I Need A Drink And A Hug
HIGH A peerless and inspiring new standard for accessibility options
LOW A seeming disinterest in moving the medium forward mechanically.
WTF: …Man did y’all have to release this right now?
Editor’s note: This review contains NO SPOILERS for The Last of Us 2, but does discuss the ending of The Last of Us in spoiler-level detail.
There’s always so much talk in gaming about “moving the industry forward”, but what exactly does that mean? How to we define it?
Sales figures? Cultural relevance? Online integration? Greater emotional intelligence? There are a litany of outstanding releases from this generation that could credibly be in this conversation, but how many of them pushed mechanics forward the way Super Mario 64 or Gears Of War did?
If any highly-anticipated, high-profile title could have achieved this lofty goal, the talent and resources behind The Last Of Us Part II gave it a better chance than most. Unfortunately, while Naughty Dog’s latest certainly delivers stellar presentation, the mechanics don’t keep pace.
I’m not beholden to the now-infamous pre-release NDA that limited critical discussion to the first half of the campaign, but GameCritics avoids spoilers whenever possible, so I’ll keep the plot synopsis both brief and vague.
TLoUPII is set four years after the events of the first game, and protagonist Ellie is out for vengeance against a large, organized militia occupying Seattle. Saying much more might provide too much context for a truly gut-wrenching tale that will both satisfy and subvert the expectations of anyone who enjoyed the first, perhaps spectacularly so. While I have some issues with how it’s implemented, it’s a remarkable story when judged strictly as a script.
Since it’s obvious from even the most cursory of glances, it’s no spoiler to say that The Last Of Us, Part II is dark — so dark that anyone going through emotional stress due the status of planet Earth as of June 29th, 2020 should genuinely consider not playing this game right now. The content is a lot to handle at this particular moment in human history, especially when one starts finding the abundant parallels between this work of fiction and our current reality.
Many critiques center on how bleak it is, and based on conversations I’ve had, much seems in relation to the ending of the first TLoU in which main character Joel (quite selfishly, from my perspective) murders everyone in sight to save his surrogate daughter Ellie, and then lies to her about what happened — an action which essentially dooms the human race forever. Some saw this conclusion as a ‘happy’ ending, but I didn’t agree with that assessment at all. As such, I was completely on board with how depressing things get in TLoUPII. To me, the tone is a perfect continuation of the first game, and I have no problem with where the plot goes — it’s only when I have to play that issues appear.
As a refresher before jumping into TLoUPII, I went through the absolutely wonderful Left Behind DLC from the original, and it might as well have been the tutorial for The Last Of Us Part II — it’s practically the same game.
Mechanically, It’s still a third-person stealth/action title where players sneak behind as many enemies as possible to stab them in the throat, and once spotted by an enemy, they pull out guns and engage in rather middling third-person shooting until everything is dead. Between skirmishes, they’ll walk around and scavenge for dish rags and bottles of bourbon to make health kits and Molotov cocktails before the cycle starts again.
TLoUPII offers opportunities for horse riding along with a few new enemies and guns, but as someone who grew tired of this formula by the end of the first game, seeing the same beats replicated with little improvement or diversification is immensely disappointing. Essentially, Naughty Dog makes the same three changes that they did with Uncharted this generation, and they leave it at that.
First, it gets a general tune-up that smooths out the controls and slightly refines the mechanics similar to the jump from Uncharted 3 to 4. This includes things like the ability to quick-throw a bottle into an enemy’s face without having to manually aim. Second, they removed most of the annoying ladder-based puzzles and replaced them with more manageable ropes, as in Uncharted 4. Third, they added a short open-world bit that gives the player hope for more expanded gameplay opportunities, only to have it end and become linear again. See: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy.
These are legitimate improvements, if minor ones, but nearly all the gripes I had about The Last Of Us in 2013 are still present seven years later. For example, the “infected” enemies (basically zombies) are apparently both stupid and blind, as players are only likely to be discovered when standing right in front of them. Once spotted, combat with the infected would be trivial if it wasn’t for their ability to instantly off the player with a jugular bite. I died more frequently from falling into strangely ubiquitous pits.
Human foes are far more interesting, and TLoUPII gives the player large arenas to fight them in, but this makes the biggest problem with the game worse — going around each map after a battle, searching countless drawers, for bits of duct tape to mindlessly craft the same types of weapons as I did in the first game. It was boring then, and it’s still boring now.
No joke, about a third of the time I spent with this game was digging through various shelves looking for a bullet or two. It’s pointless, and having enemies simply drop this stuff after defeat makes more sense thematically — all of the stores and houses would have been picked clean ages ago, yet desperate survivors scavenging for goods left a bunch of rubbing alcohol and blades behind?
My cardinal rule when playing videogames is don’t waste my time, but that’s exactly what this scavenging does. Making it such a slog makes sense given how dreadful the world is, but there’s just too much — this is an incredible 15 hour experience that takes 25 hours to complete.
The feelings of tedium are made worse by the fact that the majority of the campaign takes place in the central location of Seattle. Worse yet, the second half goes through many of the same locations from the first half, leading to a constant feeling of “uggh…not this again”. This feeling was exacerbated because this is now the third Sony-published game this generation to take place in the Pacific Northwest (and the second in Seattle) so this setting on this console is well-worn territory. It’s also the second third-person stealth-based survival game set in a zombie apocalypse published by Sony in the last fourteen months.
However, the biggest issue with The Last of Us Part II is that no game in the history of the medium is a more perfect example of ludonarrative dissonance. Naughty Dog Creative Director Neil Druckmann has complained that his games tend to become the poster children of this issue, and I agree that it’s unfair to single him out. In his defense, he says “[videogames] is a stylized reality where conflicts are lighter, and where death doesn’t have the same weight.”
That’s an acceptable, rational way to look at it for Uncharted since that series is essentially popcorn flicks played with a controller. However, it’s a huge problem when TLoUPII‘s script is constantly pondering human morality and mortality. (I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers here, but trust me — it comes up a lot.)
In one instance Ellie is asked how many zombies she’s ever killed in one go, and she replies “maybe a dozen”. So we learn that in this terrible new world, her most harrowing battle ever had around twelve combatants. Immediately following that conversation, we run into a bunch of enemies and kill way more than a dozen. If the message naughty Dog is trying to convey is that killing is senseless, it’s impossible to make that point when the player’s body count is easily in the hundreds by the end of the story — there’s just no getting around the fact that the core gameplay loop is in direct conflict with the virtues the narrative is trying to portray.
It’s a shame that the themes aren’t as polished as the graphics since TLoUPII might have the highest production values in history. It’s flawless from an audiovisual standpoint — Gustavo Santaolalla’s score is beautiful, haunting, unsettling, and mixed perfectly. Humans have never been rendered better than they are here, and the mocap is the best I’ve seen. If I was to make a list of the best performances in videogames, I could fill half the list with the actors here. The detail and quality is staggering.
However, while my eyes and ears were absolutely dazzled, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the experience as a whole wasn’t what it should be. Standard-setting production values are topped all the time, and as selling points, they have a shelf life. A studio with the prestige and resources of this one needs to pay as much attention to the gameplay and intellectual side as it does to the A/V side, and it’s maddening to see that The Last of Us Part II doesn’t go further in spite of all the money poured into its production
If there’s one area where The Last Of Us Part II is truly revolutionary, it’s the absolutely incredible array of accessibility options. There’s too much to get into now, but here’s an article that goes into more detail. Needless to say, these options should become the new standard for every major videogame release moving forward. For those who doubt it’s importance, I suggest they watch this video of well-known accessibility advocate Steve Saylor openly weeping at the options and settings made available to players who need them. Regardless of my criticisms, I’m truly elated that so many are going to be able to fully experience this game.
I finished The Last Of Us Part II feeling depressed, but not for the reasons the developer might have intended — Naughty Dog is an immensely talented studio with resources that many devs can only dream of, yet their achievements in presentation are held back by a lack of mechanical evolution and uninspired gameplay. The Last Of Us Part II is a journey worth tolerating for the sake of what it gets right, but when it comes down to it, I feel exactly the same way about it as I did about the first one — I wish it was a book.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony. It is currently available exclusively on PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via paid purchase and reviewed on a standard PS4. The game took approximately 24 hours to complete. The game has no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and features Intense Violence, Blood & Gore, Sexual Content, Nudity, Use Of Drugs, and Strong Language. I’m gonna make this as plain as possible: do not let your children play this game unless you truly do not give a hoot about the content they consume. This is, without question, one of the most violent, disturbing, and unnerving games on the market today, and it deals with extremely heavy subject matter. This is suitable only for mature adults and extremely mature, well-rounded older teens.
Colorblind Modes: In the menu for accessibility options, there are options for adding contrast to items and enemies to make them stick out. The HUD can also be changed for people with Protanopia, Deuteranopia, and Trianopia.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The story is told through voiced cutscenes and dialogue, and the text can both change color and is available in three sizes. The game also has speech-to-text options for tutorial messages that pop up onscreen. While sound became something I relied on in the game, there are options to give visual representation of sounds on screen. There’s never been a big budget game more fully accessible than this one.
Remappable Controls: This game’s controls are fully remappable.