by Tez Mercer
All images are from the Photo Mode available in the game, some spoilers may occur in either the text or the pics. Sorry.
Pulling an arrow out of my thigh, nearly-invisible killers drawing close through a dense, sodden thicket of ferns and overgrown brush, with the rain pounding and inhuman whistling screeching through the air as they search for their prey, I’ve fallen in love with The Last of Us 2.
I’ve completed it twice now. Writing a review after the first time wouldn’t have been fair. The game leaves you cold, numb, and quietly broken in a way I didn’t expect, or indeed think was possible from a vidya game. The ending is not an epic cliff-hanger of cosmic scale; it’s a quietly personal and sombre reflection on the choices made by the 2 main protagonists of this game, Ellie and Abby, and how love can be a cage of our own making.
In TLOU2 Ellie is now a 19 year old woman living in a sort of commune in Jackson, Wyoming, a place occupied by refugees of the outbreak and fortified against outside attack from either our old friends the clickers (the colloquial term for those infected with the virus that broke out in TLOU1), or marauding bandits. Ellie is changed from the young woman in part 1. The smirks and the wisecracks are almost all gone, replaced by a weariness of the constant struggles of being in this world where everything we take for granted – coffee, watching a movie, going shopping, getting from A to B safely and quickly – is now fraught with lethal danger. That’s not to say she’s gone Emo and is no longer a badass, if anything she’s a more capable assassin than ever before and TLOU2 plumbs the depths of brutality and gratuitous unnerving violence more thoroughly than any game I can remember of recent times.
Along the way you’ll ride a horse through snowy tundra, explore an abandoned and ruined Seattle where nature has begun to reclaim that which humanity carved out for itself, run from infected, snipe people from a cliff, play some guitar chords, see corpses hanging from various things, drive a boat, eat a burrito, and probably soil your underwear.
I’ll get the negatives out of the way here. It’s a short section don’t worry. The game isn’t technically perfect. TLOU2 does suffer from some annoying gameplay issues, such as the newly included, and utterly pointless, jump button. There are a couple of moments where you need to jump from platform A to platform B, but they only seem to exist to justify the inclusion of this button, Naughty Dog could easily have just put a plank there to bridge the gap and call it done but instead it’s just pushing X to leap across a small gap.
Sometimes during the game the collision detection goes wonky and the environment (walls, floor, sky) disappears. This happened a couple of times about 2/3rds in where, as Ellie, you’re attempting to navigate through an old carpark which is now a stronghold of a cult devoted to some strange messiah figure. This clipping problem isn’t a huge deal, and it’s generally weeded out during playtesting but I was admittedly surprised to see it happen in TLOU2, possibly the most eagerly anticipated PS4 game of the decade.
Some other things however are just bullshit. 100% video gamey bullshit. There’s a bit in the game where you clear a building, initiate a set-piece and have to escape, during that escape a van screeches to a halt in front of you, cutting off your path, 4 goons get out and open fire as you dive for cover. Awesome, I thought, let’s get to it and take them out. I crawl through some long grass to avoid detection, popping up at strategic locations and pick these guys off one at a time and they don’t even know where I’m coming from. Fantastic. Problem solved and I feel like a badass for mastering the controls and the gameplay to achieve what I pulled off. But then, just as I’m feeling pretty good about how accurate and composed I was, another 4 goons respawn in the same place. We repeat the process because there must be a van or transport out of my line of sight so I take them out too. That’s a few bullets used for now but what the hey. Then another 4 guys appear from behind the same van and it twigs: They’re just endlessly respawning. The game is saying “hey, you should run through this section”. No matter how good you are and no matter how you want to play the game you’re railroaded into this path of action you didn’t want to take and whenever the word “should” is mentioned it comes with the backdrop of “according to whom” and in this instance, Naughty Dog is mandating the play style. Not cool. Now, I know, it’s not egregious, none of these issues are to be fair and while it’s not exactly pissing in my cornflakes and making me chow it down it is disregarding the choices made as a player for no real reason. Happily this is the only section I noticed this happening.
These are about the only real moments where the game actually fails on a technical level. There’s a pleasing lack of being shot through walls, or missing clues, or getting lost, or wondering what to do next and the new improved Photo Mode is a joy and one of the best implementations so far. The graphics are very very good. You can see videos if you want to see but Naughty Dog have excelled themselves with their texture work, lighting, and detail present in the most mundane of things. That, coupled with the fantastic sound/audio production make TLOU2 feel like a deeply fleshed-out world that suffered a great tragedy leaving a few ragtag survivors behind to sift through the pieces.
Like the first game, the gameplay of the sequel is linear in nature with only a single open-world section near the beginning to suggest otherwise but generally speaking TLOU games work in the same order as a million other games: You get some story, that leads to a set piece environment where you solve a problem to progress to the next bit of story, that leads you to the next set piece and so on and so forth. Nothing really revolutionary in narrative structure to report but that’s really quite ok as long as the story is a good one. Rest assured that that is the case, despite everything you may have read. The set pieces in TLOU generally revolve around clearing a given area of bad guys before you can progress through the next section. Some encounters can be bypassed with stealth and guile but let’s be honest, combat is more fun.
Since resources like ammunition, health kits, and lures (glass bottles and bricks designed to make a noise to attract attention) are limited throughout the game you need to be sparing with their expenditure. This means that while you can wade into a firefight in a blaze of bullets and Molotovs, you’ll be hearing that hollow click of an empty chamber sooner rather than later and the bad guys will kill you. Patience is the key.
Naughty Dog have emphasised the stealth mechanic in TLOU2 and allowed the utilisation of the environment to levels that weren’t present in the first game. Here you can army crawl through long grass, hide or move under objects like vehicles, nimbly vault through window frames to get the drop on your opponent, craft silencers from discarded parts. It’s gratifying, adrenalising, and absorbing as you stalk your hunters through a fantastically designed arena and dispatch them one by one, and as soon as they realise what’s happening, they’re dispatched with merciless efficiency. These are the sections that make me love TLOU2: long protracted encounters where you can strategise, plan, execute, and see that plan pay off as you clear an area of bad guys and gain their supplies without so much as a scratch.
To call the violence brutal would be reductive. It’s efficient, cold, savage, and occasionally difficult to watch. TLOU has never been a series afraid to show the effects of extreme violence. After all it’s a game in which you can upgrade your baseball bat by taping a pair of broken scissors to the end so it kills things faster. But whereas TLOU1 was almost cartoonish in its presentation, TLOU2 is more visceral, bordering on gratuitous. It’s stabbing a knife into someone’s throat while covering their mouth to muffle any screams as they squirm in pain then wiping the blade clean of blood on their clothes with a grimace as you move on to the next one. It’s hateful vengeance enacted on easy prey whose only crime was being there that leaves you questioning why it needs to be this way. Such relentless hate and murder and carnage and death.
And that my friends, is the point of TLOU2. It’s not a game about violence and searching through long-forgotten office blocks for that last bit of ammo or bandages, it’s a story about love, loss, grief, and a mourning that strips the joy out of a person and leaves them callous and bitter, struggling to find, or even care about, the humanity which was savagely torn away. It’s not a game about happy endings and a better world, it’s arguable that even after all Ellie’s been through she’s no better off than before because she never really dealt with anything on a personal level, just externalised her loss in pushing the only people close to her further away and losing the things most dear to her, all in the name of revenge. But then again, that revenge is the only fuel she has left and without it, what’s left but to grieve and to accept not only the past but what you’ve done?
There’s a section in this game when I realised Naughty Dog were better at writing a story than I gave them credit for. It’s the section with Nora. Nora is one of a group of people Ellie is hunting for information. Eventually Ellie corners Nora, lead pipe in hand and needs to get the information out of her. Nora isn’t telling.
You know where this is going.
Now instead of skipping this, or witnessing the impact, the camera is focused on Ellie and the toll this is having on her. As her arm comes back you see the realisation on Ellie’s face that this is dreadfully and horrifically wrong, the guilt at taking a life of someone who isn’t really involved and someone who is also defenceless, but just as this feeling creeps in and the sympathy arrives it is burned away by the grief and the rage that she thinks justifies what she’s doing. The eyes light up and the pipe swings down.
A few seconds later the scene has changed and Ellie is returning to Dina in the abandoned theatre they’ve turned into a little basecamp. Ellie is silent, shivering, soaked in blood and staring into the middle distance. A walking case of PTSD barely keeping herself together. You can see the cracks in the armour with the slouch in the shoulders, in the wide eyes, she’s humanised in all its broken glory. It’s magnificent honestly, tremendously acted and heavy with a raw broken heart and leaves you thinking “fucking hell, was it really worth it?”
TLOU2 is an imperfect masterpiece. It does suffer from some pacing issues, some technical problems, some terrible AI where a patrol route consists of staring at the same patch of wall for 10 minutes, but what it achieves to reach inside you and pull the dry cracked strings of your heart and make you ask yourself big questions about the cost and the value of a human life and a human soul and showing us the paths where love and hate can take those not paying attention is nothing short of masterful.