Ellie Joel

Editor’s note: The Reviewer Samuel Rivera, Played 25 hours, and 12 minutes of the game (From the opening Scene to the end of the credits), he didn’t read any other reviews of the game prior to writing his own, even though he knew the Metacritic Score for the game was 96 at the time he started playing it.

The Last of Us: Part II – or at least the prospect of its eventual existence – was the single most powerful reason why I bought a PS4 (over the Xbox One) at launch.  The original game was – as much as the term has been used in many descriptions of the game – a ‘Masterpiece’, and perhaps, in terms of storytelling; The greatest game ever made.

The Last of Us, a ‘Zombie game’ set in a post apocalyptic world, was nothing new in terms of its premise. Games such as Resident Evil, and films like “I Am Legend” (which the game partially took some inspiration from), amongst a sea of other – Zombie related – media had already explored the theme to no end.

Even gameplay wise, The Last of Us was mainly a further refinement of the 3rd person action formula pioneered by Resident Evil 4 back in 2005. While many would compare the Last of Us to Naughty Dog’s own Uncharted Series (as both are siblings within the same genre), the one series is more about Grandeur and blazing spectacle ( Uncharted), while the other franchise is about Gritty Realism, and its character driven narrative.

Ellie and Dina
Character development and interaction remains unmatched.

The Last of Us was not only the greatest looking game last-gen (though that point is arguable), but it was also the first game in the medium’s history that presented a main cast in Ellie and Joel that rivaled the writing of the best that Hollywood filmmaking had to offer.

The Last of Us is considered by many to be the defining game of the prior generation. The game was such a benchmark that even great games like God of War (a masterpiece itself) borrowed a lot from Naughty Dog’s PS3 finale. All of these accolades set the bar impossibly high for Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us: Part II, but somehow it is a bar that the game manages to vault over in style.

Another Generation Defining Experience

I had to wait seven years to play the conclusion of Ellie and Joel’s journey, and the TLoU2 was well worth the wait. There is a sense of near artistic perfection in every corner of the game’s world. From the amazing character design and modeling, to the absolute exquisiteness of the game’s soundtrack. No detail has been spared.

There are no better, more realistic character models, than those presented in this game. The cutscenes (all done in the in-game engine) are fantastic, but what is truly astonishing is the animation work done during the regular gameplay segments of the game.

The main cast’s facial expressions are meticulously detailed, down to the eye movements (something that pretty much every other game not made by Naughty Dog has gotten wrong). Character physical movement is flawless. The game runs at a solid (mostly) 30fps, but the animation is so fluid (coupled with Naughty Dog’s use of motion blur) that the characters move as smoothly as a game twice its frame-rate.

Ellie Ingame
Yes, this is an in-game model, this was captured using the photo mode during actual gameplay. It is next gen visual fidelity running on a base PS4. Mesmerizing….

Perhaps the most impressive thing here is that this game is running on 2013 hardware. The base PS4 is 7 years old, and has a measly 1.8 Tflop GPU. Naughty has clearly crafted visuals in this game that will not be surpassed until the next generation of consoles arrive, and even then, it will be quite a task to animate characters that live up to the standard that Naughty Dog has set here.

The Last of Us: Part II sets a standard in video game Storytelling (just like its predecessor did 7 years ago), and it does so – in part – because the characters are so realistic looking (and sounding), that it only took a few seconds after the game booted up to make me forget that I was watching computer rendered human models. Ellie looks and feels as real as any human person that I have ever seen in film or – dare I say – in real life.

It is a Gritty World

If there has ever been a game that more than justified its M rating, that game is The Last of Us: Part II. Apart from some brave themes, foul language, and some nudity, it is the violent nature of the combat and gory cut scenes in the game, that deliver some of the most stunning shock and awe moments that I have ever experienced as a gamer during its 25-hour long journey.

The Resident Evil Remakes have been pretty gory, as has been Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 (the only game that comes close to matching the visual splendor presented here), but everything feels more ‘up close and personal’ here. Every head shot (from a firearm) caused a realistic, yet visually pleasing bloody splatter on enemies that fell victim to my shooting prowess. Melee weapons are deadly instruments of close combat destruction, and I could literally feel enemy bones breaking as I smashed and hacked away in order to eliminate them.

At one point, there was one human enemy whose face I sliced with a scythe, and I could see his jaw flapping about, showing the exposed bones and teeth protruding through the gory wound. The shock value of the gory scenes is not always a consequence of inflicted damage in a ‘one way’ manner  (Character to enemy).

I found particularly shocking – if a little disturbing – watching female characters get beat in violent fashion. Perhaps I am on the minority here, but I had to grit my teeth in a few of those scenes. I just  cannot recall another film, much less a game where a female character is so graphically beaten up.

Hurt Ellie
The Last of Us Part II pushes the boundaries of violence in Video Games.

Considering that I am a fan of violent television series like Game of Thrones, and Spartacus, it is a true testament to how realistic the game looks, that I was actually left a bit awe struck by some of the more violent scenes. Let us just say that when someone gets punched in the Last of Us: Part II, you can almost feel the punch yourself as an spectator because everything is so visually explicit.

It is Also a Beautiful World

sundown in wyoming
Photo provided and taken by my wife in the game’s photo mode … The Last of Us Part II can be gritty and brutal, but also tranquil, and stunningly beautiful.

Uncharted 4 might have some of the most amazing vistas of any game to date, but it falls short of the gritty realism and almost personal beauty that graces every locale in this game. There are times where I was truly astounded by the beauty of the world, such as an early horse ride with Joel in which the sun was setting, and its rays were influencing the colors of the foliage as they pierced through the trees and their leaves. It was just a gorgeous sight to behold.

My Wife, a Wedding Photographer, who is mostly indifferent to video games forced me to go into the game’s Photo mode at that point so that she could snap a shot of that beautiful, tranquil, and yet, grandiose moment.

I want to make note of the fact that the only game that she has ever played ( or more like watched me play in its entirety) with me prior to The Last of Us Part II, had been ( you guessed it) the original The Last of Us. She found Ellie’s and Joel’s plight (and their depth as characters) to be as engrossing as any of her favorite TV shows, and that’s high praise indeed from someone who doesn’t like video games.

TLoU2 has some of the best snow and particle deformation effects I have seen in a game. Again, only RDR2 awed me as much. The foliage looks fantastic, and from what I can tell it is the most realistic looking implementation of it that I have seen in a video game so far. I can say the same about the fantastic water effects and underwater scenery.

Last of Us Horse Riding
Only RDR2 comes close to matching the game’s visual splendor and attention to detail.

Wyoming’s outdoor environments have some of the most fantastic vistas in the game, and yet it is in the meticulously detailed building interiors where the game shines. Considering that a vast amount of time is spent cutting through abandoned buildings and houses on downtown and suburban Seattle, it is nice that no detail was spared when designing these locales.

Coffeemakers, house ornaments, TVs, wooden and tiled floors etc. Everything looks lived in, and in the proper shape that a building would be in after years at the mercy of the elements because of the lack of human maintenance as a direct result of a zombie apocalypse.

The visual package has no flaws that are not there as a direct consequence of the game having been made with the base PS4 hardware in mind. It is all around, the best-looking game that I have played on this generation of consoles.

THe Last of US Part II water
Some of, if not the best water effects that I have ever laid eyes upon.

All that said, I have one minor complaint. There is a noticeable film grain effect on this game. I know, this was an artistic decision made by Naughty Dog, and you can even remove the effect while in Photo Mode. Removing the effect makes the game look so much prettier, and cleaner, that I really wish Naughty Dog patches into the game an option that allows the player to remove the effect altogether during actual gameplay in a future update.

As it is, turning down the sharpness setting my HDTV to zero, and fiddling around with the in game  HDR settings makes the effect much less notable. Playing on a 32 inch 1080p HDTV made the effect even less noticeable, but I wouldn’t trade the HDR experience for less film grain, so I stuck with a 4K TV with HDR enabled for the majority of my time with the game.

The New Benchmark in Storytelling…In Any Entertainment Medium?

Angry Joel
The game is far more dramatic than its predecessor.

I want to say yes, but ‘The Road’, another film in which this game series was partially inspired on, still evokes powerful feelings of despair, and sadness in me, especially after becoming a parent. So, I will say that TLoU 2 is the new benchmark in storytelling – easily – as far as the video gaming industry goes.

You will not find a more powerful and moving character driven story anywhere. The writing is just too good, the voice acting and accompanying character modeling, and animation just too spectacular. I get the feeling that there will not be another experience quite like this until Naughty Dog decides to either make The Last of Us: Part III or some other game.

Just google about the game’s long and storied development and read about the hours, and care that went into this game’s storyline. You will find that there is no one, absolutely no one, in the industry right now that is doing the kind of things that Naughty Dog did in this game. Games like Horizon Zero Dawn, and the new God of War have gone to  great lengths in order to deliver amazingly good story lines, but their characters (as great as they are) are still ‘just’ fictional characters, and the illusion is never broken. You are still playing a video game.

The same happens with Final Fantasy VIIR. Its cast is legendary, at one time (1997) FFVII set the benchmark in video game storytelling, but game writing has evolved much since then.  Video game stories in those days were written by members of the development team that were chosen for the task as they showed both; creativity and aptitude for writing in comparison to the rest of the development team. By contrast, modern gaming has professional writers involved in every aspect of storytelling, and Naughty Dog seems to have the best of the best working for them.

Bloody Ellie
Ellie has to be the most convincing character that has ever graced a video game.

Aeris, and Cloud will always be legendary – if iconic – characters, but it took some imagination to make them “real” in my eyes back in 1997, and even today it takes some imagination to try to “make myself believe” that they are real, as I play the Remake. Quite simply, they are video game characters, and that fact never escapes the mind.

The Last of Us: Part II has no such issues. Joel, Tommy, Dina and Ellie all seemed real to me during most, if not all, of my playthrough. Ellie, most notably, must be the greatest, and deepest character that I have ever controlled in a game. It is not even close, nothing comes close. Ellie was real, her pain, her hate, her confusion, her soul…did I just say ‘soul’? Yes, she has a soul (or at least ND convinced me she did), you can see it in her eyes, she is no less real than a great actress on a film or a TV series.

The illusion of Ellie being alive is created by the perfect blend of her voice acting, and motion capture work (ironically performed by a great actress in Ashley Johnson), coupled with the fantastic job of Naughty Dog’s animators and their unmatched artistry. Then, to top it off, the writing for the Dialog lines that Ellie and every character in the game speaks is by far the best in the industry.  It is unreal that Ellie can be so real, and as such, the game’s story only benefits from it.

Quite simply, everyone in the gaming industry can learn a lot from the way that Naughty Dog tells stories. The characters are the driving force, and the way the company develops their characters is unrivaled. Even the film industry should take notes, The Last of Us Part II is so amazing in this area that I feel sorry for the director (and writers) that have to make the rumored HBO series based on the game. Quite frankly, I do not know how anyone can top what Neil Druckmann and Naughty Dog have done here.

The Great Gamble

While I have not read reviews, I couldn’t escape some of the negative comments on social media from a very few (but very vocal) disgruntled individuals that are attacking the game’s storyline. I assume these people fall into two camps: Those who are just trolling and have not played the game, and those who did and might be frustrated that things didn’t turn out as they expected.

Naughty Dog took a massive risk storytelling wise about midway through the game (12-15 mark). It was a such a massive gamble, that I, as a fiction writer myself, had to sit back for a moment in order to analyze the bold move taken by Druckmann at what seemed to be the climax of the game in order to truly appreciate what a marvelous move it was indeed.

The problem is that the storytelling twist’s brilliance isn’t apparent until 6-8 hours after it takes place. I was a bit disappointed myself for a few hours after the twist, as it seemed that Naughty Dog had taken me to the highest of highs in what seemed to be the climactic moment of the tale, to suddenly drop me to the lowest of lows in the span of a few seconds.

Some divisive decisions were made in regards to the game’s story. The game is better for it.

A lot of the bashers/trolls in the ‘user review’ sections all over the web must have played the game up to that point, and then chugged along for a few more hours before deciding that they were going to go Online to bash the game because Naughty Dog had flipped the script on them. There is no other explanation for the negativity of some of the comments. Small plot holes, and ‘flaws’ inherent to the fact that the game is a work of science fiction set in a post apocalyptic zombie world were brought to the forefront, even though they bear no weight on the actual character development on the game.

ND’s writers understand Psychology – the inner workings of the human mind – and gamers have to play all the way up to the game’s outstanding finale in order to grasp how – truly – great TLoU2 really is. I can’t recall the last time that in the span of 25 hours I felt nostalgia, despair, sadness, intense hatred, confusion, some semblance of empathy, hatred again, a feeling of emptiness only to burst into tears towards the end of the roller coaster ride because I knew that I wanted to do something very evil, and yet it wasn’t the right thing to do, and as such, I had foreseen that in order to end the entire ordeal, I had to give up on the hatred that had driven me to that very place of madness in the first place. Except that sadly, I couldn’t really let go of part of the hatred. To be honest, I felt ashamed, as a personal character flaw of my own was exposed by the game.

I can’t recall the last time I felt such a collection of emotions in such a short period of time. I can’t recall it, because I have never felt anything like that before. No film, or TV series, much less a game has ever driven me to that point.

Some People Just Want a Revenge Story

Ellie Joel

Not me, though I was certain that I wanted just that during the first 15 hours of my playthrough. In fact, during my last 10 hours of game time, I still felt the need for a good revenge story even if I was having doubts (about whether the act of carrying out said revenge was the correct thing to do), but then the last 20 minutes happened. I can’t go into detail, as I don’t want to spoil the story, but let’s just say that it was the most emotional moment that I have had in 31 years of playing video games.

I can’t understand how someone could dislike the story based solely on how things unfolded after the 15-hour mark. Psychology is such an interesting subject; it is fascinating to study why people say, and do the things they do. Their reasons, their motivations, etc. The Last of Us Part II plays with our own mind throughout, and the end result is a one of a kind experience that everyone should play at least once.

Under All of its Glorious Presentation it Remains an Excellent 3rd Person Action Game

The over the shoulder third person perspective has been used in games since Resident Evil 4 introduced that style of gameplay in 2005. The Last of Us didn’t reinvent the wheel, it was a slow paced game 3rd person shooter with stealth elements, and a lot of on the fly item scavenging and crafting.

The Last of Us: Part II builds upon that formula, with a greater array of weapons ranging from bows, to crossbows, to flamethrowers. Most weapons can be upgraded by collecting scrap materials around the world, and utilizing a workbench.

Items are at a premium and item slots are limited. So, utilizing head shots and more importantly stealth, is the key to succeeding in the game.

Stealth however, is more important this time around as enemies are much tougher and smarter than before. Once an enemy spots Ellie, he will call out for help and others will arrive to flank her. At normal difficulty, enemies will show remarkable marksmanship and environmental awareness. The combat is just much tougher than it was before.

The Infected enemies are also faster and deadlier. I found myself dying repeatedly in some of the indoor battles in which I had to fend off a larger number of runners, in combination with clickers and a new type of infected enemy called Shamblers.

Some enemies are truly terrifying and proper use of the dodge button, and melee weapons are the difference between life and death.

The game forces you to assess your surroundings and enemy positions by using the “Listen Mode” often in order to stealth attack your way through these skirmishes. Failure to utilize stealth can result in a quick death as ammo is scarce and enemies can take some punishment before going down (runners still drop with head shots, but can take plenty of body shots).

On normal difficulty the game is beatable, but I had all sorts of trouble with one of the bigger infected bosses. The boss could take a massive amount of punishment, and stray infected mutated humans would sometimes grab you making it impossible to get away from said boss. Everything was made more frustrating by the fact that the boss would, for the most part, kill my character as soon as it grabbed ahold of it.

Stealth is the key to surviving and conserving ammo. Ellie is quite the Navy Seal when handled properly.

Repetition and getting lucky with the auto-saves were key in these scenarios. Still, there is not much to complain about here. The game clearly raises the bar in terms of combat by presenting  smarter, and more efficient enemies.

Scavenging, and the crafting of items remains a staple of the series, and the system is more or less the same as it was in the first game, except that now there are more variety of weapons that can be crafted and upgraded.

A Wider World

Seattle is bigger than any previous Naughty Dog game’s setting.

As I stated before, the game has a running time of approximately 25 hours, that’s about 10 more hours than the first title. The reason for this, is the obviously longer, and more detailed story, but also the larger settings.

The Last of Us was largely linear in everything that it did, and the locales seemed to always just go in a single direction. It was impossible to get lost in the linearity of the settings. The Last of Us: Part II is equally linear in its storytelling, but the settings lend themselves to more freedom of exploration within its linear progression.

In the first game every player had to go through the same houses, buildings, and nature filled roads in other to move the plot forwards. In this game, sometimes you can find yourself in the middle of a neighborhood with plenty of houses to pick and choose (in order to grab some supplies, and lore enriching documents). You can avoid these houses and store shops altogether in order to just move forwards with the plot, but you will be missing key items used for both crafting, and upgrades in the skill set trees.

And so, the open areas are not only vast for the visual splendor’s sake, but also to add some spice to the game’s tried and proven formula.

There are plenty of new moves and environmental challenges to tackle. Swimming sections are more prevalent now, as are some platforming areas in which jumping, and climbing are the order of the day. The Last of Us: Part II is a true refinement of the first game, and that is enough for it to reach the pinnacle of 3rd person adventure games as far as gameplay goes.

Some of the Best Music Around

Gustavo Santaolalla is quite simply a genius on the guitar, and his arrangements perfectly accompany the game in ways that surpass what we heard in the first game, and that is saying a lot. The music dynamically changes depending on what’s taking place on the screen, and the effect is better than anything I have ever heard in any other piece of entertainment media.

This is a game that has to be played with quality headphones, as the experience is enriched even more by the use of a headset. Plenty of times I was startled off my seat by different sound effects that suddenly exploded in my ears. The Last of Us is the ultimate audio/visual experience.

I must make a note of the guitar. There is a guitar that Ellie can play at will in certain spots, and those with some musical knowledge can make outstanding compositions with it. There hasn’t been a more complete instrument in a game – that isn’t a musical game – since Ocarina of Time’s ocarina 22 years ago.

Oscar Winning Acting

Just like the visuals aid to move the story by presenting realistic looking characters, the voice acting perhaps even more so than the graphics is what gives Ellie and company a true ‘Soul’. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson deliver the best performances of their career here (specially Johnson) and by doing so, set a new standard in the quality of voice acting in video games. Whatever voice awards are available right now in the industry, Ashley Johnson should get each and every one of them, she is that good in this game.

The Defining Game of the Generation

Truly, this has been the era of the Open world game, and as such, it is difficult to see how a fairly linear story-driven game like The Last of Us: Part II could define a generation, but I feel that the game does that.

Just like its predecessor at the twilight of the previous generation, reaching the credits of the Last of Us: Part II felt like a proper closure to this console generation, as I am sure that no game will surpass the jaw dropping one of kind experience that this game provided until the next round of consoles comes around, and even then, it might be up to the next Naughty Dog game to achieve anything resembling to what was delivered here in terms of the sheer quality of both the writing and the Audio/Visual presentation.

Joel and Ellie

The only downside to the Last of Us Part II…is that it is a game that I cannot recommend as a standalone experience to gamers who have never played the first one. Playing the first game is of utmost importance in order to get the full emotional payoff that the Last of Us: Part II was designed to deliver.

Anyone who plays the game will immediately appreciate the craftsmanship that went into every detail on it, but those last 20 minutes in which the game reaches its third, and final climactic moment, is an indisputable triumph of Naughty Dog’s mastery over character development and human psychology.

The whirlwind of emotions that stirred inside of me at that point is something I had never felt before, and most likely will never quite feel again, as I doubt that gaming can conjure up another duo as powerful, and as real, as Joel and Ellie were. That thought makes me wonder if a character as deep, and as engaging as Ellie, will ever grace an interactive piece of entertainment ever again.

Well done Naughty Dog, you gambled, and won.

Gameplay: 9.5

It plays more or less like every other 3rd person action adventure since Resident Evil 4. But The Last of Us Part II is polished to near perfection. Everything, from riding a horse, to steering a small boat through flooded streets that have turned into dangerous rapids, feels equally natural to control. The difficulty and complexity of the enemy AI is higher than before. I am not a fan of crafting, and I did find one particularly hard boss battle in the medium setting that was frustrating. But other than that, I have no complaints. This is one of the finest stealth games on the market right now, and mastery of the skill is important in order to conserve ammo and supplies.

Graphics: 10

There is nothing that Naughty Dog could have done to make this game look better on a PS4. The base console is 2013 technology, that a game like this can run on it is a near miraculous feat by ND’s development team.  Everything moves at 30 fps, but the animation work is so stunningly fluid that I never really took notice of it, the game moves as gracefully as most 60fps games that I have ever seen. The game sets a standard for character modeling in the in game cutscenes, and actual gameplay. Red Dead Redemption 2 was a stunning technical achievement, and in some ways The Last of Us : Part II actually manages to surpass that title. This is quite simply, the most realistic looking game that I have ever seen. It is ‘goose bump inducing’ just to imagine what Naughty Dog could if they had a system as powerful as the Xbox One X to work with, it boggles the mind wondering what they could do in the upcoming PS5 hardware.

Sound: 10

The musical score is just flawless, but so are the environmental sounds. Everything sounds as it should, down to the smallest detail. The voice work steals the show again though, as there has never been finer acting (both in animation/motion capture work and voice work) in a video game.

Story: 10

I will catch some flak for this one, as the it seems that there is a small, but very vocal segment of ‘fans’ bent on discrediting Naughty Dog’s outstanding achievement in storytelling with The Last of Us: Part II. Clearly, Naughty Dog in numerous interviews (and infamous leaks) convinced the world that the story would deal with hatred and revenge as primordial themes. Because of this, and because the game does succeed at driving you into anger (and hatred) many wanted a satisfying revenge story. Neil Druckmann and company aimed for so much more than that.  While I will have to share my full thoughts on the story on a separate article ( I don’t want to spoil the tale here), I did share some of the negative sentiments at one point in the game, as I was frustrated by some of ND’s decisions for a significant amount of hours. However, the way that the game builds the characters and story up for the heart pumping and emotionally draining conclusion is just masterful. ND succeeded in crafting a story that made me question myself, while it – disturbingly – exposed some truly darker shades of my own internal character as a person. There is not a higher compliment that I can give to any form of art than that statement.

Replay-ability: 9.0

It is a single player (mostly linear) story driven campaign. Once it’s done, for many there won’t be much of a incentive to replay it again ( save for reliving the story). However, there is a New Game plus mode that allows you to keep your weapons, and progress made in the skill trees. Thus, the game can easily turn into an enjoyable 40-hour venture if played twice.

Overall: 10

The Last of Us: Part II is a defining game for the generation, and a perfect swan song for a system filled with incredible first party story driven single player experiences. The game is the perfect audio/visual spectacle, one that will not be surpassed until the next round of consoles arrive, and even then, it will might take some time before we see something rivaling the masterpiece that Naughty Dog created here. The Last of Us: Part II met and exceeded all of the expectations that I had for it, the loudest complaint on social media has been on the story’s direction, not necessarily on the quality of the writing which I still find to be the one of, if not the best in the industry. As such, I feel the Last of Us: Part II is as good a game as can be made in its particular genre, and a stunning triumph in video game character animation.

Editor’s note: Since this was published, a number of people involved with the creation of the game have received death threats. *WARNING: Includes Spoilers*

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By Samuel Rivera

An avid video game player and book reader, Samuel has been playing video games for the last 31 years. He has played nearly every PS1 JRPG known to man, and loves Ocarina of Time more than any other game.