It’s hard to blame Naughty Dog for taking seven years to release a follow-up to The Last of Us, a game so good that it’s widely regarded as one of the best on both the PS3 and PS4 thanks to a 2014 remaster.
We now know that part of the developer’s approach to the problem was a heavy reliance on crunch to get The Last of Us Part II out for 19 June 2020, just months ahead of the launch of the PS5.
That makes it at least a little uncomfortable to admit that Naughty Dog have pulled it off. The Last of Us Part II is a worthy sequel in every respect, evolving the original’s gameplay while carrying its story forward into an even more harrowing second part.
Once upon a time in the apocalypse
The game picks up in Jackson, a peaceful(ish) post-apocalyptic township where Joel and Ellie have settled. Anyone who’s followed the game’s marketing campaign will know that before long tragedy strikes, setting Ellie off on a journey for revenge that takes her back across the country to Seattle.
No spoilers here, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the game is interested in more than a kick-ass revenge fantasy. Across the 15-20 hour story Naughty Dog repeatedly interrogates perpetuating cycles of violence, asking players to empathise with Ellie’s – and thus their own – enemies and victims.
There are no easy answers, and I suspect this story will prove more divisive than the first. It certainly takes more risks, repeatedly subverting expectations in how it tells its tale, even as it fits fairly neatly into a familiar mould of the cautionary revenge story.
The game is smaller in scope, for the most part limiting itself to a few days in a single city, but it explores a larger, more diverse cast within that setting. Ellie and Joel return, along with Joel’s brother Tommy, but are nearly upstaged by new additions Dina and Jesse.
Neil Druckmann and Halley Gross’s script repeats the first game’s trick of imbuing even minor characters with more heart and soul than most AAA titles bother with for their protagonists. Sentence by sentence, moment by moment, this is the best-written big-budget game since at least God of War, and it’s that quality that will keep players invested through some otherwise familiar story beats.
That’s helped by the return of Gustavo Santaolalla on musical duties, playing with a familiar, albeit extended, palette. Music plays an even bigger part in the game through playable guitar sections. They’re admittedly a mixed bag, responsible for some of the game’s sweetest moments as well as one of its clunkiest missteps, but when it works it really works.
Improved motion capture and animation help make sure the emotional payload lands. You never quite forget that you’re watching animated characters rather than real-life actors (we’ll have to wait for the TV series for that), but the subtler touches of an eyebrow-raise here or a twitch there lend a weight to proceedings that few games manage.
There are missteps to the story along the way – most notably a slow-gestating faction war between the militaristic Washington Liberation Front and the cult-like Seraphites that takes too long to say anything deeper than ‘war is bad’.
But above all Naughty Dog knows how to treat its characters like people, and it’s this that elevates The Last of Us Part II to being one of this generation’s greats.
Loot, shoot, repeat
Of course, this is a game, not just a story, so it has to play well too.
Naughty Dog hasn’t reinvented the wheel here either, but instead polished its craft to a shine – perhaps helped by the decision to ditch multiplayer and focus all its attention on the campaign.
The immediate difference is that for the most part you play as Ellie, not Joel. That makes you smaller, quieter, and sneakier, but also faster and more agile. The result is a renewed emphasis on stealth, with an enhanced toolkit for stalking enemies, staying hidden, and getting the hell out of dodge when it all goes wrong.
That means crouching or crawling through grass to avoid detection, taking silent headshots with the bow or silenced pistol, and using smoke bombs or trip mines to keep enemies off your back – with a heavy swing of a spiked baseball bat as your backup.
Ultimately combat settles into a similar rhythm to the first game – sneak, kill, go guns blazing when all else fails – but there’s a little more variety along the way to that inevitable firefight.
The sort of enemies you’ll fight remain mostly the same as before – infected fungus zombies and groups of heavily armed humans – and if there’s a disappointment to the core gameplay loop it’s that there aren’t more new enemy types.
The only addition even worth mentioning is the hunting dogs, which will use Ellie’s scent to track her behind any cover. This forces you to stay on the move whenever dogs are in the area – no hunkering down to wait for stray goons to wander by – and throws in the added challenge of trying to simultaneously eliminate both a dog and its handler without giving yourself away to everyone else.
It goes without saying that fighting dogs eventually means killing dogs, and The Last of Us Part II doesn’t fall into the Uncharted trap separating story from combat. Yes, Ellie has to get violent – often unpleasantly so – but that is part of her arc across the story, as it builds you up to putting down whimpering dogs and executing unarmed combatants. This is not a game for the faint of heart, but it engages with that violence rather than quietly excusing it.
Improved enemy AI adds to the effect. One of the biggest shocks in the game for me came as I emptied my pistol firing at an enemy only for him to actually notice and shout to his buddies that I was out of ammo. Reader, I panicked.
Smarter enemies add more challenge of course, but the game mostly manages this well, with an ebb and flow of intense, challenging encounters and more manageable moments. Pacing as a whole is equally strong, with only a few missteps when it bogs Ellie down with an hours-long trudge across Seattle to get to the next plot point.
Finally, a shout out to difficulty’s awkward bedfellow: accessibility. Naughty Dog has really gone above and beyond in adding options to remap controls, tweak visuals and audio, and even account for those with colour blindness, motion sickness, and visual or auditory impairments. You can even access all those settings before the first cut-scene kicks in. None of this may affect you in the slightest, but it’s fantastic to see so many options there, and it’s something the industry should champion.
The Last of Us Part II is not a perfect game, and it’s not even a particularly revolutionary one. But it is a great game.
Naughty Dog has approached the sequel with a level of craftsmanship and detail that’s unusual in AAA, and from a writing standpoint alone this game is almost unmatched.
The Last of Us 2 is powerful, occasionally shocking, and often challenging to play – emotionally as well as in the more traditional sense. It’s not always enjoyable or fun, but it’s hard to imagine a worthier sequel to an all-time great.
Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn’t affect our editorial independence. Learn more.