Just a little over a year after the PlayStation 3’s launch in 2006, Naughty Dog blessed us with Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. I remember playing Uncharted for the first time like it was yesterday. I was in shock and utter amazement at how beautiful the game was. It was no doubt the most beautiful game I had seen in my life, and I genuinely thought there was no way anything could beat it graphically – you know, until Uncharted 2 came out.
When reflecting back on a specific console’s generation, I think about an early title that surpassed my expectations, and the last big launch before the next. With the PlayStation 3 specifically, those titles are Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and The Last of Us. Now seven years and five days later, The Last of Us Part II is one of three first-party titles that will be closing out the PlayStation 4 generation.
The following review is considered to be spoiler-free. Nothing beyond what has been shown publicly prior to launch will be discussed. This review will focus on a vague review of the story, and focus heavily on mechanics, graphics, and sound. An editorial breaking down the story and its deception of certain mental health topics will be published at a later time.
When you think about Naughty Dog, you think about great storytelling, beautiful graphics, and wonderful voice acting. The Last of Us franchise only pushed those things further forward. The Last of Us Part II was written by both Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross. Halley was the story editor for six of Westworld season one’s episodes, and also wrote two of the episodes. I personally find Westworld’s storytelling to be very unique in comparison to other shows; incredibly deep character development, and dark storylines with hidden messages and meaning. Those elements especially shine in TLOUII.
Without giving anything away, that brings me to my next point: This story – and honestly, the game overall – is not for the faint of heart. Is it the best story Naughty Dog has ever told? Yes. Has it changed video game storytelling? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park. It is by far the most violent and gory game I’ve ever played, however, as messed up as it might be to say, it makes it that much more realistic.
Given the recent events of the global pandemic, fascism, and police brutality, a lot of the game’s artifacts, events, and dialog hit very close to home. Residing in Los Angeles and observing the way the government handled everything… If things got worse or were something on the level of the cordyceps infection [in game], it would probably be too realistic.
In terms of voice acting, everyone from the previous title makes their return. To be quite frank, Ashley Johnson deserves an Academy Award for her performance in TLOUII. Shannon Woodward, who plays Dina, did an amazing job, really showing how much range she has. I first discovered Shannon from Raising Hope, and thoroughly enjoyed her role in Westworld. Ashley and Shannon have incredible chemistry, and I’d love to see them work together more in the future. All of the characters were cast very well, and they all had great performances.
The Last of Us Part II makes you look at a lot of different things, and have deep, philosophical conversations with yourself. It repeatedly throws you into moral gray areas, subconsciously forcing you to personally differentiate between right and wrong, and analyze your core beliefs. The game is a roller coaster of emotions, and I had a lot of time to do some self-reflecting. Hell, there were certain points of the game where I had to put down my controller and say “I can’t do this.” And for what it’s worth, I’m still having nightmares about Clickers.
Circling back to my introduction statement, The Last of Us II is graphically the most beautiful game I have ever played. The fact that Naughty Dog continues to push the limits of a console through each release is astounding; It only makes me wonder what they can do with their next release – presumably – on the PlayStation 5. Just like the previous title, the game starts with one longer loading time, and you are free of loading times throughout your playthrough, creating a seamless experience.
The level of detail in everything is top-notch. The environments are filled with a wide variety of plants, and scenery far out into the distance. Infected growth is intricate, and you can physically see the differences between the textures they grow on. The way Ellie’s hair and clothes move as she runs around is realistic, and the reflections are crystal clear. Microexpressions look real and intensify the characters’ emotions. The wear and tear on characters’ clothing remain hyperrealistic. If you remember the “oohs” and “ahhs” of Nathan Drake’s in-game model reveal in Uncharted 4, the character models for TLOUII leave those in the dust.
From the main menu, you have access to unlock both character models and concept art. As you progress through the story, you earn points, which are then spent unlocking said assets. I highly recommend unlocking everything if you can and playing around with some of the models. You can zoom in pretty close and get to appreciate how precise each character is. And make sure to look closely at the eyes as you rotate the model – the lighting is just phenomenal.
In my personal opinion, lighting is both one of the most difficult things to do well in games, as well as one of the most unappreciated elements. During your playthrough, take the time to stop and smell the roses – or in this case, look at all the small details in the lighting. The way spores look in different sources of light, or how it bounces off certain materials or water. I found the photo mode incredibly useful with this – it’s probably my favorite photo mode in games so far.
Photo mode allows you to take photos both in gameplay and in cutscenes. With cutscenes, you are limited to the static image you paused on, but there is a lot of tweaking you can do to create your own masterpiece. I was able to take some beautiful photos, but since they technically contain spoilers, they will be posted alongside my “spoiler review.”
It’s a Naughty Dog game. It’s going to look great, I don’t have to tell you that.
The true revolution in this title’s development lies within the sound. With the first TLOU, I personally found the moving clouds to be it’s huge step forward in game development’s capabilities. In fact, it was such a big deal that Keith Guerrette, Naughty Dog’s Lead Visual Effects Artist on TLOU gave a speech about it at GDC 2014. If game development is something that interests you, I highly recommend watching his presentation.
“Something that’s the most overlooked and often stubbed in part of your environment. It’s also got a tremendous amount of power to completely transform your visual presentation, yet again nobody gives it the due justice or due diligence it deserves,” Guerrette says to open his presentation. It’s hard to disagree with that. But in The Last of Us II the giant step forward was highlighting an even smaller detail: Breathing.
As human beings, we often don’t pay attention to our breathing. It’s just like blinking – it’s a subconscious bodily function that occurs on its own. Of course, if we panic, or get anxious, our breathing changes, and we pay a lot of attention to it. The Last of Us Part II is a game that is filled with stealth and moments that make both the character and player feel a handful of different emotions. And you can hear it in the breathing.
For example, let’s say you’re running through Seattle, no infected or hostiles in sight. Ellie’s breathing will be a bit heavier because you’re running as opposed to walking. You might find a building to explore, and within seconds, you hear the unmistakable sound of a Clicker. Ellie will comment on it, and then it’s up to the player to create an exit strategy. Once the Clicker is noticed, Ellie’s breathing changes. She’s gassed from running, now in fear of the Clicker, and she can’t be heard because it’ll cost her her life. Ellie starts taking less but deeper breaths and doing it through her nose to avoid detection.
In addition to this incredible amount of detail put into the characters’ actions, this breathing mechanic is synched up with facial movements. As mentioned before, character models show micro-expressions for added realism, and this new mechanic actually syncs them with the breathing system. We have reached out to Sony and Beau Jimenez – Naughty Dog’s sound designer who developed this system – for a quote, and will update this article when we hear back.
The game’s spatial audio is quite impressive. If you have a good pair of headphones or a surround system, I highly recommend you use them to their full potential. You can hear Ellie’s footsteps on different surfaces, enemies talking and fiddling with things in the distance, and get a better idea of where enemies are around you. I applaud Audio Lead Rob Krekel and his team for their incredible sound work. The sound gave an element of horror I honestly believe the first game was missing. I was never actually scared in TLOU, but the focus on sound in TLOUII definitely had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, making it more of a survival horror game than its predecessor.
Gustavo Santaolalla has also returned for the soundtrack (as we found out at the E3 2018 reveal). Gustavo is an absolute madman. His music tugs at your heartstrings, and flows perfectly with TLOUII as it did in the first game. The man is a musical wizard, and I don’t think I have to say much more than that.
Mechanics & Accessibility
The Last of Us Part II immediately feels familiar, but polished. The UI is familiar with some revisions, and the controls still (to me, at least) feel designed to create a sense of panic in tight combat situations, while remaining natural. While TLOU wasn’t entirely linear – giving you options to get to one place/complete an objective in a few different ways – TLOUII expands on that, and it does a good job of reminding you of it.
This could be positive or negative depending on your opinion of stealth games, but the game punishes you for not being stealthy enough or creative with your combat strategies. You see, I’m the asshole who played Deus Ex: Human Revolution by just running in and shooting everybody. I tried to go the non-lethal stealth route, but I very quickly lost my patience. You definitely cannot do that here.
With the addition of new and different weapons (including craftable ones), there are more ways to get through each encounter. Before I dive into that a bit further, I want to make it very clear that you do not have to kill dogs in combat to progress in the game. I don’t know who started that rumor and why, but it is not true. In fact, there are a lot of situations you can get through without killing most enemies. In some situations, you can get through without killing anyone! Any time this happened for me, however, it was because I was running like hell, hoping for the best.
The skill tree has been expanded and gives you the ability to level Ellie up in various different ways. Before, Joel’s upgradeable skills had two to three levels, and were very simple; maximum health, listen mode distance, weapon sway, and shiv durability. Anything pertaining to the weapon is done through weapon upgrading. Ellie has a handful of skill trees you can expand on, that do anything from helping you craft more efficient health packs, to improving stealth actions. I wasn’t able to unlock everything, but I still got to do a good amount and felt good about it.
🎮♿️ I along with many other accessibility consultants had the great pleasure to work with the wonderful and passionate people at @Naughty_Dog to make #TheLastofUsPart2 as accessible to as many gamers as possible.
Fun fact: Blind people game too! 👨🏼🦯 #a11y https://t.co/2E81SP4w6R
— James Rath (@JamesRath) June 9, 2020
The areas where encounters occur are designed so much better than the previous title. You can crawl under things, break windows, and lure infected and enemies to fight one another. Sometimes in the first game, I’d get really frustrated with combat sequences, and feel like I wasn’t having as much fun as I could. In this game, it was quite the opposite. I would initially groan at the idea of more stealth action, but once I got into it, I had a lot of fun. There are a few areas in particular that really stood out to me, but I will have to wait for the spoiler editorial to go over those.
Weapons and skills have gotten a bit of a revamp. Upgrading your weapons has been enhanced visually, and streamlined. In the first game, you had three to five upgrades per weapon, and those upgrades could be upgraded anywhere from one to three times. In Part II, each weapon has its set of upgrades, and you only have to do so once. Unlike the first game, you don’t need tools and parts to upgrade. Just parts, which you’ll collect along the way. Weapons are still upgraded on a workbench, but this time, you will have an over-the-shoulder view and change and upgrade the weapons in real-time. Since parts are being added or replaced, you will also be able to physically see them when you’re examining them on the workbench or using them in combat.
The accessibility features in The Last of Us Part II are remarkable. In an official PlayStation blog post, Lead Systems Designer Matthew Gallant says the game features more “than 60 accessibility settings, with expanded options focused on fine-motor and hearing, as well as completely new features that benefit low-vision and blind players.” A completely blind player can enjoy TLOUII to its full extent – not just beat the game, but also “discover and explore all side content,” co-game director Anthony Newman stated in a tweet.
You have the ability to remap every button on the DualShock 4 and save certain mapping setups as “custom schemes” with whatever you want to call them. If the game’s environments are overwhelming and you often get lost, you can turn on an indicator that clearly shows you where to go next. Combat accessibility gets very detailed, down to how much damage the player takes, and how well enemies can aim or sense you in stealth. There are settings that assist with motion sickness, including changing the field of view, and you can change the HUD color (I love a nice amber colored HUD).
The list goes on and on. The tl;dr version: Almost everyone can play The Last of Us Part II and enjoy it.
There is, however, one big accessibility feature missing.
If you know me, you know I am a huge advocate of colorblind awareness in gaming and the workplace. It’s a whole different story, but I helped get Final Fantasy XIV colorblind support after over two years post-release. It took about a year and a half for it to be finished and implemented, but it has helped colorblind friends of mine enjoy the game so much more. The Last of Us Part II has colorblind HUD options, but the game itself does not. For a game that has so many accessibility features and wants everyone to feel like they can play the game, not having colorblind support is a huge miss.
There are a lot of games today that have full colorblind support. They all vary in how much you can tweak them; Overwatch allows you to set custom colors for everything, and Doom Eternal has fullscreen filters that support the three most common types of colorblindness – protanopia, deuteranopia, and tritanopia. A game like TLOUII that has so many fine details, and similar colors (different types of green for all the overgrowth, for example) could be very difficult for a colorblind person to get through. I can only hope this wasn’t an oversight, and it will be implemented with a patch in the near future.
If you are colorblind and have difficulties playing The Last of Us II upon release, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Last of Us II is the best game Naughty Dog has developed, in my personal opinion. With Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross joining forces, this story has changed storytelling in video games forever. It just might be the game with the most accessibility features (aside from the colorblind support), giving gamers of all skill levels a chance to customize their experience and enjoy the same adventure together. You will laugh, get angry, cry, and probably everything in between.
It is the darkest and most violent game I’ve ever played; as I stated earlier in this review, with all of the current events, it may be difficult to play and get through. The game does not have any trigger warnings, so I do recommend having a funny TV show or YouTube series to boot up in between playthroughs if you find yourself in a dark place. After the game releases, I will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have pertaining to the content and what to expect (without spoiling anything, of course).
One thing that did bother me a bit was the collectibles. They’re great, don’t get me wrong, but there are so many of them. Looking at how many I had missed after my playthrough, I was surprised. I thought I had taken the time to explore almost everything, and maybe only miss a couple. Collectibles and certain interactable things are separated into different categories, making it easier to track once you see what you missed. I’m sure a lot of people disagree with my stance on this; I’m just a bit overwhelmed with knowing I’m going to have to go back and spend a decent amount of time collecting the rest.
Despite it being a heavy story that hit really hard with everything going on, I do appreciate the game. It pushes so many boundaries and opens up so much for the next generation of gaming in regards to what’s possible. Don’t feel the need to rush through it – take your time and really absorb your surroundings. And for what it’s worth, I have a feeling we aren’t done with this franchise quite yet.
Well developed levels
No colorblind support (HUD only)
Too many collectibles
Trophy list isn’t very exciting
This review was written based on a digital review copy of The Last of Us Part II for the PlayStation 4 provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment.