The first Last of Us is considered as one of the best games on the PS3, and of all time by some folks. In fact, I consider The Last of Us to be one of the best games I’ve ever played. Sure, it’s not what you’d call innovative in terms of both gameplay and setting; I mean, post-apocalyptic zombie games aren’t exactly new. But what the game does is offer a solid gameplay experience that perfectly complements the story that it tells—and what a tale it is! The journey of Joel and Ellie is no doubt one of the best stories I, and a lot of other gamers have experienced. And while their journey was memorable, it was its thought-provoking ending that truly made it a game for the ages.

TLOU had some (fairly minor) flaws for sure, but as an experience, it is pretty much perfect. Given this, The Last of Us Part II is already at a disadvantage; not only must it justify continuing Joel and Ellie’s story, but if it were to have the same impact as its predecessor, it must also stand on its own right and further improve upon what made the first game as great as it is.

In making a Part II for such a beloved game, the odds were stacked heavily against Naughty Dog. But according to director Neil Druckmann, the team had landed on a concept that “felt thrilling and intrinsic to the world of The Last of Us,” and more importantly, they had “a story that needed to be told.”

After finishing the game, I’d have to agree.

(Note: This review does not contain story spoilers)

 

A Tale Worth Telling

With how perfectly the first game ended, it’s hard to imagine how Part II could offer a story that can match it. But with The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog was able to tell a narrative that continues Joel and Ellie’s story in a way that makes sense within the game’s world, all while being bolder and having much more to say.

In many ways, The Last of Us Part II tells a more ambitious tale than the first, and that results in a bit of an issue in how the game flows at some points. That’s not to say there are some glaring pacing issues; in fact, Part II is still strongly paced for the most part, even when compared with other cinematic triple-A titles. It’s just that first game’s story was pitch-perfect, so it’s hard not to compare them.

While Part II does lack the brevity of the first, it more than makes up for it thematically. If the first game tackled hope in a hopelessly brutal world, Part II in a way doubles down on the world’s darkness. With central themes such as revenge, tribalism, and obsession, The Last of Us Part II is a heavy game, even more so than the first. Make no mistake though, Part II isn’t just all doom and gloom; there are some positive moments, it’s just that the game goes to much darker places during its over 20-hour runtime.

It is these various themes of Part II that make it more impressive than Part I, at least from a storytelling perspective. Sure, the first game packs a powerful emotional punch, but Part II’s story operates on a different level. Much in the same way as some films explore themes that are resonant with our lives today, The Last of Us Part II delves into several ideas and situations that have meaning which extends beyond its own world and into ours.

In this regard, The Last of Us Part II is similar to games such as God of War (which explores fatherhood) and Death Stranding (a game all about connections). But it is set apart by the fact that alongside its main theme of revenge, it juggles multiple others which are very much relevant today. Even with all that the game tries to tackle, The Last of Us Part II does justice to all these themes.

The game’s narrative isn’t just incredible just because of the real-world parallels that it draws, it’s also an expertly told story in its own right. Without going into specific details of the plot, Part II tells a riveting story with a bigger scale than the first. It’s also filled with complex characters, each of which have even more relationships. And while some choices in the story may not be to the liking of some fans, everything in the story make sense in the context of its world; and most importantly, the story does nearly all its characters justice.

Judging on story alone, Part II is larger in both scope and strength than the first. But what about gameplay? Well, The Last of Us Part II might just be Naughty Dog’s best “game” in over a decade.

 

Elevated Combat

Ever since the release of the first Uncharted back in 2007, Naughty Dog has become well-known worldwide as one of the leading developers of cinematic action games that can be described as “playable movies.” While Naughty Dog’s games over the past decade have been acclaimed for sure, they’re not exactly praised for gameplay alone. Even the first Last of Us, while it has tense combat that complemented its story well, it still played a more supporting role to the narrative. With Part II though, combat is just, better.

At its core, The Last of Us Part II plays similarly to the first game in that players must get through enemy encounters either stealthily or loudly, all while crafting items on the fly and having only limited ammunition. After facing off against either humans or infected, players are then free to loot for ammo and equipment which can help them in their next enemy encounter. At some points, you are also able to upgrade some of your skills and/or weapons to aid you in combat. Even though Part II has a similar gameplay loop first, the game has new mechanics, much improved enemy AI, and outstanding level design, all of which elevate the combat to something truly special.

Firstly, the game now allows players to crawl, as well as slip through tight spaces while in combat. These add a whole lot of depth to fights as you are given more options to quietly move past enemies or to help you evade a firefight. When you do get into a melee with foes, there is now a dedicated dodge button, adding another layer of complexity to the combat system.

Meanwhile, TLOU2’s human enemies react way more realistically now compared to the first. In Part I, enemies are either unaware of your presence, or know where you are exactly and hunt you down. This makes the combat two-dimensional—either you’re in full stealth or you’re in an all-out firefight. In Part II though, enemies have a middle state where they have an idea where you are, but they don’t know exactly. This scenario happens when you silently kill an enemy while another is nearby, or if a foe runs into someone you just killed.

Because enemies react as you would expect actual humans do, it makes “ghosting” an encounter difficult, though still doable if you have a lot of patience (and the right items). If you do get spotted, it’s not the end of the world as you often have a chance to escape and re-enter stealth, provided you don’t get surrounded; in the game, foes are smart enough to flank and surround you when in a firefight. Once you re-enter stealth though, you should still keep your guard up as enemies in this game will not conveniently forget your presence like in other stealth games. What makes it even more difficult is that they peek corners properly, and even search underneath hiding spots when hunting you down. Facing off against people in this game is incredibly tense throughout.

Given how smart humans are in this game, my preferred playstyle for a lot of these encounters was “guerilla style,” meaning I try to take down a couple of enemies and then run to re-enter stealth. While this worked for a lot of situations, some I was able to fully stealth through, while others I just made a run for it (as you don’t have to kill everyone to progress). It all depended on what types of enemies I was facing. For example, WLF soldiers have dogs with them which can track your scent, making stealth a major challenge. Meanwhile, Scars (another human group) use quieter weapons such as bows, plus they have a tendency of charging at you with melee weapons.

Aside from what foes you meet, the level design of each encounter also plays a role in how you can approach combat. In some levels, there are lots of tall grass which you can crouch or crawl through to keep you hidden. Meanwhile, there are areas without much hiding spots, so you might be forced into a firefight. Even with how varied the levels are, what they have in common is that they’re large and give you lots of freedom to choose your approach. In a way, each encounter is like a combat sandbox, a stressful and tense sandbox that is.

Based on combat against humans alone, The Last of Us 2 is already an incredible game, but that’s not even mentioning the Infected. In this game, the world is still populated by the Infected, and they’re even more fearsome than in the first installment.

Sure, the Infected may not be as smart as humans, but they’re way more ferocious. The types of Infected you will run into include the standard Runners, blind-but-deadly Clickers, and Stalkers–a type of Infected that stalk and wait for the prime opportunity to strike. There is also the new Infected type called Shamblers; these foes are heavily armored and attack by releasing acidic spores into the air. Alongside these, there also other, more fearsome types of Infected.

Because of their unsettling designs and vicious attacks, facing off against Infected is often a stressful experience. But what makes them even more terrifying is the fact that levels are designed in such a way to maximize the tension that you’ll feel. It’s tough to explain without going into spoiler territory, but rest assured, The Last of Us Part II is even scarier than the first.

 

A Technical Masterclass

Along with having a gripping story and equally impressive gameplay, The Last of Us Part II is a technical marvel. Firstly, the facial and body animations of characters are just incredible, helping immerse a player in the game’s world and story. These realistic animations also make the game’s brutal violence hit much harder. While the level of violence in this game may be a bit too much for more squeamish folks, it was made as it is to further add impact to the characters actions (at least in my eyes).

Then there’s graphics. The Last of Us Part II is not just Naughty Dog’s best-looking game to-date, it might also just be the best-looking game on the PS4 right now. Sure, it may not be as colorful and awe-inspiring as some vistas in Uncharted 4 or Horizon Zero Dawn, but the Last of Us Part might just have all other PS4 games beat when it comes to realism and detail. Take note, I played this game on a base PS4, and I was already impressed. Plus, it ran smoothly and with practically no hitches on my console.

Animation and graphics aside, the game continues to impress. From effective sound design to moving vocal/motion performances, nearly everything about the game from a technical standpoint is amazing. The only real issue that I ran into while playing the game was when there are AI companions. While allies are oftentimes helpful when around, they do sometimes get into the line of sight of some enemies but aren’t spotted. This does take away from the immersion a bit, but it doesn’t happen often enough to ruin the gameplay experience.

 

Final Verdict – 9.5/10

Does The Last of Us Part II live up to its beloved predecessor? Not only does it live up to TLOU 1, it even exceeds it at some points. Story-wise, Part II is more ambitious, larger in scale, and has stronger themes than its predecessor. And while it may not flow as perfectly as the first game, TLOU 2’s story is still expertly crafted and told.

As for combat, Part II is a major upgrade over the first, all while retaining what made it great in the first place. Every encounter is filled with tension, perfect for both the game’s world and the story that it tells. And finally, the game is a near-masterpiece technically.

Overall, The Last of Us Part II succeeds in both being a follow-up to a modern classic, as well as a game that can stand as an incredible achievement in its own right. There is no doubt that The Last of Us Part II is one of the best and most moving games I have ever played not only this year, but in this console generation.

*This game was reviewed using a PlayStation 4 Slim via a review copy sent by Sony Interactive Entertainment Singapore.

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