You'll breathe a sigh of relief when the credits finally roll on The Last of Us Part 2.
Clocking in at just under 30 hours, it's twice the length of the original. But length isn't the only thing magnified in The Last of Us Part 2. It's more challenging, harrowing and thoughtful than its predecessor. As the final scene fades to black, you'll feel the satisfying fatigue that follows from having your emotions well and truly stirred.
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That's not a sentiment that could be applied to many video games. The past 20 years in gaming have seen the means of storytelling advance — visuals improve, voice acting reaches Hollywood quality and game mechanics become more sophisticated — but without a commensurate will to tell stories. AAA budgets are sometimes used to spin a meaningful tale, but only rarely.
The Last of Us Part 2 [disc] $60 at Amazon
The Last of Us Part 2 [digital] $60 at PlayStation
The Last of Us Part 2 is one of those exceptions. You only need to see Ellie and Joel's character models, for which the adjective "lifelike" is a more literal than figurative, to appreciate where the seven years and who-knows-how-many millions Naughty Dog invested in this game went. But as you play, it becomes clear that Naughty Dog's true ambition lies not in cutting-edge visuals or set pieces (though both are present), but in the story it attempts to tell.
In this regard, Last of Us Part 2 is a winner. It's an intense and gripping game, but its real success is in its provocative storytelling.
Can I have a light?
It's 2038. Twenty-five years ago, a fungal brain infection spread across the globe, turning much of its population into "The Infected." Zombies, basically. Five years ago, in the events of the first game, Joel treks across the country with 14-year-old Ellie, who's immune to the infection. Joel was meant to hand Ellie over to a researcher who could study her to create a cure but, upon discovering Ellie wouldn't survive the process, instead kills almost everyone in the hospital to save her from the operating table.
As The Last of Us Part 2 begins, Ellie and Joel live in Jackson, Wyoming, within a settlement (reasonably) safe from Infected. Their relationship, we find out, isn't what it used to be. Misadventure soon strikes and you, as Ellie, find yourself traveling to Seattle to strike back.
The Last of Us Part 2 is dark — this time both figuratively and literally. As you travel through apocalypse-torn Seattle, you'll visit sites plagued by unimaginable horror and read written accounts from people who were there when it happened. Like its predecessor, Part 2 musters a ruthless "kill or be killed" atmosphere. It asks questions about our worst traits, without resorting to cliche.
Much of the game takes place in shadows, from underground environments to abandoned buildings with zero lighting. Compounding this, Naughty Dog populates these haunts with just the right amount of danger. Infected are not so plentiful you expect some around every corner, but plentiful enough that you know they might be around any corner.
That's much worse. You'll think twice before entering each building, opening each door and crawling through each crevice. That's a problem, since you'll get most of your essential supplies from scavenging — that is, entering buildings, opening doors and crawling through crevices.
As a self-described wuss, I was surprised to play through the first Last of Us without sustaining any real, lasting psychological trauma. Part 2 is much more torturous.
Consider me traumatized.
Kill 'em all
While The Last of Us Part 2 is certainly a journey, the game itself is less about adventure and more about survival. But scavenging for supplies is only half of what survival entails. It also means killing a whole bunch of infected and a bunch more humans.
There are multiple types of each: Infected can be Runners, Stalkers, Clickers, Bloaters or Shamblers, representing humans at varying stages of infection. Each has different strengths and weaknesses. Clickers are blind, but kill you instantly. Stalkers inflict relatively small damage, but don't show up in Listen Mode (which lets you see enemies through walls). Bloaters and Shamblers are tanks: Slow, but hard to kill.
Humans, meanwhile, are either Wolves or Scars. The former is a Seattle-based military faction that'll use dogs to sniff you out and guns to kill you. The latter is a religious cult that uses bows and arrows, as well as heavies carrying giant axes.
Combat plays out like an improved version of the system found in the Batman: Arkham games. You're given a sprawling area and dared to see how many enemies you can kill before you, or one of your corpses, are spotted. You'll collect pills throughout which allow you to unlock new skills, and screws that let you upgrade weapons, both of which slowly define your style of play.
Gunplay is often clunky, but in a considered way. You're not meant to kick down a door and shoot down everything in sight. When you're shot, the camera will shake and red will splatter in the vague direction of the fire. It's disorienting in a way that discourages you from being circled, since you can't always shoot your way out of trouble.
Much of the combat involves crouching behind cover, watching or listening to discern the location of your many foes. One of The Last of Us Part 2's most subtle strengths is how well it differentiates enemies with sound. Scars communicate with each other through eerie whistles, the specific meanings of which elude you. Wolves react to dead bodies in ways that imply familiarity ("they killed John!"). Most effective and disturbing, however, are the Infected. Runners scream and shout as their brain reckons with the spreading infection, while the noxious wheezes of a Shambler and the sharp clicks of a Clicker are more than enough to let you know you're in trouble.
The most concerning sound is silence. You'll often be lurking around cavernous environments, illuminated only by your flashlight. You know Infected are around but you're not sure where. You'll listen out for them, but hear nothing other than the creak of a door or the rustling of nearby debris.
Like I said: Consider me traumatized.
Beating the tropes
The combat is not without issue. Many battles take place in huge environments, with multiple levels. You'll sometimes be left with one opponent, who you'll need to search high and low to find and kill before you can move on. As mentioned, the gunplay isn't conducive to heroism, yet there are occasions where the game demands you to Rambo waves of enemies, creating a square peg/round hole scenario. Elsewhere, you'll get many stealth kills — which involve you creeping up to, grabbing and stabbing an opponent — within the line of sight of other human enemies that curiously don't see or react to you.
That last point seems small, but it's the most jarring. For a game about monsters that eat your face, The Last of Us Part 2 has an admirable sense of realism. It's small moments like that which crack the suspension of disbelief.
There are instances of this outside of combat too, mostly in the form of conspicuous video game tropes. Your route through a stage is often lengthened through artificial means; with the end in sight, the floor will fall out from under you, or you'll jump for a ledge, not quite make it and plunge into an Infected-infested area. Get used to hearing Ellie complain about locked doors, which of course necessitate a longer route around.
Though these mishaps feel formulaic by the second half of the game, they do precipitate intense combat sections and amplify a sense of peril. But it all just smacks of video games.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. These tropes, easy to accept in most games, stand out because Part 2 largely elevates itself above them. This is a compelling story told through the video game medium, not a compelling video game with a story slapped on. It could have worked as a film series or a Netflix Original. The fusion of game mechanics and story is so smooth that even mildly rough spots stand out.
But it's not fair to appraise Last of Us Part 2 as some kind of futuristic hybrid. It is a game — a thrilling, harrowing and thoughtful one. Prepare to be riveted, surprised and, yes, traumatized.
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