So, I have played the long awaited sequel to Naughty Dog’s magisterial slice of harrowing character-driven survival horror The Last of Us, which I rhapsodised about back in 2013. Looking back, a lot of what I said about that game – the great character work and performances, the stunning detail of the setting, the wince-inducing violence and the gruelling darkness of the whole thing – more or less holds true for this one. I liked it a lot. Possibly not quite as much as the first, for reasons I will go into, but still, a lot.
I feel it has much in common with Red Dead Redemption 2. Both keenly anticipated sequels to hugely successful, important and beloved forebears, both lavished with an immensity of money and man hours. But where RDR 2 is the state of the art in open world, sprawling narrative, The Last of Us 2 is the current pinnacle of Naughty Dog’s more cinematic, ‘on rails’, story-focussed style.
As with the first game, emphasis is very much on character and atmosphere rather than gameplay per se. It’s survival horror in essence so you always feel pretty scared and vulnerable, with the odds long and the resources limited. There are certainly guns but ammunition is rare and the gunplay cumbersome and risky so sneaking around and knifing the enemy, or occasionally blowing them up with improvised explosives, is usually preferred. Still, stuff goes wrong, frequently, and encounters often end up in crunchingly brutal hand to hand exchanges with knife, bat, forehead or teeth.
There’s one early digression into a more open-worldy section but it’s slightly oddly never repeated, and most of the game – as the previous one did – moves through a succession of quite limited areas and encounters occasionally punctuated by conversations, flashbacks, and some awesomely intense cinematic action sequences. Naughty Dog have always been great at this, and some of these ones – a ride in an out of control car attacked by paramilitaries, a hand to hand fight with an axe-wielding giant, an unspeakable monstrosity in a hospital basement – left me with my jaw hanging open and the pad dangling from my hands. I’d have to pause and take a little walk to calm down.
I couldn’t play it for more than an hour or two at a time, which is rare for me. I’m not sure you could really call it ‘fun’. It is dark, dark, very dark, extremely, at times wince-inducingly violent, and dark. There is brutal main-character death and splatterpunk savagery. It is gruelling and harrowing. I was harrowed and gruelled. And you know me, that is my bag.
But was it all perfect? Well, I gotta talk about the story, now, so there will be SPOILERS.
They made the bold decision – and I applaud bold decisions, on the whole, even when they don’t entirely work – to essentially split the game in half. For the first half we follow Ellie on an increasingly bloody and destructive quest for vengeance. In the second half we switch to Abby, the target of said vengeance, and see some of the same events from her perspective. There were times when this was effective, times when it was frustrating. Abby’s story had some awesome set pieces but in the end my sympathy stayed much more with Ellie and in the second half I found myself – not bored – but sometimes not desperate to pick up the pad.
In the first game, the story seemed to flow absolutely naturally from the characters and the situation, right up to Joel’s brilliantly challenging and thought-provoking final decision to save Ellie whatever the price (which becomes the engine for the second game). In the second, well, less so. You sometimes feel that the writers have their thumb on the scales in service of points to be made. Would these people really do this thing? I dunno… That was particularly true of Abby’s half of the story.
The intent was obviously to humanise the antagonists and make you question you own actions etc, and there were times when that really worked, when you’d see the awful intersections between the two stories coming and think – oh god, this is going to be bad – and feel for the characters involved to a degree that is truly rare in gaming. But there were also times when they spooned the sentiment on a little thick. Oh no! That dog Ellie so thoughtlessly killed is actually a really good doggy! SHE HAD A CHEW TOY. The lady doth protest too much, methinks… And, in Abby’s sections particularly, the decisions felt all over the place. In saving one person she’d put others in danger in a way that didn’t seem very believable. The story, and the authorial intent, if you will, to wedge her onto a path towards redemption to contrast with Ellie’s path towards revenge, was pulling the characters around by the nose so that they could not convince as people and earn the emotional payoffs. Apologies for the pretentiousness. Imagine me saying it while spotlit on a stage in a tweed jacket with elbow patches. But, you know. Abby committed to heroically saving these two kids from the other side of a war, but then in order to do so turned on her own side and started dropping bodies all over the place. Did THOSE people not have chew toys? WHAT ABOUT THEIR CHEW TOYS, ABBY?
To go back to the comparison with Red Dead Redemption 2 – I felt that game was majestic in many ways but its attempts to do something profound were fatally hamstrung by the dated and disposable gameplay in which you’d gun down thousands of anonymous banditos without a backward glance. The Last of Us 2 also tries to be profound, and is much more successful, because the violence is much more costly and impactful, with a real sense of heft, damage and visceral peril, but there was still a certain dissonance there. After the steadily building, patient opening I was expecting plenty of face-offs with the infected, but violent encounters with other humans to be rare and horrible. When Ellie carved up her first human patrol I was a bit bemused. I mean it was perfectly effective from a gameplay perspective, but from an emotional one it was deflating. On the one hand the game worked almost too hard to say – ‘these people that you have made your enemies are just people too, with their hopes and dreams and complexities, and killing them is, like, bad,’ but on the other it would then serve up half a dozen goons and invite you to knife their asses with extreme prejudice and SHIT look at the physics on that arterial spurt! I can see Ellie’s face in the blood puddle!
There’s definitely an argument that while the first game just let its characters do the talking, this one got a wee bit carried away with its own artistic mission. On the macro, story-level, there were mis-steps, though far from fatal ones. But on the micro, behaviour-level, it’s a fucking masterpiece.
The dialogue was, at times, great. Patient, understated, full of inferences and things not said, and the way they’d fill in blanks in flashback, put things in slightly different context right up to the end, was really clever. Some of the best parts of the game were where you were just watching these patient interactions, full of solemn weight and touches of humanity. The performances, and the capture of those performances, were brilliant. The characters didn’t just have their own style, believable hair and configurations of freckles they had their own whole body language, and one that would develop as the game developed. Ellie was all coiled spring sinewy menace. Abby was tank-like chunky purpose. The sound design was amazing. First game I ever played through headphones (partly because of the ridiculous amount of noise my PS4 was creating the whole time) and the music, the footsteps, the horrible rattling of the infected, right down to Abby’s scared breathing whenever she got close to a long drop, created an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension at times.
The attention to detail, in every area. Every upgrade to every gun has its own lavish animation with accompanying sound effects. The way the characters change over time, get torn and blood-stained, bruised and beaten up externally as they go through the emotional wringer. Just as an example, after Abby’s been tied up at one point she has noticeable ligature marks on her wrists. Ellie’s face changes in a meticulously believable way as she goes from child to teenager to young woman. Abby’s body changes, from this preppy young athlete in flashback, to this iron-pumping bruiser in the present. She is a rare (dare one say unique) video game heroine who really looks like she could punch your head off. When she reappears at the very end, horribly and almost unrecognisably withered, it’s genuinely shocking. You don’t need to know what’s happened. You can just see it, instantly. Ellie sees it too, and the desire for righteous vengeance just drains straight out of her. The sickening final fight, in which you have to beat up this ravaged, shivering ghost, was where the game’s sometimes rather cumbersome efforts to get you to sympathise with both sides of the story really paid off. The conclusion, though it didn’t quite reach the thought-provoking heights of the first game, still offered a welcome glimpse of bittersweet redemption after wading through a sea of gruelling darkness.
Maybe this game is an object lesson in how big things are made of little things. It’s the detail, and the scrupulous attention to the detail, that elevates it. The sound design, and the meticulous work on the settings, and the precision of the characters’ reactions and behaviour. It makes what is relatively straightforward and unoriginal gameplay tense and involving. It fills what could be a dour and repetitive setting with meaning and atmosphere. It elevates what might at times be a slightly clunky and manipulative story so that it still produces moments of real warmth, fear, and high drama.