Naughty Dog’s latest opus has been much discussed for its story and characters. However it also has some of the best level design in recent years. The environments Ellie and Abby travel through feel like real places not just because of the incredible production values and realism, but because they are often laid out like actual buildings, streets, city blocks and forests.
While the previous game had a world that felt real because of the atmosphere and the care put into presenting it, it was often a series of corridors made to seem like hotels, subways and universities with clever sleight of hand. While there’s still plenty of that afoot in the sequel, you can often explore these environments the way you would a street in Dishonored or the Crew Quarters in Prey.
I actually struggled to get this down to a list of ten. After two playthroughs, here are the best levels in The Last of Us Part II — in my opinion.
10. The Horde
This is your introduction to Abby and also functions as a combat tutorial. Suddenly finding myself controlling a character I knew nothing about was quite a surprise. This introduces Abby really well, from her determined and laser-focused personality to her fear of heights. The highlight though is the titular horde. Where the original game had at most a handful of Infected on screen at one time, the improved technology ND had to work with here lets them do so much more. At first it’s just one or two, then enough show up that you decide to give them the slip, then suddenly you’re sprinting as fast as you can while a frenzied, screaming mass pursues you. Thrilling, in a word.
The game has some great horror levels, including this one which has almost no combat. Firstly the approach on the boat and then swimming through the storm is incredible, with Ellie’s entire story arc almost represented with her repeatedly being washed under the waves as she struggles single-mindedly toward her target. This is your first visit to the aquarium, coming at the climax of the first half of the game as Ellie hunts down Abby. The building is dark and thunder and rain are hammering outside as you creep around the dank interior. Small signs of inhabitance eventually begin appearing and it all leads up to a jump scare with Mel’s dog ambushing you. The slow burn of the exploration works extremely well, and this level is a good argument for replaying the game. Infiltrating the aquarium knowing Ellie is actually the thing to be scared of, the vengeful spirit in the walls, after you’ve become so familiar with it as a base of operations and safe space in Abby’s portion of the game is quite a mind-fuck.
8. The Tunnels
The scariest level in Ellie’s section of the game. After climbing all the way up to the TV tower, now you’re going deep down, escaping into the tunnels around the old Seattle metro. In contrast to the verdant greens and open spaces you’ve been in for much of the game so far, this is all about squeezing around tight spaces, through vents, gloomy corridors and rooms where the Infected have festered hungrily in the dark for decades. You hear the screams of your pursuers around you as the creatures find them, and the atmosphere is thick enough to cut with a knife. The lurid red lighting in the larger sections of the level makes for one of the game’s most striking visual moments, and it all culminates in another desparate chase as Clickers, Shamblers and Runners erupt out of the metro station baying for your blood.
7. The Shortcut
This is where the game starts to do some unexpected things with its world building. A lot of what we’ve seen up to this point has revolved around nature reclaiming Seattle, new growth exploding through tiles and concrete across the city, as well as the impressive WLF base in the stadium. However we’ve also seen hints of new build thanks to the Seraphites, who have built their own wooden structures rather than take up in the abandoned buildings of the old world. The sky bridge however blew my mind — a precarious mesh of girders, wooden tracks and parts of other structures miles in the sky above the city, emptiness yawning beneath and to all sides.
Abby has to really face her fear of heights here, and I love how Lev — who Abby has so far been protecting much how Joel protected Ellie in the original game — assumes the role of guide and mentor to his companion. You can see him in his element as he jumps breezily between the platforms and beams of the sky bridge and the partly shattered skyscrapers, and he gently encourages Abby to overcome her fears with the words of his faith.
Following on from The Tunnels, Hillcrest is another level about going downwards. In general it is another mission where you fight the WLF as you traverse an immense and interconnected level with lots of optional buildings and areas to explore and lore to discover. However with Dina resting at the theatre Ellie is on her own now, making the confrontations with ever larger groups of WLF soldiers even more heartpounding. There are ample opportunities to belly-crawl and sneak around stealth-friendly geometry, but the introduction of dogs who can sniff you out throws a curve ball and will probably cause you to hastily abandon some carefully planned approaches.
I’ve played this level three times now and it feels like that is one of the optimum ways to experience it — the pace of play constantly shifting between a crawl and cacophany, silent and brutal takedowns interrupted by shouts and gunfire. Usually what happens is I can maintain a strategic, stealthy approach throughout most of it, but get rumbled more often and with more dire results as I near the bottom of the sloped neighbourhood. Eventually you have to run past a dog behind a mesh fence and are soon after smoke-bombed in an attempt to flush you out of a dark building, essentially forcing you into open combat or a desparate chase. The music for the level works really superbly with this rhythm, as the song ‘The WLF’ from the soundtrack moves from a tense but quiet drone to loud distortion in the vein of Blade Runner 2049’s ‘Sea Wall’ climax. Crawling and then running and always killing and bleeding as you get deeper and deeper down, the level design wears its themes on its sleeve and is a thrilling high point to the game’s first half. It climaxes with a classic Naughty Dog set-piece car chase which is a real adrenaline rush as well.
5. The Coast
Another standout survival horror style level, The Coast sees Abby making her way to the aquarium in the dark. The centrepiece is where you have to carefully navigate a grounded ferry that is crammed with Infected former passengers and crew in various states of mutation. It’s dark enough to need the flashlight, there’s things moving around in the darkness, and if you make too much noise they’ll be coming after you. As you go you’ll find readables with exposition as to exactly what happened here and the fatal decision on the part of the captain that led to the ship being overrun.
Ships are popular settings for video games since they lend themselves to corridors and floor-by-floor gating, but this one really works for me. I love how the floors are listing and how cramped the spaces feel, forcing you to slow down and proceed carefully. It almost makes me wish there had been no Infected to battle in the warehousing district at the beginning of the level, to make the ones you find here a bit more novel and unnerving. Still, fabulous stuff.
4. Ground Zero
Much like The Coast this is an example of The Last of Us Part II having some of the best Resident Evil levels I’ve ever played — and I’ve played quite a lot of Resident Evil games. This might be the scariest part of the game, as you find yourself having to delve into the unexplored lower levels of a hospital in Seattle that was ground zero for the entire city — “they brought the patients here before they knew what they were dealing with,” says WLF medic Nora. The game in general, a la The Walking Dead, is more focused on the factional conflicts between survivors in the post-apocalypse than it is the ravenous hordes themselves. However here you come face to face with one of the bleakest moments of the outbreak, frozen in time and left to moulder as the fungal spores coat the floor, walls and ceiling with their deathly-hued growths.
The clever thing about the level is you get lots of downtime to see the stricken facility up close, reading notes and journals about the horrors that happened here illuminated in the dim light powered by the generators, and tension building with every minute that passes without the monsters appearing. Because you know they will eventually. You even have a classic Resident Evil “turn the power back on” task, and I’ve never wanted to complete a task less. Because all the things I had heard behind every door I had passed to that point were going to be let loose once I flipped the switch.
There’s also something else down here. You’ve heard it, growling, a deep and massive sound, as you moved through the ICU. Eventually it gets loose, and this is where you experience probably the game’s most famous boss fight — The Rat King. This misshapen horror is a vast homunculus of Infected bodies that will rip you apart instantly if you let it get near you and is going to take a lot of firepower to bring down. How else to describe this level but fucking terrifying and good.
I seem to be in a minority of people who didn’t like Uncharted: The Lost Legacy’s 4th chapter, The Western Ghats. While the individual towers with their puzzle platforming were alright, getting around the area was aggravating, relying on the jeep and having to find the way round to each ramp to get where you wanted to go. I couldn’t wait for it to be over and was happy to be back to the scripted, linear levels of the rest of the game.
Downtown also follows the miniature open world concept and, this time, they nailed it. When I crept down into the bank and realised that what I had here was a self-contained open area with optional exploration and encounters with the Infected I was basically overjoyed. The direct comparison to The Western Ghats might be helpful for articulating why this works so well in The Last of Us Part II. You still have the authentic looking paper map that the character fills as you go, Thief-style, which is great. However your mode of traversal is your horse, Shimmer, which feels much more natural than getting in and out of the jeep, and is easier to control too. Grass has grown across the streets so that you are essentially on a gigantic plain with buildings sticking out of it rather than a ramp-based group of small areas interconnected with one another — again, easy to get across. Combat encounters are always with a handful of Infected in a considered arrangement with set patrol paths, rather than cover shoot-outs with groups of enemies that spawn on each side of you. And lastly you often have a vantage down to points of interest if they aren’t in the buildings, as opposed to being on the ground trying to understand elevated geometry around you. Everything about the level encourages exploration, and after a few hours a trophy dinged to tell me I had visited every optional location in Downtown. On future visits I discovered even more, with stashes of items concealed or seemingly out of reach — until I used the ingenious in-game ropes to my advantage.
Downtown is all the proof needed that, if Naughty Dog decide to spin this series off into an open world game, it will work really well. The game already has areas that feel like hubs — the theatre, the aquarium — and the designers are clearly more than capable of creating huge interconnected spaces.
2. The Escape
Building from the environmental lore and world-building you get for the Seraphites beginning with The Shortcut, the finale of Abby’s Day 3 goes all out as you visit their island and get to see what a society starting from scratch 25 years after the apocalypse looks like. The Escape is the climactic level in this section of the game and an emotional rollercoaster as Yara is killed by the invading WLF (a creative decision that, as with Mel being killed, I personally found too bleak even for this game) and Abby turns her back on them completely to help Lev once and for all escape the society that rejected him.
This is actually one of the more uneven levels of the game. It begins with some pretty tough combat encounters against the WLF and has some interesting sections where you navigate between them and the Seraphites as they wage all-out battle against one another. This is fun from a gameplay standpoint as you get to play the two sides off against one another as you flit past them. However it ends with one of the game’s worst encounters, a confrontation against a towering Seraphite man who is not only problematic in representation terms but another one of the dodge-based hand-to-hand boss fights The Last of Us Part II seems so interested in but don’t really land for me.
After all those complaints you might be surprised that The Escape makes it so high up my list, but when I remember this level all of that gets forgotten next to the amazing set-piece moment where, as Abby, you and Lev flee the carnage on horseback through a burning village. This is so exciting, right up there with Uncharted’s best car chases and train-based battles. Naughty Dog is known for set-piece moments, and this is why. One of the most memorable and adrenaline-pumping moments in any game I’ve played.
1. The Descent
This is the level where the game starts to crank up the scares again, as you descend a skyscraper Dwayne Johnson style. In fact, this is like Die Hard with fungus zombies. As a self-contained action horror vertical slice I think this could sell a lot of people on trying the game out.
In terms of scene-setting it begins with some great scenes between Abby and Lev, showing the way their relationship develops and how Abby softens towards him as he continues learning how to swear and be sarcastic. These are some of the game’s most effective and endearing character beats, well placed as the story arc relies on the player coming to relate to Abby and they punctuate the otherwise grim mood of this section. This is where I started really rooting for Abby, having been initially reluctant and wanting to rush through her part of the game. Not only that but I started to realise that most of the game’s best levels had been given to her.
The bulk of the level involves traversing floor by floor down through an old hotel which is by now totally infested by the fungal spores and the Infected. So long has this building stood abandoned, the Infected mutating for decades in the gloom, that some of them have begun simply growing into the walls. After a few burst out at you, you actually start to distrust the environment around you, carefully walking forward with your weapon up for fear of another creature pulling away from the rancid fungal growths to attack. Because the building has been damaged by bomb blasts like much of the urban environment in this world, it makes for an interesting contrast between tight spaces in the hotel rooms and vast chasms suddenly yawning underneath you as you reach a destroyed section. It is dark, there are demons, and you could fall to your death at any moment. More than even Ground Zero or The Coast, this is tension-building level design at its best. The relief in Abby and Lev’s voices as they emerge into daylight and can remove their masks is highly relatable. It just brings everything about this game together so well for me and is the first one I thought of when making this list.
So those are my top ten, most of which are while you control Abby — unsurprisingly since, to me, this game became about her journey with Yara and Lev and her story arc, helped by the fabulous level design in her parts of the game. I feel like her levels tend to be more linear, feature stronger set-pieces and architecture, which I’m always a fan of, and lend themselves to a good mix of exploration, narrative, action and spooks. However in a reflection of how much quality design there is to explore here, I do have to make honourable mentions of Waking Up with its deft character introductions, The Birthday Gift for going one better than the original game’s giraffes and totally landing it, and the stellar environments of Hostile Territory and The Flooded City.