Over the years I’ve come to realize that I’ll have a better time with games, movies, television and so on if I hop into them myself before reading anything about them. If someone tells me about media they’ve enjoyed, it’s probably wise to check it out. On the other hand, previews and reviews tend to be a great way of tainting an experience before one’s actually had it, and I say this as someone who writes video game reviews. We live in a world where you can watch hours of gameplay from anything you’d want to see before buying it. You’re perfectly capable of making up your own mind in 2020.
Case in point: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II, a highly controversial game when it comes to the Very Online crowd. But what if we did what we all probably should do and ignored that crowd, knowing they don’t have much to say? What if we checked the game out for ourselves? Let’s take a look.
Years after the blood-spattered conclusion of the first game, antihero and video game dad Joel and his teenage ward Ellie live in a burgeoning community of survivors determined to bring civilization back. If you weren’t familiar, this is a land devastated by a fungal infection that’s turned the majority of humanity into infected maniacs bent on chowing down on anyone who’s not shroom’d. That was about twenty years ago, though, and now we’re mostly talking about the remnants of humanity and what will become of them.
To understate things a bit, Joel plays less of a leading role in this game; we mostly follow an older, saltier Ellie and new lead Abby as they make their way through a devastated post-apocalyptic world, dealing with mushroom zombies, gun-toting humans and the ravaged landscape along the way.
From a plot perspective, TLOU2 does pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the modern generation of cinematic video games: summer blockbuster-style emotional manipulation with a dash of interactivity here and there. Plot beats arrive with sweeping, orchestral reminders of how you’re supposed to feel about them, then are followed with a bit of stealth-focused combat which in turn makes way for the next heartstring-crushing moment. It’s still a video game, of course, and video games don’t do subtlety. The player isn’t trusted to draw their own conclusions about events, so those events are smashed home with all the subtlety of a rocket-powered sledgehammer – and you’re still not allowed to, say, go through a doorway before your chatty NPC companion.
The whole affair is about on par with your average YA novel from a storytelling perspective (brutal digitized violence and sex scenes aside, but even those feel like a strained effort at Making The Viewer Uncomfortable as per the crumpled, dog-eared playbook of the past generation or so of media). That’s not exactly a criticism, it’s more a statement of the medium as it stands right now. There’s a big sign over the stage that lights up when you’re supposed to gasp, cry, applaud and so on. Don’t come in expecting a deep, nuanced experience and you probably won’t be disappointed.
How about gameplay, then? It’s…a lot like the first game. You spend a lot of time skulking around from shadow to shadow, avoiding the enemy of the day – either dumb-but-fast zombies or surprisingly clever human opponents. Getting the drop on baddies is as satisfying as ever, with a few minor upgrades here and there like the ability to stealth-kill Clicker zombies without using consumable items. Zombie sections tend to be tense, slow-paced sneaking sessions where one wrong move leads to a trip back to the most recent checkpoint. They’re there to cleanse the palate between the sickeningly sweet and stomach-churningly spicy story beats.
Battles against humans, meanwhile, make for a great time, since they’ll act as a group and work to outsmart you. They send scouts, respond to their comrades being taken out and communicate with each other as you work your way through detailed setpiece after setpiece. You can successfully approach battles against humans with both a stealthy and a guns-blazing approach, even switching between the two as necessary. The moments when you’re actually in control of TLOU2 feel great.
Graphically, TLOU2 looks pretty good. One consideration is the PS4 hardware is showing its age at this point, and this is a game that pushes it to the limit; while environments and plot-relevant characters look pretty good (especially when playing on a beefier PS4 Pro), less important NPCs are equally less graphically impressive. That’s a minor gripe, and there’s not a lot to complain about from a presentation standpoint. If you’re into the hard-edged realism of post-Walking Dead zombie games, you’re going to be into how TLOU2 looks.
You’re also going to be into how it plays and probably into how it tells its very post-Walking Dead zombie tale as well. The Last of Us Part II follows a road that’s well-trodden by this point. Grimdark “the humans are the real monsters!!!” storytelling is about the only zombie narrative anyone tells these days, so this game probably won’t blow any minds. It does show that extra polish and development time can make for a perfectly acceptable video game experience, but a masterpiece? Nah, and I’d argue it’s generally not as good as the first game, outside of marginal improvements to a gameplay experience that already worked just fine. But it’s still a decent sequel that’s worth the bucks and weekend it’ll take you to get through it. When you can pick it up for half that price in a few months…that’s an easy sell.