If you're new to gaming, or a non-Sony
player who never looks over the fence, let me be the first of us to recommend The Last of Us
. Released as a swansong for PS3
and then remastered into a 4K beauty on PS4
, this 2013 title stands as Naughty Dog
's crowning achievement. It's a masterpiece. Essential consumption. When the offer came through to go get three hours of hands on time with the anticipated sequel, I basically dropped everything to make it happen.
By the time you read this, Sony's State of Play
event will have delivered you and several million others another mouthwatering trailer
for The Last of Us Part II
. Without seeing it, I have no doubt that it'll be yet further evidence that says this follow up will be a looker. Likewise, said teaser may also have you suspecting that the soundtrack will be phenomenal, and that Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are set to deliver masterful returning performances.
Be that as it may, I'm one of the few in the world who can tell you how this game feels. How it reacts in the hands of a player who has done his homework and had his mettle tested many times in multiple Grounded difficulty playthroughs. I'm also the guy who can tell you that, wow, this game is harrowing.
Now I figured I was completely desensitized to violence after 35 years of gaming (and that years of TV radiation had left my genitals withered and useless). However, sections of Part II still floored me like I'd been hit by a Joel Special – that's a thrown brick to the face. Naughty Dog has somehow managed to cranky up the intensity and violence even further than last time. And they've done it with one of the simplest things, naming AI enemies.
“... this game is harrowing.”
An overarching theme of this game is that no violent deed exists in a vacuum. You'll feel that in combat when Ellie shivs some poor bastard named Alex. Unlike The Division (where everybody is seemingly named Alex), your
Alex is unique, because when he dies his name will be shrieked by Steve. You'll know Steve is Steve because when you shotgun his head and most of his shoulders into gazpacho, his passing will be mourned by the rage-filled shout of Ashley. And so on, and so forth.
With this battle chatter you'll get to know a small community worth of xenophobic WLF jerks who, most likely, are just protecting their loved ones from you, the angsty teen marauder. Even still, being able to put names to dead-eyed (or partially missing) faces is... rough.
This post-pandemic guilt trip across the USA gets so much worse, though. Just be thankful that developer Naughty Dog decided not to give the new attack dog enemies individual names. Weirdly, my brain started giving them temporary monikers as I was forced to bludgeon and blast them to death. Hearing the human AIs piteously cry over them is confronting. I'm sorry Sprinkles, David Brenner and Bob Barker. But your options were heel or hell.
Frankly, I almost welcomed a return to the faceless Runners, Clickers and the new mutant of the moment, Shamblers. The latter are hulking things that have no cranial weaknesses, thanks to a Seinfeld level goiter growing on their necks. Other downsides include their rampant flatulence that “pierces” cover and hangs around like last night's mustard gas and baked beans dinner. These bastards are much more aware and relentless. They'll deny you areas in already claustrophobic conditions, and then it's lunch time.
Fortunately, Ellie has some new skills up her (awesomely) tattooed sleeves. The biggest switch-up is the new dodge button that rests on the L1 sprint. It's a contextual get out of jail free card for evading incoming strikes in a melee encounter. I also found some success with using it in firefights against snipers. But it's much harder to use effectively there. Ellie's no Neo.
“Naughty Dog has somehow managed to cranky up the intensity and violence even further than last time. And they've done it with one of the simplest things, naming AI enemies.”
In the case of Lee Harvey Oswald wannabes, you really ought to turn to stealth approaches and the new prone function. It's pretty much what it says on the tin: get down low and go, go, go. Typically, into some concealing tall grass or under a car so you can buy some time to craft more gear. Or to pray for a quick death that doesn't involve the brutal “Ellie gets her face chewed off by a dog” death animation. Yeah.
Speaking of crafting, our heroine has become quite the gunsmith in the off-season. Functional workbenches are scattered around the remains of this civilization, and they can let you pimp your pump action to overkill proportions. Pleasingly, the process has true, hands on animation moments that are pure gun porn to watch. We're not talking those leopard print skinning, bullshit shenanigans of CoD. By the end of my playthrough I was so gat-proud (and obsessed with naming things) that my 9mm was called Gladys. Violent Marv would have been proud.
Beyond those changes, it has to be said that the levels you can explore or throw down in feel quite a bit bigger than before. Promo trailers are hinting at sandbox-ish environs with Ellie's horse, Shimmer, but I didn't see anything approaching that. The horse riding is damn good, however, and I definitely felt like there were way more nooks and crannies to poke into. I almost got lost a few times. That never happened in the first game.
Taking the time to snoop is very much recommended. For one thing, scrap is super valuable as ammo is scarce and you need every single edge you can get in your running gun battles with entire communities. I also had my heartstrings pulled a few times by obviously optional dialogue moments between Ellie and her girl crush, Dina. Likewise, the eerie environments are brimming with both tragic and wryly humourous environmental storytelling beats.
Lastly, I should probably state the obvious: the game looks proper gorgeous, even to a non-graphics whore. Everywhere you look the benchmark has been raised, often in ways that just look like Naughty Dog is showing off. I was in a race against time to consume as much about this game as humanly possible, and yet I blew five minutes here and there simply watching things in awe. One early instance was using Shimmer to shatter an ice sheet on the shoreline of a creek. I then watched the individual chunks crack, separate and slowly melt as they flowed downstream. I'd like to think that Sony's ICE team is at least partially responsible for this moment.
“Everywhere you look the [graphics] benchmark has been raised, often in ways that just look like Naughty Dog is showing off.”
Props also have to be given to the animation department. Part II is just as impressive in motion as it would be frozen in a photo mode. I can't fully explain the magic that is Motion-matching to you here, suffice to say it eliminates those weird hitches that occur as one animated action transitions to another. Buckets and buckets of blending animations can be leveraged to make an entire game look like it was mo-capped from start to finish on a stage by real humans. Super, super impressive stuff.
Honestly, there's not a whole lot bad I can say about The Last of Us Part II at this point. Typically with preview code you expect the odd hiccup. A dull edge here or there. But no, nothing, and that's the same report I got back from the other two Aussies in attendance. It's worth noting that we all approached the last demo section in different ways. I went gung-ho, ammo be damned – dodge was my new religion and it failed me a few times. Somebody went all Sam Fisher and milked prone – much greater success here. The last of us, as it were, tried a suicidal Benny Hill sprint through a suburb of sociopaths. Not recommended, quite intense, but viable if you're a thrill-seeker with superhuman reflexes.
Whichever way you approach it, The Last of Us Part II is the real deal. It looked so good in some of the promotional materials that it actually had people calling fakery. I'm here to tell you that's not the case. This plays as good as it looks and moves. More importantly, I'm very confident that it's going to move many of you emotionally, in ways that even the masterpiece that is the original didn't.
While a lot can happen between now, February 2020 and those end credits, I've played too many games not to know when I'm in the presence of something special. I'd be very surprised if this didn't re-infect me all over again. It's only been one day since playing this and I can already feel that cordyceps itch.