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I'm literally late to the game with The Last of Us 2, which came out in 2020 but I only started in 2021 and am still playing today. The reason for this delay and glacially slow progress is two-fold.
First off, like its predecessor, the Last of Us 2 is not a cheerful game. Characters fight to survive in a post-apocalyptic world brought about by fungal cordyceps that turn humans into somewhat horrifying fungi zombies. And people die in seriously grim and visceral ways. So this wasn't a game I wanted to play mid-coronavirus pandemic where society seemed a few stupid and unfounded Facebook posts from being split into battling factions.
During this time, I tended to err towards less brutal games with more jovial tones; I'm not sure Hollow Knight quite fitted that mold, but its platforming nature was easier to digest than sneaking behind a Clicker and its glitchy movements then skewing its neck with a flick knife.
The PS5 also arrived shortly after The Last of Us 2, so I ended up waiting for it to get a patch that would tap into the power of Sony's big games console. That happened, well kinda… the patched game now runs at a higher resolution (PS4 Pro resolution mode essentially) and at 60 frames per second.
It's not quite a backwards compatible triumph, but it's a county mile away from the sluggish 30 fps or unsteady framerates of older PlayStation consoles. And the improved haptics of the DualSense controller really work well too, meaning if you can find a PS5 restock, then Sony's behemoth console is the machine to play TLOU 2 on.
I'll vary from tackling certain areas at a time, slowly pouring over every detail of the ruined cityscape of Seattle, to taking on a single chapter in one go as if it was an hour-and-half special of Stranger Things season 4.
This might seem an odd way to play such a critically acclaimed game, but it draws out the excellent and scintillating experience; after all, it's not like we're going to get a completely new TLOU game any time soon. And from a more clinical perspective, it gives me the respite to dip into other games like Elden Ring and Horizon Forbidden West.
This approach is not always easy to do, however, as the pull of TLOU 2 is strong despite its grim tone. That's because it's seriously good.
Beauty and brutality
Everything that made the LOU one of my favorite games of all time is improved upon with the PS5. Characters are equally engaging, blending brutal action with genuinely touching moments; some really tugged at my heart strings — and that's coming for someone who's regular described as emotionally dead.
The atmosphere once again threads the needle between oppressively threatening, yet at times oddly relaxing when you quietly observe a city being reclaimed by nature. You are aware that you're exploring a deeply hostile world, but there's beauty in seeing vines slowly swallow an ugly concrete building.
The attention to detail to everything is also simply astonishing; it really feels as if every flaking bit of rust was placed deliberately by the Naughty Dog’s environment designers. And that's what makes it easy for me to lose a lot of time simply shining a flashlight over the surfaces and into dimly lit corners of ruined houses and abandoned theaters. The environmental storytelling isn’t quite as subtle as that found in the likes of Dark Souls. But TLOU 2 is absolutely dripping with cues that give you a clear story of how quickly society fell apart from the cordyceps pandemic.
Combat in TLOU 2 is also a triumph. I loved how the original TLOU had main character Joel feel very much like an everyman rather than a wise cracking, ultra-athletic sharpshooter that’s embodied by Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series' Nathan Drake. The TLOU 2 takes this but builds upon it.
With several years having passed, Ellie is a heck of a lot tougher and more battle-worn than she was in the original game. And she’s a lot more maneuverable, able to escape enemies by leaping over various obstacles then going prone in long grass, all of which creates a dynamic cat-and-mouse experience to combat.
Often, I’d find myself in an area covered with enemies and needing to sneak through quietly or wait for the opportunity to pick off someone who has wandered a little far from the pack. I'd gingerly sneak up on them, waiting for a moment to brutally jab at their neck with a knife that has unlimited uses — unlike the shivs Joel had to use — then dashing back to cover.
But after slimming down a group of enemies, Ellie swaps from hunted to become the hunter, aggressively advancing on the leftovers as they become increasingly more panicked. This leads to some stomach churning brutal moments.
I distinctly remember stunning an enemy human with a glass bottle, and as they screeched in pain and shock, picking at the shards embedded in their face, I had Ellie dash forward, choosing to bludgeon them to death with a makeshift club. Such violence could come across as gratuitous. But in TLOU 2, like the original game, it serves to really hammer home the savagery of people trying to survive in a world where law, order and civility is distant memory.
New and improved
This is all mixed up with the introduction of new or improved variants of enemies. Dogs are more notable adversary able to follow Ellie by scent even if she’s well hidden; shooting faithful hounds is one of the nastier parts of the TLOU 2; at least until they attack you with Rottweiler ferocity that’s shocking to behold even in PS4-era graphics.
The infected get acid-spewing Shamblers, which are unpleasant additions to an already grim roster of zombie-like enemies. But Naughty Dog really ramped things up with the Stalkers; these popped up in TLOU, but they've been upgraded to actively hunt players. And they live up to their name by stalking Ellie rather than rushing her; oh and they can’t be easily spotted using the Listen Mode.
There's one dark section in the game where you have to tackle a pack of Stalkers solo and it’s one of the most intense sections of a game I’ve ever played — the relief getting out at the end was as palpable, as were my heart palpitations.
I’m stoked to hear that these combat options and the enemy AI smarts are being retrofitted into The Last of Us Part 1 Remake; that’ll give me one very easy reason to go back to the best game of 2013.
But I’ve still got a fair bit of TLOU 2 to get through. And I've yet to get a full feel for where the story will go — though my lateness to the game means I’ve seen plenty of hints on Twitter — so it’ll be the game that’ll get my attention this weekend and likely more to come.
So if you've not played the Last of Us 2 yet, I recommend you get a PS5 and join me on this dark, grim and gripping journey.