In 2011, Naughty Dog released Uncharted 3, the latest game in the hit series that had established them as one of the most talented studios in the industry. Their name had practically become synonymous with the action-packed, explosive antics of the loveable rogue Nathan Drake. But looking ahead, Naughty Dog had a new idea, a new project, and the public’s first glimpse could be seen on a newspaper tucked away in Uncharted 3’s opening tutorial:
This little Easter egg hinted at a 2013 game that would come to be titled The Last of Us. In some ways it proves much like the Uncharted series: both are third-person, action-adventure cover shooters, and both feature consistent, cleverly-written banter between the player character and NPCs in order to flesh out their respective worlds. But where Uncharted is lighthearted and happy-go-lucky, The Last of Us is dark and pessimistic. Its bleak world allows only the faintest light of hope to survive, and only with the greatest of effort. If Nathan Drake, the charming adventurer who smiles while slaughtering armies of private solders, is the poster boy for ludonarrative dissonance, then Joel Miller is his opposite: a weary man who’s jaded by all the horror he’s seen…and the horror he’s inflicted.
This new venture proved to be just as critically acclaimed as its predecessors, with one reviewer going so far as to label it “gaming’s Citizen Kane moment.” Regardless of one’s evaluation of such effusive praise, there’s no question that The Last of Us was a smash hit, and when Naughty Dog announced a sequel starring Ellie three years later, fan anticipation went through the roof. Following up such a beloved game is no easy task, but no one doubted the developer’s ability to reach the highest of heights with a new entry. Now The Last of Us Part II is here. Has Naughty Dog struck gold yet again?
Violence: The Last of Us Part II is by far one of the most brutally violent mainstream AAA video games to date. Your character shoots enemies with a variety of guns, sets foes on fire with Molotov cocktails, blows them up with proximity mines, hacks into them with axes, beats them with metal pipes, and stabs them in the neck to end them quietly. Some characters are maimed, horribly beaten, or even disemboweled. Much like this game’s predecessor, however, it’s your character’s death animations that really set it apart in this regard: zombies will tear your flesh apart with their teeth or hands depending on how strong they are, dogs will bite into your face, and other humans will shoot you in the face with guns and cleave you with axes.
Unlike many other games which revel in their blood and gore, this game does not celebrate its savagery; instead, it emphasizes the horror of gruesome violence. Characters cry out in agony as they expire. A few scenes portray characters being tortured, and these moments are clearly designed to make you uncomfortable with, and disapproving of, the actions taking place. The only time the game ever explicitly celebrates its violence is when a companion will occasionally congratulate you on landing a stealthy headshot with a bow or silenced weapon.
Sexual Content: The game takes a secular approach to LGBT issues, which shouldn’t come as a surprise seeing as it’s made by a secular studio. It’s not particularly “preachy” about it, so to speak—the game’s primary moral thesis lies elsewhere—but it isn’t shy about showcasing its beliefs on sexual ethics. Multiple LGBT characters appear and play important roles in the story. The main character Ellie is a lesbian (those who played the Left Behind DLC of the first game will already know this, of course) and her love interest is bisexual; there is a kiss scene between these two, and it is implied that they have sex. One character makes a bigoted slur at Ellie regarding her sexual orientation.
In another scene a male and female character are shown having sex, and the woman is topless and her breasts completely exposed to the camera. Some of the female zombies also have exposed breasts, but you’ll probably be too busy trying to keep them from gnawing your flesh to notice their nipples.
A man is naked on a chair, but shadows obscure most of his body, including his waist.
Drugs/Alcohol: A couple of characters are seen smoking weed on-screen. One scene takes place in a tavern, and characters make reference to getting drunk at a few points in the game.
Language: All of the curse words you might expect to hear in an R-rated movie are present here. They don’t dominate the dialogue, but they do show up frequently, especially during combat with other humans.
Spiritual content: One character speaks of her Jewish heritage and her pride in descending from a lineage that survived events like the Inquisition and the Holocaust. She is only culturally Jewish, though; while she expresses familiarity with the Torah, she only prays as a way of calming herself down or showing respect.
One faction in the game is a deadly cult centered around the writings of a deceased person who they believe was a prophet.
Positive Content: Revenge is central to the story in The Last of Us Part II. The game shows the damage it can have, how it perpetuates violence and snuffs out hope. I applaud this game for taking such a stark and uncompromising look at the harm of revenge. I won’t say much more for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but the game’s approach to this topic is well worth examining in a spoiler-filled discussion.
The story picks up several years after the events of the first game. Joel and Ellie now live in Jackson, Wyoming along with Joel’s brother Tommy. It’s a simple life with its own ups and downs, but everyone is relatively happy, given their post-apocalyptic circumstances. One day, when Ellie is on patrol near the town, her loved ones are viciously attacked by another group of people; while I can’t go into full detail here, suffice to say that this attack fills Ellie with anger, spurring her to track down the assailants and exact her bloody revenge.
Let’s establish this upfront: The Last of Us Part II contains one of the heaviest stories you’ll find in gaming, both in its themes and its events. The main characters grapple with loss, grief, anger, and a desire for revenge, among other things. Death—and on more than one occasion, slow and torturous death—rears its ugly head as characters inflict pain and suffering on one another. The game does not sugarcoat the horror of violence, and as such can rarely be called “entertaining” in the traditional sense. However, this actually complements the game’s story; indeed, the story wouldn’t have the kind of emotional impact that the developers aimed for without it. Where many games glorify their violence as they craft a power fantasy for the player, The Last of Us Part II portrays its copious brutality in a way that highlights its tragedy. Even so, there are a couple moments where the violence on display is more disturbing than is necessary to get the point across, distracting from an otherwise captivating tale.
The narrative and story structure take a few surprising turns, and the game goes out of its way to introduce character depth in a manner that few other games dare to attempt. The execution isn’t quite flawless—one noteworthy moment of interpersonal character development feels rather forced and cliché—but the storytelling succeeds far more often than not, which is no small feat considering how unconventional, and thus risky, its structure becomes at times. Each character displays a distinct personality thanks to the carefully crafted dialogue and top-notch voice acting, and I came away impressed with the nuance with which Naughty Dog crafted their narrative.
Just as impressive as the storytelling are the game’s visuals. Every aspect of the presentation is world-class, but the highly detailed character models and remarkably dense foliage deserve particular praise. Despite the fact that you spend most of your time in damaged and overgrown urban environments—specifically Seattle—the game manages to pull off a healthy amount of visual variety, thanks to its frequent lighting changes and mix of both indoor and outdoor setpieces.
Gustavo Santaolalla returns to compose Part II, producing a soundtrack that typically serves to add tension or emotion without drawing attention to itself. The iconic acoustic guitar twangs that define the first game’s theme song do still appear here, though, punctuating a few key story beats.
The gameplay follows the same basic formula as in The Last of Us. You encounter groups of zombies and hostile humans as you progress through the game world, and your objective in most of these scenarios is to make it out of the area alive. Your arsenal increases over the course of the game, including guns, Molotov cocktails, proximity bombs, a bow, and makeshift melee weapons like pipes and axes. Perhaps your most useful weapon is your switchblade, which allows you to kill enemies quickly and quietly when you sneak up close to them. That’s right, Ellie doesn’t have to craft shivs like Joel did in the first game, allowing her to spend her resources on other projects. It also ensures that stealth is always a viable approach, provided the encounter doesn’t start with the enemies already knowing your location. Most enemies can be identified through walls when you hold down the R1 button to go into Listen mode, giving you the upper hand, especially when they don’t know where you are. Getting from point A to point B without drawing the attention of the whole group of adversaries takes patience, but is less dangerous and consumes fewer resources than going loud and trying to shoot your way out. Still, some action-heavy sequences are mandatory, particularly several boss fights against massive zombies.
Resources like ammo and the materials needed to make bombs and health kits are scattered throughout the environments, and survival is much more feasible if you take the time to search every nook and cranny for items. Pills allow you to learn new abilities, while bolts and screws let you upgrade your guns at workbenches. New weapons and ability paths open up as you find special items hidden away in secluded areas, and you won’t be able to upgrade everything to the max, so it’s important to prioritize the various upgrade choices.
Naughty Dog throws a few new elements into combat to spice things up this time around. Two new zombie types now stand in your way: Shamblers, which are large shambling creatures that spew acidic spores when you get near them, and Stalkers, which quietly skirt about the area and rarely appear in Listen mode. Some groups of human enemies also bring dogs with them that can pick up your scent and hunt you down even when you’re hidden. This additional depth allows for varied enemy encounters throughout the entirety of the game, especially in mixing and matching zombie types. Every zombie fight felt fresh, with unique combinations right up to the end.
All of this adds up to a tense, edge-of-your-seat combat experience as you cautiously navigate environments and dispatch enemies discreetly lest you get caught in a firefight. I’m not typically one for stealth-oriented gameplay, but this game’s stealth mechanics are accessible enough for me to enjoy, and I often reloaded checkpoints in order to complete scenarios without getting into big fights. I even managed to sneak through a couple places without killing anyone or anything, which provided an extra bit of satisfaction. The mandatory action sequences peppered throughout the story keep things fresh by punctuating certain sections of the game and providing a great opportunity to unleash the full power of your arsenal.
Outside of combat, the game takes you through quieter sections featuring light platforming and occasional puzzle solving. Naughty Dog also inserts its signature character banter here, adding a wealth of character development and world building that couldn’t fit into the game’s already numerous cutscenes. Most of the game world is linearly designed, in keeping with the narrative-heavy focus; however, one early section eschews this formula, placing you into a hub area complete with optional objectives and hidden areas. Though your time here is brief, this one place is more open than practically any environment that Naughty Dog has made in any of its games other than Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. It’s a pleasant and unexpected departure, injecting gameplay variety at a point where the game could easily have just gone its usual route and no one would have complained. It almost feels like the developer is showing off, as if to say “yeah, we know what you expect out of this game, but we’re going to toss this in as a nice little surprise just because we can.”
With The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog once again shows its incredible prowess at creating compelling, narrative-driven, high-quality action-adventure games. Between the nuanced story, consistently fresh gameplay, and bleeding edge visuals, this game stands out as among the finest in the genre. But be warned: this one is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The themes are dark and the violence is brutal—more brutal than is called for at some points. But it needs to be hard to watch in order to get its point across, and if you can bear with that, you’re treated to one of the most ambitious, compelling, and cautionary stories in gaming.
The Bottom Line
Between its nuanced story, consistently fresh gameplay, and bleeding edge visuals, The Last of Us Part II stands among the greats in the action-adventure genre.