Review: The Last of Us Part II is an imperfect pinnacle of modern gaming

The Last of Us Part II is an incredible game about hate and the meaninglessness of revenge.

It tries out some big, bold things that will alienate some players and not all of the daring decisions work, but I love that it tries what it tries.

And when this game is firing on all cylinders - which is most of the time - it's about as intensely thrilling as a game can get.

It gives an original take on the familiar theme of the cycle of violence, pushing it to extremes in a deeply interesting, disturbing way. The way it achieves this takes full advantage of the medium - how it's done could only be achieved with a video game.

But The Last of Us Part II is not a resounding home run in the same way The Last of Us was in 2013.

It takes most of the elements that worked well and improves upon them, making for an extraordinary piece of entertainment. But the nigh-on-perfect story of the original set a high bar that Part II doesn't quite reach.

This is a more complicated narrative that has a less satisfying ending. That's an intentional move and largely the point of the game, but it's still less satisfying as a player.

But it's still very, very great.

Part of the excellence of the end of The Last of Us was how it left a few major things unsaid. The sequel simply cannot leave them unsaid, of course, but rather than this taking away from the original it actually adds to it in a really beautiful way.

While overall the narrative doesn't ultimately resonate with me as well as the 2013 game's did, how the sequel evolves Ellie and Joel's relationship resonates with me supremely well.

If you love these two characters you're in for a real treat as you learn much more about their relationship.

And beyond the story of Ellie and Joel, the exhilaration of overcoming the zombie-like infected and ruthless human survivor enemies is better than it's ever been.

The Last of Us Part II review screenshot.
Photo credit: Naughty Dog / PlayStation

A pinnacle of modern gaming

Where The Last of Us Part II exceeds my sky-high expectations is in the gameplay. 

It is sublime.

A lot of people remember The Last of Us for its story, but its gameplay was also phenomenal. The palpably, weighty feel to the combat was so intense and such a gritty, grounded depiction of post-apocalyptic conflict.

That feel is amplified in the sequel to giddy new levels, with new elements like long grass to hide in while using stealth and new weapons like makeshift proximity mines to waste your enemies with when things get loud.

The pacing of each set piece is extraordinary and like the original game, the way Naughty Dog builds through each action sequence - the rhythm of their escalation - is just so damn good.

After a nice, slow start, the survival horror elements kick in before you face trickier and more desperate battles against increasingly large groups of human soldiers. Some of these take place across really large areas and there's often a lot of back-and-forth between stealth play and full-scale combat.

The Last of Us Part II review screenshot.
Photo credit: Naughty Dog / PlayStation

There's more options at your disposal to overcome the opponents - like the awesome way you can set infected and human enemies against each other, as was introduced in the Left Behind add-on pack.

While I like the expanded weapon upgrade system, I think there's too many workbenches scattered through the sequel, making that element a little less satisfying.

I should also say this is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous game. Major titles released at this point in a generation are often the best games of that generation and this is definitely one of the most aesthetically pleasing PlayStation 4 games, hands-down.

It also has a consistently deep, rich sound design that helps immersion, and Gustavo Santaolalla knocks it out of the park with the soundtrack again.

The Last of Us Part II is linear, but there are more larger open areas than the first game with objectives you can achieve in whichever order you like - or while skipping some of them altogether.

I really like the new environmental puzzle solving elements. They're basic and that part of the game is still a pretty small component, but it's nicely satisfying to throw ropes about as part of the new traversing system, and to smash glass to get stuff and access more areas.

I also love the deeper insight into the post-apocalyptic world we get. The very early parts of the original game showed a snapshot of life inside a 'quarantine zone', run by a nasty military group.

The sequel uses the same method of showing rather than telling to give the player a much bigger look at different parts of multiple post-outbreak societies - the farms, communal areas, the parties, the playgrounds.

It's not just the viciousness of post-civilisation life that's represented. But holy shit, does the viciousness get vicious.

The Last of Us Part II review screenshot.
Photo credit: Naughty Dog / PlayStation

Extreme brutality

There is some exceptionally graphic violence in this game that people should be warned about.

The trailer that showed off a hammer being used to 'clip the wings' of a prisoner is a good indication of what to expect, but there's a large amount of intense savagery on display here - including torture along with severe injuries inflicted on pregnant women.

Also, some of the extreme violence is carried out on characters you love - and they in turn carry out extreme violence that isn't always fun, like it normally is in video games.

In fact, it's sometimes downright ghastly and kicks up some very mixed emotions as you work through it all.

By the end of the game, it was a real challenge to keep pushing the buttons and carrying out the nastiness I had to - kind of like in graphically violent movies where you sometimes want to look away.

That is the point. That's what developer Naughty Dog was going for and it works.

Writer Halley Gross told me that this game is about "the cyclical nature of violence and the effects of violence and trauma on the soul".

"We need to honour that violence. We're trying to paint incredibly grounded characters, so we need to honour that with grounded, accurate violence that's true to this hostile world."

Director Neil Druckmann added: "This is a story of trauma, redemption and empathy.

"The themes of The Last of Us Part II are based on a universal truth - that just as we are capable of unconditional love, we are also capable of unforgivable hate. And those two feelings are inextricably linked."

The relentless focus on vengeance and brutality mean this game will be too unpleasant an experience for a lot of people - but if you get onboard with it, it does what it does in that regard better than any game I've played before.

But as I said earlier, it doesn't get everything right.

The Last of Us Part II review screenshot.
Photo credit: Naughty Dog / PlayStation

The Difficult Second Album

The Last of Us won numerous game-of-the-year awards and has since developed a legacy as one of the greatest games ever made.

As a lot of its greatness rested on its story, which was complete and singular, and didn't need a sequel.

The narrative of The Last of Us Part II doesn't connect with me as well as the original's did.

The sequel gets the tone just as precisely superb as the first game, the acting is just as great and the characters are just as wonderfully rich and developed. 

But it doesn't end up in as satisfying a place and it simply cannot, with what it's trying to say.

To describe much at all about this story of revenge would be to spoil and I won't be doing that here. Like any story-driven work of art, you really should experience all the story beats within the game.

A few of those story beats don't quite land as well as they should. Also, a few po-faced guitar playing segments will likely strike a chord with some players, but for me they were a bit much.

How this story evolves the relationship between Ellie and Joel is moving and great, but there's a lot more going on in this story than that.

And most of it I love. But in the end, the meaninglessness of revenge is fully realised and that, by definition, means that as a player it feels a little meaningless. 

It's also much more of a downer than the troubling, but overall happy, ending of the first game - that's also intentional, of course.

But then, if you want a rousing, chest-beating distraction to play, you wouldn't be thinking about this game at all - or reading this review.

The Last of Us Part II review screenshot.
Photo credit: Naughty Dog / PlayStation

Conclusion

The Last of Us Part II is one of the greatest games of all time.

The weight of the 2013 original hangs heavily over it, making it unfair as reviewers and fans such as myself inevitably compare the sequel unfavourably to what came before.

But it's an extraordinary achievement, an example of one the world's best game developers swinging for the fences and trying to elevate the medium yet again, which they somewhat achieve.

It's a unique, amazing game that I look forward to playing through many more times in the years to come, each time teasing more out of some of its nuances and enjoying its exhilarating action sequences over and over again.

Four-and-a-half stars.

  • The Last of Us Part II is released on June 19 for the PlayStation 4.