainly captured throughout the game. There is a sense of totality that any fan of the first game must experience, because it is essential to understanding this world. The story setup for this game is magnificent and one that few would ever have guessed after Part I or when Part II was revealed at Playstation Experience in 2016. 

Naughty Dog forces the player to feel a wide range of emotions, especially empathy, for the characters and allows the gamer to question what they would do if put in their position. Most importantly, Naughty Dog gives reasons to do so as it pulls back the surface-level layers on characters so the player can view them as well-rounded people. Players may prefer the story experience of the original, but Part II is an incredibly well-structured narrative with extraordinary revelations.

Just as Part I is widely considered the crown jewel for the Playstation 3, Naughty Dog bested itself with Part II for the Playstation 4. The Last of Us Part II is an outstanding achievement in game design, level design, gameplay mechanics, exploration, animation, voice acting and storytelling. 

The Last of Us Part II needed to happen, and fans need to experience this masterful game.  

Read More