The Last of Us 2 is not a fun game. It’s miserable, morbid, and excessively violent. So was the first game that originally released in 2013 on the PS3, but I definitely enjoyed that one a lot more than what has been presented to me in 2020.
Fair warning: there will be some spoilers going forward, but nothing that hasn’t already been spoiled on social media anyway. If you want to go into The Last of Us 2 completely clean, I recommend you go ahead and play the game, then come back and see if we share similar views. But please, don’t just jump down to the bottom to get a look at the score and then play the game with a number stuck in your head; it’s not good for you.
So, again, this is your last warning: there will be spoilers. Like, proper spoilers. I’m naming names and throwing shade, and discussing plot points. I’ve tried several drafts where I’ve not used names and remained uber-vague, and it’s an unreadable mess and doesn’t do me any favours in trying to get my review across in the right way.
Where to begin? There’s a lot of fat to cut through, so let’s start with the story as it’s the real reason I wanted in on the game in the first place.
The story is, in two words, hot garbage. It’s awful. Absolute tosh. But unlike the sexist incels on Twitter, I’ll do a fair job of telling you exactly why I think that.
Right, so let’s first go back to the first game. The original wasn’t all that original, but it did a good job all the same. Joel, a gruff fella who has taken a dislike to life after his daughter is killed and the pandemic takes over the world, takes on a young girl who he really dislikes, but over the course of the game, he bonds with her and they become family. He does terrible, awful things to keep her safe, and I, as the player, held some respect for Joel. I also had some respect for the story, despite it cribbing hard from movies. It was basically The Road, but with zombies and more action. But it felt grounded and I could understand the motivations of everyone involved, for the most part.
The Last of Us was a sad-dad movie-game, and that’s fine. I got it. I liked it, and I enjoyed it. I rooted for Joel and Ellie every step of the way. It was the same in The Last of Us 2, too, up until a point.
Early on in the game, Ellie is devastated through the loss of a loved one. The killer, Abby, acts in cold blood. For the first dozen hours or so, we take Ellie on a revenge mission. She wants blood, all of it. If she could, she’d be drinking it from Abby’s skull, she’s that pissed.
This is where the violence comes in, and it’s central to the overall themes to the game. Violence, and the cycle of it; the consequences to one’s actions; addiction. Ellie is laser-focused on getting to Abby, no matter the cost. She’ll bring her friends along and put them in danger just for the chance to cut Abby’s throat.
The game’s dialogue and narrative arc are all pushing that violence either is, or isn’t the answer, but it never really seems to pick a side, instead erring in the middle under the pretence of being mature, cinematic, and somehow profound in its bold use of violence. It fails at every step.
As the player, I’m expected to sit and judge Ellie’s actions. There are a few scenes where Ellie really does some fucked up shit, and one, in particular, had me questioning if it was time to put the controller down, eject the disc, and call it a loss. I didn’t, obviously, but that scene kept fluttering to my mind, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the writers and the director wanted me to feel one thing, but I ended up feeling another.
Being expected to judge Ellie’s actions is also ridiculous. This is a video game. This isn’t the same as a movie, no matter how much Dr. Uckmann wishes it were.
I discussed this with my PP colleagues throughout my playthrough, and it reminded me of the recent-ish Bruce Willis movie where he goes on a revenge mission in his town, killing without remorse, torturing, maiming, and generally being a bad motherhugger. The aim of the movie was to show what can happen when a man breaks and finds no help via the proper channels, and to get us looking inward and then outward, to judge Brucie’s murder-death-kill spree. It’s easy to do with a movie. You’re a passive observer without a hand in what’s to happen. Everything is pre-determined and you know that your job as a viewer is to judge those on-screen for their actions, and sometimes their terrible performances. Anybody see Bruce Willis in Trauma Centre?
In a video game, this just doesn’t work. How can I sit and think about what an awful person Ellie is for doing what she does when I’m the one holding the controller, pressing the buttons, and cheering at blowing a man’s face off with a shotgun? I can’t. No bloody way.
Then the game pulls a massive bait and switch at around the half-way mark. Just when I thought the game was done, it wasn’t. I was then thrust into the boots of the burly Abby for another 10-12 hours, and this was coming off a rare climatic cut-scene that should have pushed the story to its next big beat. The cut-scenes aren’t rare, by the way, but the ones that actually do anything are, but more on that later.
This pissed me off to no end. I’d already had to endure over a dozen cringe-worthy cut-scenes and annoying flashback sequences, and now I was being made to wait an undeterminable amount of time to get the big payoff? Piss off.
This was another moment that had me wondering if it was time to call it a day and move onto SpongeBob SquarePants. Again, I didn’t, obviously, but going forward into the second half of the game, I was annoyed at the lack of respect for the player/viewer. All of that just to shit it away and make me play as the character that Ellie hates – that I also hate? Why? To connect you to this cold-hearted killer, obviously!
It’s as if the writers were setting themselves the challenge of creating a character that would be universally hated, and then see if they could win players back and make them like this character. It feels more like an experiment than anything else. And you know what? It didn’t work.
To use the words Ellie did: She’s a fucking cunt.
Abby did something horrible, and I’ve been team Ellie since before Abby was a concept drawing on a scrap of paper. That was never going to change. This was a massive misstep from Naughty Dog, and for me, it ruined the entire experience. From that moment on, I just wanted the game to end. I’d already seen the end coming, because if The Last of Us 2 is anything, it’s predictable. I had the same problem with the first game where I kind of had the ending in my head at around the halfway mark, but I still enjoyed it for what it was because I wanted to see if I was right – and not to brag but, yeah, I was spot on!
This time? I didn’t care if I was right or wrong, I just wanted the credits to roll so I could get this review over and done with and move on to something a little more cheery and less full of itself.
I could go into a lot more detail on the story’s shortcomings, swiss-cheese plot-holes, and characters, but I’ll leave it there. One last thing I will say is that the use of flashbacks was a fucking disastrous decision. Every time the story hit a peak, it came tumbling down the cliffside, landing squarely into a flashback, the majority of which were pointless padding, filled with uncomfortable dialogue and not much to do. Most could have worked as cut-scenes, or literally, could have just been cut scenes that never saw the light of day.
To put it simply, I found the story to be as long as a river, shallow as a bath. Some points in the story are genuinely amazing, but the insistence on putting me through harrowing ordeals during the gameplay, just to bring everything to a grinding halt so we can get a bit more exposition, fancy camera angles, and some very awkward scenes – including a sex scene that had no purpose other than to show a bit of titty and get a bit of shock value in – pulls me out of the story and, eventually, I gave up on caring about anyone and just wanted it all to be over.
And don’t even get me started on the ending…
So far we’ve had 1400 words on the game’s abysmal story. Let’s talk gameplay, because at least I have some good things to say about that.
I really enjoyed the gameplay, for the most part. It’s similar to what we already know from the first game; sneaking around, collecting bits of crap to craft into bits of kit that can help you survive, killing bad guys, and doing some light puzzles. That’s your gameplay. Again, it’s not particularly deep, but it works and it’s a big improvement over the original.
This time around we have a wider arsenal of guns, tools, and traps to help on the 25-hour journey, and while I never really mastered the new tools or used them effectively all of the time, I’m grateful for the chance.
Smart players will excel in The Last of Us 2, while dimwits like me will make do with hiding in a corner and taking out the bad guys one by one as they round the corner. A smarter player would plan out their attack, lay explosive trip mines, and move from cover to cover. I’m not a total idiot, and I did do that a lot of time, but more often than not, my stealthy approach would turn into a gunfight with opposing factions, or it would result in me spamming the dodge button while the infected tried to give me a kiss. At least, that’s how it was when I played as Ellie.
Gameplay differs greatly between the two playable characters, and each has their own set of skills that can be learned, and weapons that can be found, used, and upgraded. Ellie is definitely the timider of the two, with her skillset and tools reflecting her life of sneaking around and staying unseen. A bow and arrow falls into your hands early on, and it was my main weapon going into every encounter as I tried to keep from alerting too many enemies.
Playing as Abby couldn’t have felt more different. For one, there’s the obvious physical difference between the two women, with Ellie being far leaner and lacking the strength to punch many foes to death. Abby, on the other hand, is built like a brick shithouse and has no problem getting into a round of fisticuffs. It’s all about how they live and their surroundings.
Ellie lives in Jackson, a community of survivors that has built itself a nice little town where life is easy and trouble isn’t sought after. The people of Jackson have jobs, and some of them go on patrols to clear infected from the surrounding areas. They’re aiming for a peaceful existence.
Abby and her WLF buddies number in the thousands and they’re run like a military unit, commanded by an older gent named Isaac, who are also at war with a local cult, the Scars. Her life is far removed from the relative peace of Jackson, and it shows during one of the quiet walkabout moments in the WLF base where we see a fully decked out gym, an armoury, a shooting range, and a great big mess hall where everybody eats their assigned meals. In Jackson, Joel’s sipping coffee at midnight because he can. At the WLF base, folk are eating burritos because that’s what’s on the menu that day.
Abby’s skills focus more on combat and being a killer, and while I despised her character, I actually found playing as her was more my style. I felt encouraged to throw caution and fight like a lady soldier would, and it was liberating after having spent 12 hours with Ellie, constantly scrounging in the dirt for a few bullets at a time. Not that Abby is completely decked out with ammo, but she has better equipment and ammo does seem more plentiful in her run of the game.
Stealth is a big part of The Last of Us 2, and the gameplay has changed to fine-tune rather than overhaul what was introduced with Joel and Ellie’s first adventure. You can now go prone to crawl through long grass or sneak under abandoned vehicles. Your character now reacts to getting shot, falling to the ground but never relinquishing control, instead giving you a fighting chance by putting you on your back with the option to take a few shots while in relative cover, or to scramble up and find safety. It’s here where I found the game to be at its most mature, recognising that the player should always have a hand in what’s going on, and not prioritising fancy animations, a la Red Dead Redemption 2.
Enemies are smarter, but still kind of dumb. They’ll follow predetermined paths that can be memorised and exploited. They’ll call out to each other, informing comrades to your location, which also acts as a way of telling you, the player, that you’ve been spotted and that you need to make some decisions. Do you stay put and try to weather the storm with the few bullets, arrows, and throwables, or do you slink off into the shadows, wait for the patrols to soften their search and then take them out one by one? I loved this and my best moments during the game came from the decisions I was allowed to make, and the lessons I learned from each death.
There are parts that seem overly difficult, but with a bit of patience, observation, and planning, I got through the most difficult parts with relative ease, and I felt like a badarse doing so.
One aspect of the gameplay that I didn’t like, and yes, I’ve already mentioned it, was the constant shift via flashbacks. Some may love them and find them nice, but for me, they were painfully boring. The main storyline sections of the game all take part in the drab and wet ruins of Seattle, and so the flashbacks provide a nice change of colourful scenery, but they don’t really do anything in terms of gameplay. Sometimes they’re used for exposition, other times as tutorials, but mostly they’re annoying and they take you from the main story. How can I be expected to care for the story when I’m being dragged back to the past every hour? I’m not kidding – there was a moment when I was playing and I had genuinely forgotten if I was playing a flashback or not. I had paused the game late at night, relying on the PS4’s pause-and-resume sleep mode feature, and when I returned the next day I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, or when I was doing it.
Handholding is annoying in games, and I have to give Naughty Dog credit for its lack of it in The Last of Us 2, but it’s not without issue. Oftentimes I’d wander around an area trying to find where I needed to go next. Most of the time I’d figure it out and be on my way, but on a few occasions I had to rely on the game giving me a hint; if you’re wandering in the same area for too long, the game gives you a gentle nudge to show you what you need to do next.
This is partly down to the game’s graphic design, in that a lot of the environments are all very samey. Everything is grey and overgrown, and it does make spotting the little cracks in the walls or the high up windows hard to spot amongst the visually noisy scenes. But still, fair play in not having on-screen markers telling me where to go every four seconds. Instead, the game gives vague directions. So Ellie would say, for example, “ah, the Ferris wheel” and I’d see the ghostly landmark in the distance and know that I have to move in that general direction. Though I do remember an early part of the game presenting a semi-open world area that came with a map that you have to pull out of your pack to look at, and that’s the closest you’ll get to a traditional manner of navigation.
Ok, so the story is wank, the gameplay is good, and the graphics are obviously impressive. What can I say that hasn’t already been said before about a Naughty Dog game? The presentation is really, really impressive, though the film-grain filter was not to my liking and it did make things looks a little blurrier than I’d have liked, but it’s a small complaint that’s easily overcome after a few hours of play.
Now, the big elephant in the room: the social commentary. I’ve seen some awful comments on social media directed towards the fact you play almost exclusively as women, and with one of those women’s gender being kind of questionable.
Personally, I couldn’t give a damn what’s in a person’s pants, either in a game or in real life. I just don’t care. I also don’t care for what I saw as pushy activism. I’m of the view that the more you try to establish people of different gender identities and sexualities as their own communities, you’re just driving a wedge between people, rather than uniting them, and the ambiguity over Abby’s gender does more to hinder than help. I’ll admit, the first time I saw Abby in the game, I said out loud “she’s the transgender” and I was expecting some kind of big reveal. I shouldn’t have, but the game did nothing to subvert my expectations.
Abby is presented in a manner that isn’t typical; she’s strong, has arms like tree trunks, and isn’t overly feminine. I think that’s kind of the point the game was trying to make; that you can have women be as strong as men, and that’s absolutely fine. And I suppose for the casual players who pick the game up just out of interest – remember, not everyone has a finger on the gaming pulse – they may just see it like that, a strong woman. But for those of us who do follow the news cycle and are aware of the people who make the game, we know there’s a bit more going on. We know that the studio sees itself as a pioneer of cinematic gaming, and a champion of diversity and representation, and that’s absolutely fine – fantastic, even, to have a major studio looking out at its fanbase and saying “what can we do to include more of you.” It’s to be applauded, truly. But, knowing that, it makes the character of Abby a little more complicated as I go in expecting something more than the casual player would, and then for there not to be the “hey, here’s our trans character!” moment, it kind of makes me feel like a shithead for expecting it in the first place.
It’s a touchy subject, sure, and I don’t think a one-sided conversation, where I’m the speaker and you’re the reader, is the best way to discuss it, but I felt it was only right to give it a go and share my thoughts. It’s all part of the game, after all, and I’d be doing a lousy job if I didn’t say anything or just brushed over it with a vague comment on representation being good.
One thing I can say with absolute conviction, though, is that no matter what is in Abby’s pants, I still don’t like her. Mind you, I wouldn’t say that to her face. She would rip me apart, no doubt about it.
The Last of Us 2 PS4 Review
The Last of Us 2 takes a massive misstep with its story, but it’s saved from failure by its brilliant gameplay. It’s slow and shallow far too often, but when the gameplay is allowed to take centre stage, there’s something special to be had. It’s a thriller and a bore, and while I enjoyed the gameplay, I don’t think I’d be able to endure it again for the New Game+ mode.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game bought at the expense of the reviewer. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Reviewed using PS4 Pro.