People have been using video games as a way to escape the real world for years.
Conversely, some developers have been striving for realism, and while many miss the mark, others get a little too close for comfort. A good example is the Call of Duty series, which has been chided for content that was too much for some with gut-wrenching missions that included participating in a terrorist attack and even playing as a child soldier that blurred the line from game and reality. The Last of Us Part II is definitely in this ilk. In any other time in the world would just be considered a masterclass in storytelling, but in today’s pandemic-strained world, you’re not sure if Naughty Dog has tapped into the same Oracle that The Simpsons have been talking to.
Naughty Dog’s sequel to the original critically acclaimed and probably one of my top 10 (maybe 5) games of all time is visceral, chilling, haunting and engrossing. All the things that made the original so enjoyable. For those unfamiliar with The Last of Us, it tells the story of Joel a smuggler in a United States years after it was ravaged by a pandemic that has killed a significant part of the population and left many others in various stages of metamorphosis into vicious zombie-like creatures. He is tasked to bring a young girl Ellie to a resistant group called the Fireflies that are working on a cure. And where the original is brutal, but the gut-wrenching tale of love and what one would do for another and the choices they would make the sequel isn’t so pretty. No spoilers here, because the major plot has already been spoiled thanks to some people in April who leaked footage of the game (Thanks Guys). The Last of Us Part II takes place 4 years after the original and focuses on Ellie, now 19, who, after a brutal attack on Joel, is out for vengeance. Clearly, where the original was going for the heart, the sequel is going for the jugular, and it shows in the gameplay, combat, and pretty much everything in the game.
While much of the gameplay will be familiar for those returning to the game, there have been definite changes made to improve the action and combat. Naughty Dog is also the mind behind the Uncharted series, and it shows as they have included some of the better points of the combat system into the game. Where the stealth mechanics was pretty smooth in the original when you were found out or made the choice to go in guns blazing, the combat was a bit clunky and limiting at times. That has been tweaked to be more like Uncharted’s free flow gun, and melee feel that fluidly transitions from firing weapons to fisticuffs. Another welcomed addition is the jump button. A thing missing from the original but now because of Ellie’s agility makes traversing obstacles, getting in position, avoiding attackers, and just makes the feel of the action more realistic.
One of the highpoints in The Last of Us was the character development. The opening scene made you immediately have a connection with Joel and therefore helped you be emotionally invested in his plight. You understood his actions, even when you didn’t agree with them. Ellie’s annoying sarcasm was genuine for a 15-year-old. Your heart broke when Joel and Ellie saved Henry and Sam and built a relationship with them only to watch helplessly as Sam turned, and Henry was forced to kill his little brother before taking his own life. These were the watershed moments that made you feel each moment of the game. Thankfully, there is a returning cast of characters that you will be familiar with and are as rich and full as before. Joel and Tommy are grizzled and visibly more grey than we left them last game. Ellie has been making strides in finding her place in the world, and we are immediately let in on the fact that she is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, through an introduction that shows that even despite a pandemic ignorance still survives. A sentiment that was eerily close to home as despite her not being the first openly gay heroine –Max Caufield of Life is Strange immediately comes to mind– but a revelation that some in the gaming community didn’t take well and proceeded to lambast Naughty Dog. But back to the game, when we see them now, the relationship between her and Joel seems a bit frayed, but they are still together. We are also introduced to new faces that are weaved into the story and build that same atmosphere and connection. But there are also characters that we are after that through scenes and dialogue, we learn their stories as well and gives you pause as you look at their motives. Possibly one of the best-crafted characters in the game itself is the main antagonist who begs for a game of her own. Aside from progressing the story along various characters are part of factions that serve as your antagonists or fodder depending on your playstyle. There are, of course, the Rogues’ gallery of clickers, runners, and other creatures that were in the original, but they are joined with a variety of new allies. They are also more coordinated, vicious, and smarter. As for the humans, there are other randoms that you will encounter out to get Ellie, including ones that use dogs. Yes, and these dogs act like a dog being able to follow Ellie by scent which basically makes hiding sometimes obsolete.
I loved The Last of Us Part II despite struggling to play through it at times and not because it’s a bad game. The game is impressive; I was barely able to put it down. But at times, I had to. And I don’t mean in the realm of food and restroom breaks which of course are necessary, but just in the name of my mental health at times. When I say they were detailed, I mean it. Depending on how much you explore the post-pandemic world, you will see things too eerily familiar. One example is them walking through an abandoned Comic convention. Having been to so many and watching all of them being canceled this year with no clear idea of when we will ever be able to attend again is eerie. The characters remark about the world before, reminisce about what was lost, what it must have been like, and how it was taken for granted and it was in those moments that I was shaken more than any jumpscare from a Clicker could make me. The Last of Us was released during the height of zombie fever. Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, World War Z, Z Nation, you couldn’t turn without bumping into a zombie somewhere in the media, but it was all fiction, and we were okay with that. But now in the world with COVID, there are no zombies walking around, but we are all worried about what is next and what will happen, and it is in those dark places that real fear hides. And The Last of Us 2 might make you a little more uncomfortable than usual. So definitely, play the game. But also make sure to take time to step away, get some air, see the sun, be human.
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