When a game is so eagerly-anticipated, so enormously hyped, it is easy to get lost in the moment – to imagine the experience is better than it actually is. Or, conversely, end up simply underwhelmed.
But, neither of those apply to The Last of Us Part 2. It is a magnificent game, a fitting sequel to an already well-regarded masterpiece, and if it turns out to be the last great hurrah for an aging console – much like its predecessor – it enables the PS4 to retire gracefully.
That's not to say it'll be everyone's cup of tea. There are some that will hate it - absolutely despise its unrelenting brutality. And it will no doubt draw the ire of those who already decry violence in games. It is often as gory, graphic and unsettling as games can be. But what they will not understand – can never understand – is that every interaction, no matter how bloody, is steeped in context and consequence, pathos and pay-off, and that is where it differs from the vast majority of its peers.
This is gaming as art at its finest – a 30 hour plus movie or box set bonanza you can play. And it is utterly engrossing from the swaying boat title sequence to the last credit on the roll. The Last of Us Part 2 is everything we'd hoped and so much more besides.
The same but different
Before we get into the nitty gritty, we have to warn you of spoilers. We're attempting to steer clear of any significant plot spoilers, or even insignificant ones, but if you want to play the game with little or no preconceptions, please look away now. In fact, don't read a single review at all, just get the game, load it and get lost in its glory for yourself.
If you're still with us though, we'll start with the new gameplay mechanics.
The Last of Us 2 is similar in many ways to the original. It too is a survival horror, action adventure, and stealth-em-up in a single package. It has a linear narrative, with beginning, middle and end - although not necessarily in that order. And, like LOU, it is cut into segments/chapters that you have to navigate through and complete before moving to the next.
However, as a sequel, it has so much more besides – partly because it originates on more capable hardware, but also because the main protagonist is different: a more complex, less direct lead in the form of Ellie.
She plays similarly to Joel in the first game, and you will find you can pick up and play instantly thanks to familiar controls. But Ellie also has additional abilities that make her more manoeuvrable, better in stealth situations, and generally more proficient in the art of killing.
As well as Naughty Dog's tried and trusted duck and cover mechanics, she can now lie prone, to hide in long grass and foliage – even move around and shoot from that position without immediate detection. She can also jump across gaps, allowing for more verticality in levels and, especially, variety during firefights.
Ellie also has a switchblade in her inventory from the start – negating the need for her to build destructible shivs. And her crafting table differs from Joel's, with a wider selection of tools to play with (once unlocked).
Arrows can be crafted for example, even explosive ones if you happen to find the recipe. Explosive mines can also be made from available resources, ones that don't require setting as traps.
While Joel could learn several new tricks through the use of “supplements”, there is now a wider selection on offer in a more full-fledged skill tree. Different arms of the tree can be unlocked through finding instruction manuals, and each arm has a selection of skills that can be unlocked in sequential order – all through munching on supplements as before.There are plenty more to discover along the way too, but we'll let you find them for yourself as that's half the fun. Needless to say, the gamut of craftable items is much larger, with more depth this time around – something that also applies to the skill tree.
This allows for a wider variety of character skills, to suit your own particular play style. It gives the game more of a role-player feel. You might have to experience the story in exactly the form designated by Neil Druckmann and his team at Naughty Dog, but how you get to each major plot point feels more in your hands.
Melee is another big addition to the gameplay in Last of Us 2. We were told that original plans for the sequel would have resulted in a very different type of game, one based more on hand-to-hand combat and less on exploration or gunfights. This didn't happen but some of the DNA of the alternative game remains.
During melee combat, you can duck and dodge attacks and time blows in order to take down enemies you wouldn't have dreamed of getting close to in the first game. It helps if you have a melee weapon, but you can win a hard-fought battle with just your fists by timing strikes accurately. Even the deadly Clickers can be dodged, although we then suggest running rather than provoking them any further.
Indeed, this is a tactic you'll likely employ a lot; against infected and human enemies.
What's that coming over the hill...
There are three main types of enemies in The Last of Us Part 2 and each have their own, individual styles. The infected are similar to before, albeit enhanced in some ways.
There are a couple of new types of infected, which we will again leave for you to discover as their debut sequences are among the game's best, but some of the old faves are back with new abilities too.
Stalkers, for example, now hide and are far more intelligent. Indeed, they can be petrifying as they can avoid detection in Listen Mode by staying still at times and creeping silently. Clickers too have been devilishly tweaked, with better (more savage) use of their echo-location talents.
During their patrols, they occasionally stop and roar, with everything close-by suddenly being within “sight”. If you are there at the time, the chase is on, that's for sure.
Human foes have new bells and whistles too – literally in some cases.
There are two main new factions in the game. The Washington Liberation Front (WLF), also known as the Wolves, are a militaristic group similar to the Fireflies and come heavily armed. Their new abilities include the use of dogs that can sniff you out (represented by a scent trail visible in Listen Mode) and highlight your location. They can also attack you themselves and can be pretty savage.
The other group are the Seraphites, or Scars. These are members of a particularly nasty death cult that use bows and arrows as well as guns and communicate through whistles. It's a haunting sound, hearing whistles float across the battlefield – leaving you in no doubt that there plenty more out there.
The WLF and Seraphites are at war, so can sometimes be played off against each other, but both are essentially in your way and your thirst for revenge.
When darkness falls
The main difference between Last of Us 2 and its predecessor is tone. The Last of Us was essentially a road story about a father finding a surrogate daughter through shared experiences. It was dark (very in places) but overall a story of fatherly love and hope.
The Last of Us 2 is about revenge, consequence and loss. We honestly cannot say much more or we'll genuinely spoil major plot points, but as a result it is much darker, angrier and more driven.
Ellie, for reasons we won't go into, has a single goal in mind and is therefore more focused. The story is too, with fewer deviations and a purposeful pace. It is split into many chapters and presents more than a few surprises along the way, but you can feel the conclusion is always on the horizon, even though it is often out of reach.
What we will say is that the entire story is perfectly crafted. It twists and turns, but always keeps you on track. Yes, that means it is linear (of sorts – which you'll understand more as you play), although you never feel like you are not in control, even though you can't really affect the outcome (bar dying). It's a clever trick that Naughty Dog has pulled off many times in the past too, just not on this scale.
The game is huge. It's approximately twice as big as the first, if not bigger. There are more cut scenes, much larger locations - some open world - and many more of them, to boot. It also has a larger cast, with several different members accompanying you on missions at different times, and a healthy amount of collectibles and hidden locations to explore that have little to do with the plot - these are gems of discovery in themselves.
Oh, and it's all very scary. Very, very scary.
Beauty in destruction
Even once you've completed the game, there is plenty left to do. You get access to Naughty Dog's trademark “New Game+” plus mode once you've finished for the first time, which allows you to replay the story all over again, but this time with all the skills and weapons you ended with. And, you can replay different chapters to try to find the secrets you missed the first time around.
We also recommend you play it a second time at least, just to take in its majesty. Not only is this the studio's best-looking game yet, it's arguably the PlayStation 4's.
While a solid 30 frames per second (rather than 60fps), the 1440p graphics on the PS4 Pro as simply stunning. The physics effects especially, with bodies falling and grass swaying, are unsurpassed. While lighting is a very important part of the game, so is handled masterfully.
Unlike the first game, dark areas in The Last of Us 2 are extremely dark, leaving you to rely solely on the short throw of light presented by your lapel torch. It ramps up the tension no end and ensures the game takes even longer as you effectively creep everywhere when indoors – even when there are no enemies in earshot.
This is the case even when played on a non-HDR TV. Engage HDR too and we are talking the best example of the technology in gaming today. The contrast between the darkest and brightest points is incredible on a decent 4K HDR set. We played the game on a 55-inch Philips OLED754 TV and it was as gorgeous as it was nerve-wracking.
You don't really need an OLED to get the most from the game, but we do advise a decent sound system or pair of headphones. Not only is the soundtrack haunting and impactful, it is used so precisely to heighten tension that you'll be missing out on the experience if you can't hear it effectively.
And, for those who have hearing, sight or movement difficulties, Naughty Dog has even included accessibility options in the settings. You can alter the controls, add visual aids, text-to-speech and audio cues, even remove motion effects to benefit those with motion sickness. It has thought of everything and everyone and, in doing so, ensures that no-one should miss out on what is possibly the best narrative-lead game on current generation consoles.
The Last of Us Part 2 is quite simply essential. It answers the question of whether you can bottle magic twice. In fact, Naughty Dog found an even bigger, fancier bottle to fill this time.
There are minor caveats, including the enemy AI being dumb on one or two occasions and wandering haplessly into the same trap as their friends, while some skirmishes can feel samey. But, these are tiny considerations in comparison with the overall scope and depth of the game.
Yes, it is brutal and uncomfortable. And, no matter your stomach, it will unsettle you. But, you’ll also cry, smile and, if you’re anything like us, be left in a quivering heap more often than you'd like to admit. It takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions and will indelibly mark itself in your memory long after.
This is a grown-up game in every sense and a suitable and fitting monument to an entire console generation.