Game Name: Last of Us: Part 2 (2020)
Developer: Naughty Dog (Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter, Uncharted)
Categories: Waist-High Cover Shooter, Limited Stealth, Adventure/Exploration, Survival, Horror, Post Apocalypse, Real-Time Crafting, Weapon Enhancement, ‘Shroom Zombies, Bandits, Seamless Cinematics, Stunning Vistas, Incredible Mood, Haunting/Chilling Audio, Commendable Acting, Non-Linear Story, Multiple Playable Characters, YA Cast, Depression, Torture Porn, Gore and Violence, Jaw-Dropping Concept Art, One Ending, Built-In Cheat Options, 3D Model Viewer, Useless Collectibles, Funky Save System,
The Best Difficulty Customization, Sequel Syndrome, Hype Train, “Woke” As Fuck
May Appeal To: wrist-slitting emotional teens and any who’d prefer that Nathan Drake be driven exclusively by bloodlust. If you get your jollies from depression, I have a game for you! Other than that, everyone drawn in by crafting/survival mechanics should be pleased.
May Repulse: die-hard fans of the original, crotchety adults, Tarantino haters, peaceniks, and those that get upset if an ending is telegraphed and unfurls in slow-mo.
Comparable To: Crash Bandicoot…. in no perceptible way. Uncharted, with its level design and combat/exploration balance, is pretty darn close (though “TLOU2” could use some Xanax by comparison). While I crawled on my belly, learning enemy search patterns and executing stealth kills in the forest, I was reminded of MGS3:Snake Eater’s infiltration (and also MGS4’s final fistfight). Some sequences had strong elements of building dread like with the whole Silent Hill series. Horizon: Zero Dawn has inspirational terrain similarly rife for exploration. Red Dead Redemption shares sentiment with the loneliness, danger, and hostility of a wild frontier. Resident Evil 4’s weapon selection, tone, bullet-counting survival gameplay, and tandem sidekick team-ups resonate strongly with this and the last game. Just like SpecOps: The Line, TLOU2 comments on the futility of war, PTSD, and a warrior’s psyche under duress.
Learning Curve: I fumbled with melee attacks and the flow of battle for up to 2 hours.
Game Length: 25 hour campaign
Difficulty: Inordinately Customizable, with 5 different settings for each of these categories: player vulnerability, enemy aggression, ally aggression, stealth vigilance, resource rarity. Additional post-game options exist regarding UI prompts for stealth and pickups, along with unlockable menu cheats that can slow time, allow one-hit kills, or give infinite ammo.
Mastery: Little remains to be mastered after the initial playthrough but cranking up all difficulties to their extreme settings would offer a real challenge. Acing contiguous combat sections with sparse inventory supplies is quite the ordeal though acquiring all collectibles/unlockables should prove accessible to even casual players.
Story: Five years in the wake of the first game’s events, we find our [anti]heroes Joel and Ellie shaking off the lingering ghosts of Fireflies and the organized banditry of which they’d slaughtered by the hundreds. In founding a civilized expanse styled after historic Old West settlements amid the Wyoming mountains, they’d finally laid down roots and forsaken the nomadic, cut-throat lifestyle of smuggling under the watchful eye of militarized authoritarianism. Both warriors slid easily into community roles as ‘armed zombie patrol’ and also the familial roles of father/daughter – subsequently adopting the sensibilities and terse interpersonal conflict that traditionally accompanies that relationship. Compound the diametrically-opposed willpower of an opinionated teenager and gruff Texan male with the stressors of apocalyptic survival and the willful lie of which Ellie’s abandoned martyrdom is founded and you’ll start to paint the picture of the conflicting emotions this tale is based on.
Enter: a steely-nerved girl named Abby with a chip on her broad shoulders and a cadre of would-be assassins.
At its core, the double-helix structure of dual vengeance is simple to understand, the ruinous spiral vowing to consume all until the cycle of death runs its course or is intentionally broken through an act of mercy. Made more complex through temporal skips, flashbacks, and opposing viewpoints, TLOU2 revels in the “art house director” approach, emphatically Tarantino’ing its way to artificial depth and player confusion. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fiendish discourse in pitting playable characters against each other, the individual warpaths become evidently senseless and the frequent cinematics designed to endear and define character motivations runs perpendicular to the gameplay’s leverage of inciting swift and unyielding violence.
And while the concept of transforming the bloodthirsty player meta-motivation into one that becomes sympathetic with the conflicting camps is an interesting one, the final result finds trouble hitting its stride with a balance that works. This rings especially false when you must suffer guilt-doling punishment as recompense for unavoidable actions.
(Example: playing fetch with a German shepherd you exterminated in a previous scene.)
On top of frustrations accompanying poor tactics and the convincingly-hammy or shortsighted nature of teenage viewpoints, I started to experience a severe dissonance or lag upon “switching skins” between characters. When a game tries to impart empathy through severe circumstance and players are denied even the smallest agency in defying that script, you’re left with few options: either you despise targets the narrative places in your crosshairs for virtue of being the opposition, or you become desensitized to all consequential story elements and mechanically press buttons that lead to a credits crawl. Relating to any of the story’s characters and summarily beating the shit out of them with quicktime events simply isn’t in the cards for me personally.
And thus the opposition to story completion becomes less about overcoming gameplay adversity and more about compartmentalizing your humanity so that the final, dreadful slog can take place – where I’m promised to be both victim and malefactor of extreme violence. If my aversion to returning to this world is the director’s intention, it’s a bizarre and despiriting decision that transforms what might have been a meaningful tragedy marking the futility of revenge into something best described as torture porn.
These kids are all destined to explode in spectacularly gory fashion, so why would I get emotionally involved?
Presentation: Zero complaints, it’s all amazing. Movie-grade symphonic scores and memorable melancholic melodies – even a story-centric focus on acoustic guitars where you pluck or strum folk music and A-Ha’s “Take on Me”. (No joke. It’s good, I swear.) It’ll take more than undead mushroom particles to leave you gasping, so leave that to the abundance of breath-taking scenery! The journey spans the range of inspirational to terrifying, from light-beams in mountainous forest trails to craterous cityscapes carved apart by raging rivers. The game sends you into furious blizzards on horseback, across listing skyscrapers, around spore-choked subway tunnels lit eerily by red flares, and beneath tumultuous ocean waves agitated by an impending hurricane. If nothing else, TLOU2 is a yarning epic dominated by claustrophobic and agoraphobic scenery, alike, each man-made contrivance demonstrating its subjugation to the majesty of natural overgrowth and powerful forces – mostly beautiful, entirely awesome.
Animations and the acting are all commendable, not a half-assed performance in the lot. The characters come across as real people that broadcast their flaws in verbal or facial ticks, long gazes into the camera in a moment of stunned silence, pained withdrawal, and a reticence to stomach the indigestible truth of the moment – usually bad news. My mind’s eye flashes back to certain sequences and is wholly convinced that the sparse levity and life-or-death struggles was felt in some way by the people bringing that vision to life.
Of the faults I highlight in other sections, none can be found in the crisp, simplistic UI, the straight-forward nature of the design, and the arresting beauty of production assets which are unlockable from within the first hour. (If they haven’t released this art as wallpaper packages, Naughty Dog is falling behind.)
Unique Features: Not since Goldeneye 007 or Perfect Dark do I recall such a bonkers cheats list baked into the game settings. Here are some noteworthy ones: Mirror World, Mirror World Upon Death, Bullet Speed during gunfights, Infinite Listen Mode Range, Touch of Death for melee kills, 4-Bit Retro Audio, and Helium Audio for high pitched voices!
Gameplay: You know the drill for 3rd person survival shooters: an objective is established, 3rd party liaisons point you in a direction, conquer a physics-based puzzle to clear an obstruction, defeat enemies through stealth and then frantic gunplay when spotted, scavenge every corner of the area for items, craft additional traps or projectiles, upgrade weapons when possible, hoard like crazy until a mid-boss tests your limitations and you expend an uncomfortable amount of resources. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I’m actually a huge fan of this formula though TLOU2 doesn’t do much to reinvent the wheel, rather, the wheel has been leveled, balanced, and smoothed to a mirrored sheen. Evocative of conversational overloads such as the Metal Gear series, the player experiences a considerable degree of banter, cinematics, and interactions with AI-controlled partners whom are very welcome by contrast. (The wife and I geared up for this game by watching 5 hours of TLOU1 game dialogue.) The beauty of this implementation is that players can stop and listen, even provoke additional snippets from their travel companions if they choose, or continue exploring, crafting, or performing game-related activities like perusing notes scrawled on the walls or flipping through Ellie’s picture journal. Just like the original, this game is less cumbersome with a loved one or pet “overwatch” and the player’s ability to access different areas is enhanced by a quick knee boost or combined pressure against a shared obstacle. I mentioned the difficulty sliders briefly but there’s even one to make your partner more effective in combat. Although it’s tempting to rush forward, stopping to read notes or listen to your ally can be rewarding on a narrative level or in determining secret codes to unlock nearby ammo stashes. Indeed, missions take on different tones depending on what character you’re playing and what comrade the story sends as escort (if any)! You’ll be thankful they’re around….
Although the combat takes some effort to become comfortable with, I found myself becoming extremely expedient with resources once I got the hang of things. Since the graphics are so detailed I thought it only fair to turn on the “audio alert before detection” option, and a dull rumble precedes enemy alert (Ellie thankfully spouting, “I think I got ’em all”, upon area clear). Stealth is easy enough when skirting the perimeter of collapsed malls and forests, though the enemy search patterns, visual range, and bloodhounds make things considerably tougher, especially when dealing with random reinforcements, snipers, and blind corners with dormant zombies that have merged with the very walls. Some enemies are even immune to one-hit takedowns, a character expends shivs upon these attacks, melee weapons break after several uses, and standard punches are simply ineffective against certain foes (which are guaranteed to be surrounded by nimble prey that take several strikes to bring down). It’s dangerous out there. Items are scarce. And it’s important to have a gameplan before engaging in protracted firefights.
Crafting errs on the side of “realism” when affording you a woefully-small amount of clanking, clattering objects on your person, though this can be frustrating when you just want to pick up a rag to use as a bandage later on and you’ve maxed out at “3”. Several material types can be hauled around: blade, binding, rag, alcohol, explosive, canister, scrap, and another icon representing your current disposable melee weapon, two or more being required to make any particular item ranging from proximity mines, medkits, blade reinforcements, temporary silencers, explosive arrows, and others. Because both the equipment count and material count have a ridiculously low cap like 8 shells for the shotgun, 9 rounds for the hunting rifle (many enemies can absorb 3 rifle rounds), it becomes a regretful meta game in itself to use the weapon you have the most ammo for and to craft any item as soon as the max materials are reached. This all means you’ll be forced into using the incorrect weapon choice for thrift’s sake or waste one component to make an item you don’t need simply because you have a separate component in abundance. (And when you fill up on that non-preferred item, you’ll want to deploy it in combat as soon as you find some subterranean shelf that is giving away one for free.) The main characters suck down hundreds of random pills to gain modest abilities from five skill trees, though the trees themselves are unlocked in sequence, meaning it’s fairly linear. By contrast, non-melee weapons can have their capacity, accuracy, and damage perma-improved at workbenches, and there’s a strategic approach to how scrap is spent.
Additional Comments (against a Strawman):
Me: “YES! Let’s roleplay some badass apocalypse survivalists who kill zombies!”
Game: “Ellie is gay, like super gay. Here’s a barely legal sex scene to prove it.”
Me: “….I-I know. So is Ellen Page. And it was revealed in the first game’s DLC so….”
Game: “Not impressed, huh? Well, we won’t confirm if your other playable character is a M2F transsexual, a girl with a steady supply of horse steroids, or if she bullies others for their protein bars…. but she’s got these massive arms reminiscent of Chris Redfield! Probably just a strong female protagonist, amirite? Oh, but here ya go – I know why you’re really playing. […] There! Eh, EH? Took her shirt off and she’s gettin’ ploughed from behind.
We shot the cinematography real tasteful so you can’t, like, tell if it’s anal or vaginal pene-”
Me: “Last of Us 2, stop, just…. what are you doing?”
Game: “Yeah, you’re right. Too subtle, agreed. Alright, so this third character is an actual trans child on the run from persecution. The kid comes out and the mother like flips her shit alright? Inconsolably bad. Slashes them with a knife from head to toe and, like, the whole fuckin’ village tries to kill him AND the sibling as collateral for half the game.
Whaddaya think of that?”
Me: “…. So every damn person in the game struggles with life-and-death scenarios on a daily basis. And some…. find time to be bothered by sexual preference?”
Game: “People are fuckin’ awful yeah? LGBTQs have it rough after civilization collapses.”
Me: “I…. I think it’s a bit much. You just shoehorned topical identity politics in a way that distracts awkwardly from an otherwise-engrossing series of tragedies that are already wracked by emotion. Your agenda is palpable and the sex stuff isn’t exactly furthering a cause – more like voyeuristic spectacle. If the goal is to normalize gay relationships, I’m confused why so much storytelling revolves around their bedroom activities and sideshow exhibitionism as if being non-binary is such a defining trait that their cohorts can’t see their defensive usefulness to the community, or at least enough to yield a degree of tolerance.
Plus…. I just wanted good zombie stories – is that too much to ask?”
Game: “WRONG, shut up! Go eat a BIGOT SANDWICH!”
What I Liked: I loved the audio/visual presentation, the gorgeous attention to detail, the acting, the environmental design, most of the combat mechanics (aside from insta-death), fringe gameplay like: guitar practice, balancing my inventory, character interactions on a moment-to-moment basis (which is stronger than the story arc, in my opinion). I liked the overall messages and themes despite the fan polarization based on its delivery methods. The controls are wonky though they’re completely mappable, which is rare on the console. There’s a 2 minute initial load screen though the rest of the game is uninterrupted. The safe combinations and puzzle usage, in general, were challenging enough to demand my attention and were a welcome distraction from some of the tense, fast-paced sections. There are numerous memorable scenes, whether they be emotionally-earnest or riveting: escaping the burning village, the aquarium’s evolution, the freeway sniper, battling the organic…. biomass, and my favorite: Ellie’s birthday surprise.
The Last of Us’s utilization of bricks to stun or distract enemies is one of the most underrated and satisfying weapons of any game I’ve every played. THONK!
What I Disliked: There’s only one map for a tiny portion of the game (you better have a good sense of direction)! The manual save system won’t recover actions or items since the last autosave, so what’s the point? You can’t carry candy bars. Some enemies invoke a gruesome insta-death whose range feels more extensive than it should be. Protagonist actions are slow and deliberate (like Monster Hunter or Dark Souls) but I’d prefer teenage girls to be more spry than the Gears of War meatheads. Scripted sequences thwart the sense/hearing mechanic to an unfair degree, and there are way too many jump scares. Cinematics transition too seamlessly to gameplay and I ended up staring at the back of character’s heads for 20 seconds before moving. I can’t craft one shiv because she makes three at a time and I only have space for one?! I can’t replace an old silencer with a newly-made one until I waste one bullet to “use up” the old?! The pitiful ammo/scrap capacity is deeply troublesome. The game keeps remapping my weapon slots. Lastly, there are sections in TLOU2 where you are expected to stand your ground and there are times when you’re supposed to run from the horde – the game rarely makes any distinction between the two, resulting in my unnecessary use of resources and eventually reloading. The most grievous issue I have with this game is the lack of choice in pivotal moments of the story – next time, just make a movie for me to watch while playing Uncharted!
Glitches Experienced: I think there were a couple of mild animation issues like rigging spasms in legs and a time where a carried object transported itself awkwarly in 3D space. Once, Abbie shot herself in the head with a crossbow bolt and had a pigtail levitate to resemble perpendicular demon horns. It stuck like that for a half hour and I laughed hard! TLOU2 is extremely polished and I’d be surprised if anyone noticed anything comparable.
Hours I Played: 30, a campaign run-through on Hard
My Personal Reaction: The Last of Us: Part 2 is so fixated on identity politics that the heavy-handed nature of that message pulled me back to our own shitty reality all too often, doubly so for narrative reasons where I didn’t want to kill/abuse characters the game itself deigned empathy for! And then it had the audacity to assert guilt for atrocities out of my control as a player…. Nope. Naughty Dog can go fellate itself in a corner for all I care, but the backlash it’s receiving for infanticide, sexuality, and players not wanting to hunt Ellie as Abby (and vice versa) are not the quintessential marks of a mature art form – at best, it’s a self-debasing controversy borne from a misguided cause; at worst, it’s a calculated publicity stunt and the aggrandized artist is yelling that naysayers are the problem and then plugs their ears to disconnect from the counterargument.
Video games are truly masterpieces, and it’s a modern marvel that a thousand talented people can come together to produce such cohesive and relevant stories that players interact with in meaningful ways. Some experiences are mindless fun while others are escapism; some afford group experiences and others unleash a player’s creativity; some games are challenging, others have social messages and provoke introspection – and there are those that attempt several of these goals simultaneously.
Though I have some criticisms about morality, acceptability, and the degree at which TLOU2 conducts itself, which affects my suspension of disbelief and subverts expectations, it’s actually a great and polished experience that I enjoyed on my single playthrough. It’s just a tough one to recommend to others without these caveats.
Suggested changes I would have made: Multiple endings based on character choices. Support for no-kill runs (like sleeper holds vs neck snapping) or total stealth. Lastly, if you want to champion the LGBTQ cause, you can do better than teenage lesbian sex and mutilating trans characters. It’s the apocalypse – go wild…. Try making them normal, fully-integrated members of society where no one gives two shits who gets kissed as long as the village is safe from packs of flesh-eating fungus monsters. (But if LGBTQ folks truly want to be gawked at like sideshow attractions in video games, please correct me.)
Noob Tips: Bottles and bricks are the most useful items! In stealth, they can distract enemies from afar without revealing your position. In combat, quick-chuck via R2 and follow up with a melee weapon deathblow. When low on ammunition, get zombies to congregate with that distraction and then set them ablaze with a single molotov. Crafting materials are fairly abundant, so make sure to craft -any- available item when the modest cap is reached. As with all survival games, shoot the weapon you have the most ammo for. Arrows are occasionally recoverable but you’re encouraged to go for headshots. Be mildly aware of segments where swaths of enemies are thrown at you and run away!
Depth and Replayability: There’s depth in the sense that you’ll likely miss a few collectibles on a single playthrough (comic cards 4 lyfe!) and you can unlock character perks or gun upgrades in a different order. While there are different methods of clearing the map, no pacifist mode or pure-stealth options exist and players may either elect to kill ’em fast or kill ’em slow. How efficiently you play can even be a detriment depending upon the selected difficulty, causing stocks to overflow quickly. I’d vote that the various cheat toggles (including a reverse map option) are decent enough for a look-see, and it’s nice that LOU:2 highlights collectibles you haven’t picked up on previous playthroughs. Despite a scarcity of alt endings or paths in getting there, the game does its darndest to entice repeat play with concept art packs. A one-death survival mode is the perfect challenge for masochists everywhere, so step on up!
Suggested Value: $30
Where to Buy: Sony store, Amazon, local gaming haunt
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