Why The Last of Us Part II is My Game of the Year

…unless Bloodborne 2 is surprise released like a Beyonce album just before Christmas.

There are going to be full spoilers for this game below. If you haven’t finished it and want to remain unspoiled, do not read this review!

Until this year, the last thing I had played that was made by Naughty Dog involved a gurning orange marsupial completing highly precise platforming challenges or sometimes lapping the competition in a kart racer. Their latter transformation into generation-defining cinematic gaming had passed me by. To be fair, when I bought a PS4 in 2017 I had hardly touched games since the beginning of the PS2 generation. There’s been a lot to catch up on.

But along with the rip-roaring, treasure hunting fun of the two latest Uncharted games I played the remaster of 2013’s The Last of Us during the lock-down (called the Movement Control Order in Malaysia) and it spoke to me. The emptied world frozen in time in the month of September 2013, the taut plotting with its storied narrative and finale, and the tense encounters.

Perfect timing, because— as the entire world, even that beyond games coverage knows — the sequel was due, hitting shelves a mere month and a bit after I beat the original (and then, hungry for more, played the wonderful Left Behind DLC and then replayed the main campaign). I became dimly aware of spoilers and a seething, bizarre online backlash fomenting towards the plot and characterisations even prior to release, and decided to avoid internet gaming content like fungal spores in order to experience the new story fresh.

I’ve never really done this before with a game, and it was such a good idea. Almost unspoiled, I took a week playing through the ambitious 25-hour campaign while my wife watched engrossed in the story, current Netflix series forgotten. Without big set-pieces and moments spoiled by attention-grabbing headlines or tweets, gameplay changes largely unknown, and — importantly — the extremely stressful and divisive discourse invisible to me, for a week the game was just mine, mine to soak and immerse in.

And be surprised by. Going in blind, this was one of the twistiest, most daring and often shocking narratives I’ve experienced in a game, or for that matter the binge-based streaming telly we all know and consume. The first game sets up a man who loses his daughter and pits the emotional consequences of that, and the defiant determination of familial love, against a society and country that has been gut-punched by a viral infection. Part II would always have to deal with the ramifications of Joel’s actions, and the fact he hid them from Ellie, in terms of his relationship with her — but it also uses the response of the families of the people he killed to explore revenge, retribution, tribalism and the dangers of hatred. In this world the norms of society have been forcibly removed, belonging means you’ve found a place and group capable of withstanding the violence of the outsider, the other, and the only reaction to a loved one being taken away is more violence.

As each person, family, group, warring faction and organisation seeks reprisal for grievances recent and long past, ever deeper and more damaging vengeance is meted out as the story unfolds. Joel’s retaliatory murder at the hands of Abby, daughter of the Firefly surgeon he cut down to save Ellie, is brutal, and yet it is only the inciting incident for the carnage that takes place. By the end of the game, unless I was fighting the Infected, I was aware — often painfully — of what I was doing, what the motivations of the people I was in conflict with were, and because of the game’s innovative structure, often the fallout of my actions.

These are complicated characters, well written and performed with the emotion and professionalism now expected of Naughty Dog products by very talented voice actors. While Ellie and Abby are complex and their respective vengeful spirit quests likely to stir different reactions in different people, they are fully realised and believable in their motivations and reactions. There are other characters who are extremely likeable and who you won’t feel as conflicted over — Mel, Yara, Lev, Dina.

The structure in particular is one element I am extremely glad I got to experience as a surprise — after 15 hours of the campaign with Ellie, and thinking the game was about to wrap up with a confrontation with Abby, control then switched to Abby and I replayed the three days Ellie and her girlfriend Dina spend in Seattle as the target of their manhunt. Initially I was reluctant to be pulled away from seeing Ellie’s fate, away from the character I had now played as for one and a half games, and wondering how long I would have to spend playing as the person who had killed the protagonist of the original.

On top of its looping structure that sees you repeat the three crucial days in Seattle, the game often puts you in flashbacks as Ellie or Abby. As well as being much more interesting than simply putting these sections at the start in tutorial levels or relegating them to cut-scenes, these often relaxed parts play out like walking sims, allowing you to explore, play mini-games and break up the dread and brutality of the central campaign. You see the person Abby was before her father was killed, and her life after as the Fireflies disbanded and she joined another group, the Washington Liberation Front, along with her childhood sweetheart and compatriot in arms Owen. Then you see the effect killing Joel has had on her friends — they are maudlin, reconsidering their lives, or getting themselves killed in rash actions or otherwise abandoning the WLF’s cause altogether. These aren’t like the faceless bandits of the previous game, they are human beings even if they are hardened ones (and let’s face it, so are Joel and Ellie and Tommy), and taking a killing upon themselves outside of the cause they’ve been given impacts them.

Most of all you get to know Abby — a complex, spirited person with many flaws and many admirable qualities, much like Ellie, who is driven to violence because in a world where society no longer exists in any recognisable form, there often seems to be no other way. She is portrayed as a realistic version of what a capable soldier in the post-apocalypse might look like — “arms like an ox” as one character says. She’s tough, physically imposing and ready for anything — your textbook video game action hero, introduced with an action that devastates the person you play as for the first half of the game. It is a clever stroke by the writers, and as she goes on to do many of the things an action hero might: Brave an infested hospital for medicine to save an injured girl, descend a tower block guns blazing, risk it all to save one child — exactly like Joel, in the end.

The original game is famous for asking one big question — would you do this? Would you doom the rest of the world for your child? Part II seems to have many questions to ask, among them the question of why people kill. The characters in this game commit violence for many reasons — most significant to the main narrative is a cycle of revenge, but people in this story also kill for land, for survival, to protect the vulnerable, for their beliefs, and often simply because they — or someone else — is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the original game, humanity fought bitterly for survival in stakes that had been forced upon it — in Part II, a younger generation who never knew the safer world of 2013 reckon with choices made by their forebears. There are shades to this as well and thematic connective tissue. While Ellie has to force the truth from Joel under the threat of leaving Jackson altogether, having had a terrible choice made for her and without her knowledge, a flashback shows Abby’s father Jerry, the surgeon who was to operate on Ellie and create a vaccine, level with her. He tells her what they plan to do as Marlene goes to inform Joel, by doing so inciting the lethal consequences. Fatally, Jerry never speaks to Joel directly, or involves Ellie — who surely would have encouraged the surgery whatever protestations had come from Joel.

The younger generation echo their parents in Part II — Ellie makes monumental decisions without telling Maria, without telling Dina or Jesse, and blowing up at her friends and family if they don’t agree with her. Abby is more of a collectivist, perhaps due to the examples set by the kindly if rash Jerry and her upbringing as part of groups like the Fireflies and WLF. She involves her core group of Firefly friends in the decisions she makes, and heads to Jackson with a crew as a result. Despite her gruff demeanour and the fact we’ve watched her kill the prior game’s protagonist, she warms quickly to the outcast Seraphite kids Lev and Yara, and in many ways mirrors Joel’s journey to Utah with Ellie.

If there’s another question here, it might be this: If you had fired up The Last of Us and watched a cut-scene where a man called Joel Miller slaughtered a building full of people who thought they were about to save the world, would you have felt the same about going back in time to play through the backstory to that, meeting Ellie and traveling across the country? Would he be romanticised as a character the same way? Would he appear on Instagram posts about Father’s Day? Because that is essentially how you are presented with Abby’s arc.

Part II manipulates the player’s relationship with agency over the characters in fascinating ways. Watch this character kill the person you related to — now control them. Control this beloved character, now watch them do the most horrendous things imaginable. End up only able to fully root for characters you never control. Perhaps that is true to life — after all, I am far more able to feel uncomplicated love and support for those close to me than I am myself.

And I have to say when it came to Abby fighting her way off the Seraphite island to rescue Lev, especially after his big sister Yara is killed in one of the hardest to watch moments in a game with plenty of them, I was more on board than I was when Joel ran out of the St. Mary’s Hospital with Ellie. You keep finding something to fight for.

As you can probably tell, this became Abby’s story at least as strongly as it was Ellie’s for me. A big part of that is the fact that Abby’s version of the three days in Seattle feature many of the best levels. Possibly a side effect of being late in the game and the designers going all out, or possibly to get people on-side for this unfamiliar character. Either way, there is so much stuff in here that is a highlight.

You’ve got The Descent, where Abby and Lev have to navigate down a partially bombed-out tower block now totally infested by fungal growths and the series’ mushroom-faced Infected, which is at once deeply tense and amazingly absorbing. I defy you to not want to finish this in a single sitting — it was very late at night when I emerged into the light, across from the Blacray Hotel. There’s the journey across the sky bridges that the Seraphites have built between Seattle’s skyscrapes, teetering and ramshackle constructions that Lev crosses casually while Abby clings terrified to the twisted girders. Then there’s The Coast, where you explore a dark, listing ferry full of Infected while reading notes left by the captain and other characters that explain how it came to be ultimately doomed. This is one of a few classic Japanese survival horror style sections where you creep through poorly lit enclosed spaces, gun and flashlight up, giving each new room a hasty look-over before proceeding. Another is the lower floor of the hospital in Ground Zero, completely taken over by the Infected and even featuring a very Resident Evil “turn the power on” task and boss fight with a gigantic multi-faced Infected. Best of all is The Escape, as Naughty Dog turn on the setpieces for the journey to the Seraphites’ island. You get to slowly infiltrate and see some of the game’s more Horizon Zero Dawn style world-building with “post-outbreak” new wooden structures and the by now familiar markings of the Seraphite cukutre and belief system. Then you flee a burning town on horseback. It is incredible, one of the most memorable moments of any game I’ve played. And, like everything this game does, it feels earned.

That’s because the slow burn of the game allows every big, operatic moment like this to carry the impact of a proper buildup, of pressure and release. Its rhythm is more like a series of telly than a blockbuster movie. While some games critics want shorter games as their job demands they play a lot of them, and some gamers want the maximum hours for their spend, I think it depends on the game. Some games merit a more expansive campaign, while others have said what they need to say in a few hours or, in the case of a little gem like Florence, 25 minutes. For its pivotal mid-game shift in perspective to work, for its character beats and blockbuster setpieces to feel earned and not like cool ideas that a game was constructed around, and for the combat engine to have plenty of well-deserved opportunities to show off the dynamic encounters, The Last of Us Part II perhaps did not have to be in the 25–30 hour range, but it certainly works best this way in my opinion. Naughty Dog games have been derided for being cinematic, and yet with this one you spend literally hours freely exploring, getting into fights, making your own fun in the vast game world, nary a cutscene or QTE in sight. A major moment between characters also doesn’t have to be in a cutscene — the incidental dialogue when Ellie and Dina enter the downtown synagogue is a gentle, considered reflection of faith in a post-apocalyptic world, for example. With the fantastic combat engine and the excellent world building that happens around you whilst you explore, after the opening hours I found the major story cutscenes were often a crescendo to several hours of deep engagement with the game’s systems. There are a lot of combat encounters and exploration opportunities here, and I took full advantage of them all.

The combat and stealth systems are endlessly rewarding. In the first game I would generally be able to quietly take down the Infected since they are either sightless or patrolling distractedly on a set path. But with the human enemies I’d usually be in and out of stealth mode, and encounters would turn into quite messy cover shoot-outs. It was still super fun, and the reason I replayed The Last of Us immediately was as much for the gameplay as the narrative, but I didn’t find the combat engine entirely malleable to how I wanted to express myself. That has all changed in the sequel. While a cursory glance might give the impression of the system from the first one having had a simple lick of paint and repackaging with glorious new graphics, in actual fact an endlessly rewarding, versatile and player-permissive combat engine makes each encounter as diverse as you want.

With considered cover arrangements, more silent ranged weapons, and crucially the ability to go prone to crawl through long grass and under vehicles Metal Gear Solid style I was able to ghost many of these encounters. You wait for Chump A to round the corner you’re crouched behind and silently take them down, belly-crawl through a patch of long grass, slip through a crack in a wall to reach a strategic spot taking down Chump B along the way, get behind a burnt-out car or stretch of wall and silently take Sniper Chump out of the equation with a quickly nocked arrow. The level design often supports either a silent assassin approach or a truly non-violent ghost approach where you bypass enemies by taking advantage of the geography and the versatile opportunities for traversal presented by the ruined cityscape.

This isn’t only my favourite game this year — it’s my favourite stealth game this year. Not that there have been many to speak of, but going through these enemy mix-ups and slowly ambushing everyone never doesn’t feel extremely satisfying. (The vocal design adds to this tremendously — one of my favourite moments was in the amazing Hillcrest level, when a WLF soldier seemed to take stock of their silently thinning numbers, and shout “she’s hunting us!”)

Conversely, the Infected now provided me with a lot of action-packed segments. They can still be stealthily killed, however will often be arranged in tricky ways and don’t have the same wide-ranging patrols the humans do, which is often what makes them vulnerable. Also, the trio of Runners, Clickers and Bloaters has now had Stalkers and Shamblers added to the team. The Stalkers will follow you around, hunting you as you hunt other Infected, while the Shamblers are grotesque and pendulous late-stage cases who emit toxic gases and pursue you as relentlessly as the Bloaters. You think you’ve given them the slip, but no they’re coming to you now. The sound design is a big part of this again — the sounds of the Clickers are actually scary now.

There were plenty of all-out battles with various human enemies to be had as well, aided by new mechanics like the quick throw which lets you instantly throw out a brick or bottle to stun them while you run up and melee attack, the ability to craft silencers which sometimes lets you salvage a failed stealth approach, and new traps which turn the tide as a group charges you. Once you’ve got scopes for your weapons you can take out groups you’d otherwise deal with up close from a nearby building or hidey-hole, and this seems like an interesting challenge for a future playthrough, sniping through the game.

The Last of Us Part II, a game that will be much discussed for its story, characters and visuals, has a variety and expressiveness to its combat that always says yes to the player and provides player choice at a level usually only seen in immersive sims like Dishonored and Deus Ex. It is a dynamic engine supported by immensely detailed animations that make every action you take fluid and non-distracting. And the point is this: People are doing cool stuff with the physics, AI and arsenal. See Narrative Designer Josh Scherr marveling at a SunhiLegend gif on Twitter, and YouTube’s StealthGamerBR extracting the same brand of ingenious, unseen chaos from the game that he is known for in titles like Hitman and Dishonored.

The level design, as mentioned above, encourages this flexibility in playstyle. I am sure there are some classic immersive sim fans on the team, as one of the safe codes I found was 0451, and there are multiple times where you crawl through a vent to reach your objective or a secret. It is rewarding to look up, to examine the walls, to really organically explore and get to know the environments, rather than just checking for the yellow lines where you can mantle like in previous games.

The level design is consistently strong, whether that’s with stunning art design like the sky bridges and the Seraphite island, vast open areas like Downtown and Capitol Hill, or tight survival horror corridors like the hospital lower floors and the ferry. If the remake of Resident Evil 3 this year proved too short for you with its svelte 5 hour runtime, then those latter levels and the section where Ellie and Dina, masks on, descend into ruined train tunnels lit only by hellish red generator lights and stalked by the fungal monsters might scratch an itch. Meanwhile, where I disliked Uncharted: The Lost Legacy’s “open world” chapter The Western Ghats, largely for the need to awkwardly navigate its various ramps and bridges using a jeep. The equivalent level here, the vast free-roaming Downtown, is a triumph however. When I realised this was a huge open area with various buildings to explore and optional confrontations with Infected, not to mention more environmental storytelling that began to fill out the fall of and eventual war for control over Seattle, my reaction was one of absolute joy. Three hours later, a trophy pinged announcing I had visited every area in the level, and I moved on. At one point you would apparently have stayed in Jackson longer and have had an open world exploration design to the area, but they ended up binning the idea to get the story moving quicker. If the team were to do an open world spin-off, Downtown proved it could work magnificently.

Speaking of spin-offs, some time ago Naughty Dog announced that Factions, the popular multiplayer mode, wouldn’t launch with the main story campaign as it had become too ambitious. If it drops as DLC or a Lost Legacy style “expandalone” then I would be very interested in trying it. The longevity of the mode in the original reflected the fun to be had simply with the gameplay of a title some regarded as too cinematic — the enhanced combat engine in Part II could be the basis for an even more absorbing multiplayer experience. Even better, if I can get access to some of these big Seattle maps to explore and fight through with my co-op partner, then that’s well worth a paid expansion or spin-off.

The graphics are easily some of the best you can see on the PS4, probably beating out Horizon Zero Dawn for the most vivid and luscious game world I’ve experienced. Significant portions of the game take place either under pouring rain, next to coasts with thrashing waves, on boats or otherwise utilising the sophisticated water effects, all of which are lifelike and which Digital Foundry mentioned as a sign of confidence in the engine from the developers. When I stood behind bulwarks on the coast as Abby, waves beating against them with the ferris wheel in the distance, the sound design and the visuals totally transported me there. The art design is varied and striking. Although a majority of the game is set in Seattle’s verdantly overgrown and crumbling post-urban ruins, you’ve also got a wealth of interiors both creepy and lavish, the snowy landscape of Wyoming, the inventive Seraphite island, and the flower-carpeted natural beauty of Santa Barbara at the game’s climax. Simply put, it looks incredible. I stopped to take four or five captures in the photo mode when I got to each new room or exterior, not to mention studies of the brilliantly animated character faces.

The game is a benchmark in accessibility and QoL settings. Although I am fortunate not to currently need many accessibility options, Steve Saylor produced an enthusiastic reaction to the diligence of what the developers had included as well as having consulted on the game, so I recommend his content if you want to know more.

What I will say is that the granular difficulty settings here should be considered industry best practice. You can toggle enemy perception, lock-ons, resource availability tuning, automate platforming, boost the listen mode, slide the difficulty relative to you (take more or less damage) or the enemies (make them more or less spongey and clever), toggle whether enemies try to flank you, and there’s even an option to just skip puzzles. Everybody experiences games differently, everyone has different needs, preferences and hurdles, and this kind of detail in customising the sort of challenge (or lack of it) people want to face when experiencing the story can only be a good thing. If I want to face super hardy enemies but not struggle for resources, I can do that. If I want to make the enemies fragile but still want the experience of them sneaking up on me and trying to flank me, I have that too. If I want a punishing playthrough with minimal resources and murderous enemy encounters but for whatever reason just don’t feel like dealing with puzzles, done. I’m sorry but there is no downside to this. They solved it. They worked hard, talked to the right people, and solved it.

So I don’t know if that’s a review in the traditional sense, but those are some of the thoughts and very positive impressions I’ve had percolating since firing up the game. When the “fake ending” where Ellie and Dina are raising a baby on a farm turned out to be just that, using my memories of Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher from the end of Uncharted 4 against me, and ten minutes later I found myself starting yet another level, again my reaction was pure excitement. A new biome, new stories, more of this combat, more time with these characters. And what an ending it eventually was. I still can’t quite believe how well they stuck the landing, giving the two leads a hell of a sendoff and leaving me with an experience I will never forget.

All images are my screen captures while playing The Last of us Part II and edited using only the photo mode tools available in-game.

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