The Last of Us Part II: Brutally Cinematic
General spoiler warning: I didn’t review this game on an early copy, so I’m not obligated to withhold discussion on the entire second half of the game. I’m not gonna reveal which characters live and which die etc, but I am going to talk about the structure of the game and the timeline on which it takes place.
I was a late adopter of the PS4, only buying one last November, and the first game I played (the first in four years) was Death Stranding – a piece of work so movie-like that Indiewire’s Dave Ehrlich reviewed it as a movie. Playing The Last of Us Remastered immediately after was like being tossed into a crappy ps2-era Lara Croft after watching Arrival, and then being told by a rabid fanbase they were the same thing. The comparison really highlighted the games’ boxy, limiting levels, repetitive shootout-style set-up, and lazy writing. I gave up after three hours.
With seven months’ distance from that first go, I replayed the game and became able to see how The Last of Us took the first steps towards the current generation of ‘games-as-art’ by way of ‘games-as-cinema’. Its focus on narrative – albeit the most generic, cliché-ridden, eye-rolling pandemic story – over gameplay, and its efforts to provide realistic facial animations and voice acting really marked it as a forerunner to movie-like gaming. Nevertheless, it resolutely remained and remains a PS3 game.
Seven years later, the game industry has moved on. Games like God of War effortlessly combine emotional, cinematic visuals and powerful dialogue with awe-inspiring gameplay. Games like Resident Evil 7 are almost exactly like living through a 6-hour horror movie. Games like Death Stranding challenge what it is to be a ‘game’ in the first place. Characters are expected to be strong, themes are expected to be explored, and dialogue is expected to be engaging – these are no longer things to be excited about in major cinematic games, they are things to be demanded. In this environment, The Last of Us Part II does not break new ground or catalyse a paradigm shift like its predecessor – it’s more of an upgraded and better thought-out version – but it does mark an incredible high-point of the current generation and provides a fitting farewell to the PS4.
THE BEAUTY OF THE BEAST
The first thing that hits you about this game, and the thing that hits you over and over again for the next 20 to 30 hours, is just how stunning it looks. Not only are the graphics and character animations more breathtakingly realistic than anything we’ve seen up until this point, but Part II also has a very cohesive aesthetic – an omnipresent washed-out sky serving as a backdrop to collapsing and crumbling grey buildings clothed in vibrant green vegetation. It’s a brutalist vision torn straight out of a Ballard novel. Mist and fog cloud the distance, whilst sunlight diffracts and splays through layers of trees onto the forest floor – you can sense the moisture hovering in the air. During Ellie’s story, this environment is counterposed with the pitch of night, punctuated by bursts of gasp-inducing crimson flares. When we play as Abby, those flares are replaced by the tangerine glow of ritual fire as the story begins to drift downstream in the direction of the occult. These colours – the greens, reds and oranges that burst from the screen – feel monolithic, inescapably intertwined with this game and its narrative.
TALL TALES AND BROKEN HEARTS
The story picks up 34 years after the planet was ravaged by the deadly Cordyceps infection, and 4 years after Joel deprived the world of a cure in order to save his surrogate daughter Ellie’s life, as we find our protagonists living in the almost idyllic gated community of Jackson. Things start slow, but I found myself being drawn in by the impressive variety of new characters and story arcs established – what’s remarkable about this game is how little it ever feels like a ‘zombie game’; it’s a human game in spite of the zombies. Naughty Dog have assembled a diverse cast of characters, and the amount of representation within this AAA title might be the most ground-breaking thing about it. Before long, though, something terrible (and potentially shocking, if you’ve been living under a rock) happens and Ellie sets off with girlfriend Dina on an odyssey to the remains of Seattle for destructive revenge.
Structurally, this is a unique and somewhat unwieldy beast. For the first 12 hours we mainly play as Ellie over the course of three increasingly operatic and bloody days in Seattle. In an astoundingly bold move, the game then resets itself and we play as new character Abby over the same three days. Suffice to say Abby is not ‘one of the good guys’: you will be frustrated, you will be angry, you will refuse to accept her humanity or her struggles and you may even be bored. But I have to say, as someone who felt all of these things, I also felt that Abby gradually became a much more interesting and even more likeable character than Ellie over her six or so hours (this game took me just over 20 hours to play, 30 hours is a massive exaggeration). The fact that the game was able to do this – was able to take me from abject hate to not just understanding but also a measure of admiration – is outstanding.
None of this is to say the narrative is perfect. A lot of what we do as Abby feels like a rehash of what we already did with Ellie, which is sort of the point but also inherently unexciting. Some of the choices these characters make also feel incongruous; in fact, several major plot points feel easily avoidable. The most irredeemable section of the game comes in the final two hours, where the story is reset again. There’s a new uninspired antagonist, and almost everything you do seems completely out of character; it feels more like a fan-fiction than an actual storyline. The graphics also seem to take a massive nosedive, and the game begins to look more like a PS3 title complete with almost constant glitching and clipping through scenery. Although there’s a chance I imagined it, it also felt like the AI became dumber; I was able to run past large groups of enemies without them noticing my presence. My guess is that this section, which alternately rips off Red Dead 2 and Death Stranding, was added after the leaks and the negative response they received. A poor decision that leaves a sour taste in the mouth after 18 hours of much better work.
THE KILLING FLOOR
Aside from a spectacularly misjudged early hour of quasi-open-world fetch quests, The Last of Us Part II provides one of the most cinematic experiences available on the current generation. Substantively, this is the same sort of gameplay as we saw in 2013 – there has been little actual innovation in the ‘find a way into building, loot building, kill group of enemies, move on’ format – but those mechanics have been polished. The levels are still boxed-in and artificially limited, but the level of graphical prowess on display means that we never feel constrained by the scenery – Seattle always appears vast and limitless even as we travel on a predetermined path. At several points, I was definitely under the impression that there were many routes I could travel, although the route I ended up taking was always correct – whether this is down to clever coding or some sort of psychological malarkey I’m not sure, but the effect is impressive.
The game also retains its incongruous platforming elements but is much more successful in integrating them into the scenery. Instead of regularly finding and dragging identical crates, ladders and planks, we’re more likely to be using the new prone function to crawl through hard-to-find gaps and using the satisfying running jump mechanic to leap between platforms. The general fluidity is bolstered by the seamless integration of cutscenes and gameplay – in both animation quality and style – to the point where they’re virtually indistinguishable from each other.
The biggest improvements, though, come from the combat. Every encounter – be it against an armed militia, religious cultists or a swarm of infected – feels like it can be played in a variety of ways. The player always has the option of taking a tense, stealth-based approach or going on a gung-ho killing spree, and both approaches have their resultant strengths and weaknesses. The addition of a dedicated dodge button was a much-needed feature, and combat now feels effortlessly cohesive, combining dodging with projectiles, melee weapons, guns, and quicktime events. It’s fast, savage and bloody, and crucially never becomes dull. There’s so much naturalism and fluidity to these encounters that it almost feels as if we’re watching co-ordinated fights in a movie.
The infected have thankfully been improved as adversaries, although one might have (foolishly) hoped that clickers would have been removed altogether – an enemy that automatically kills the player was always a bad idea. Remember the terrifying basement level of the original? Well now those infected – the ones that don’t appear on your radar and run at you screaming from the darkness – have a name and are back with a vengeance. Gigantic ‘Shamblers’ shoot out clouds of poisonous gas, although they’re easier to take down than Bloaters. And there’s even a titanic creature that’s so hard to kill you’re going to be throwing your controller across the room in frustration.
Overall, this is much more of a horror game than its predecessor, which was definitively an action-adventure. There are almost constant jumpscares, at least three or four full on survival horror segments, and a much darker and more violent tone throughout. The lighting is heavily linked to the giallo and occult horror films of the 70’s, and the games’ impressive sound design has the infected screaming and groaning unsettlingly human noises, as well as making them faster and more ruthless than the original.
MADNESS AND MORALITY
Much ink has been spilled over how brutal this game becomes, and I struggle to think of a title post-Manhunt that displays violence with such unflinching honesty. The more showy, extreme exploitation seen in the 2017 E3 trailer-cum-execution-film does rear its splattery head at points, but its really the low-key stuff that gets you. It’s the way your enemies beg for their lives just before you deliver the final blow; the way a shotgun blast to the stomach leaves them crying in pain for the next minute as they bleed out; the way in which a rifle shot to the head sprays brain matter over the wall and destroys the back of the skull. Even strangulation stealth kills feel sickeningly real – the panicked expression on your victims’ faces slowly fading as life slips away. The way in which other enemies react to their fallen comrades is also incredibly impressive – often calling them by name, mourning their loss and vowing revenge. The snatches of conversation we catch between them outside of combat are naturalistic and interesting – every person we encounter feels and looks like a real person, and that’s pretty unique for a shoot-em-up. There’s a level of honesty here to your actions as a mass-killing ‘hero’ that’s bound to make a lot of people uncomfortable, but that’s kind of the point.
The complaint usually voiced at this point is that the game is overly moralistic and simplistic; that it invests lots of time repeatedly telling us ‘revenge is bad’ or ‘killing is bad’ when these things are obviously true and somewhat incoherent in the context of a killing game. But I don’t think the game is this preachy – it certainly resists having characters actually discuss whether or not revenge is the right option at any point. Thematically, I actually found it for most part quite well-realised and narratively structured as a mirror-image. I don’t think the message of the game is necessarily that ‘killing is bad’ or that ‘revenge is bad’, but rather that there are wide-ranging consequences to our actions that always lie out of sight, and that the simple discourse of crime and punishment ignores that we are all criminals and we are all punishers all the time. It’s not the most provocative or ground-breaking message for sure, but a message doesn’t have to be provocative or ground-breaking to be told well.
We are now approaching the end of the current console generation – next month’s Ghost of Tsushima will be the PS4’s final major exclusive, and November’s Cyberpunk 2077 will be the era’s swansong. Gaming remains a nascent art-form, lightyears behind its peers. Whether it’s the atrocious, pay-for-praise and access game journalism industry or the inherently small user base, divided as it is by issues of ‘casual’ cinematic gaming versus hardcore online multiplayer and of accusations of misogyny and under-representation (clearly seen in the discourse over this game), the industry needs to do a lot to mature. With graphics becoming more realistic, visuals becoming more artistic, and storylines becoming more compelling, gaming is beginning to evolve into a medium able to convince non-gamers to purchase hardware. In this environment, The Last of Us Part II is not really a step forward; it didn’t need to be. Instead, it’s a beautiful showcase of what developers have managed to achieve this generation both graphically and narratively; it’s a brutal, honest, and at times emotional cinematic experience; and it’s certainly one of the most memorable and defining titles to be released on the Playstation 4.