Image Credit: Naughty Dog Entertainment Press Kit 2020
Steady the pitchforks and temper those passions friends, because The Last of Us is one of my dearest experiences in gaming and shall be passed down generation to generation of game loving tykes. The title of this piece alone is bound to provoke the furies of many who let loose their mortified disdain for the oppressive and risky direction Naughty Dog were taking their post-apocalyptic franchise.
If you have brought yourself to play the game after seeing the spoilerific leaks concerning Joel’s fate, (since there were a small few who claimed they wouldn’t) then you are already a step closer to the strength and resolution with which Naughty Dog wish you to carry throughout The Last of Us’ harrowing sequel. Fans had either a yearning to chastise those who would do such a thing to characters
they held so dear, or mournful acceptance for Naughty Dogs bold decisions and
champion it’s brutal take on human love, identity and war.
Part 1’s narrative and gameplay mechanics, though simple, are arguably flawless. With all its ladder shaped warts and all. Tense stealth and grounded combat could be hard and haunting. Mix all the former with pitch perfect story pacing and you’ve got a classic.
However, if you’re still with me – here are 10 things The Last of Us Part 2 does better than Part 1.
Note, spoilers ahead.
10. Level Design
The Last of Us wasn’t exactly linear in how its spaces were designed. Exploration certainly offered gratifying and necessary incentive to comb for resources and remnants of events long past that were all of course handled with utmost care. Spaces in sections like Bill’s town and Pittsburgh are of miraculous note. Part 2’s offering of simplistic puzzle solving littered throughout all stages gives so many micro-moments of satisfaction from secrets you really needed the effort to find, rather than what were more side rooms standing in plain view of Part 1’s beaten path. Naughty Dog seriously stepped up their game when creating levels made to feel completely organic in how any obstacle and objective is placed, continued in their practice to offer many means of approach.
While Part 1 only ever really gave a sense of one way forward, across every encounter in Part 2 is a labyrinth of ways to approach any situation, be it using Part 2’s use of verticality or dank and derelict buildings leaving many a crawl space with which to get at an antagonist’s back.
The way Naughty Dog guides the player with nuance and subtlety lends a feeling of intuitive control that’s so rare without a UI that literally places a marker telling you to “GO HERE”. Also, what is it with this franchise and having phenomenal sections set in hotels?
Joel’s rough and tumble smuggler stealth never gets any less personal and gritty with every choke out and shiv throughout. The mix in tone between methodically picking off a group of hunters and breathlessly evading groups of infected was mostly done to sweet success.
The small number of enemies and fairly obvious set paths of each AI meant that after a couple of minutes of just watching, meant you could have the patterns down in no time, leading to something far less tense on a second playthrough.
Controlling Ellie and Abby in Part 2 is all out Guerrilla warfare. Sure, Abby’s strength and arsenal promotes brute force, but her capabilities are equal to Ellie’s nimble and quickness as they both crawl through dirt and grass. Always
keeping on the move is a must as you make quick decisions of manipulation of the far superior numbers standing in your way. That focus of gathering resources, constant movement , hoping you’ll find just enough to craft maybe an arrow or two to bring down that dog who could give you away at any moment is tangible oppression that surpasses Part 1’s stealth that is one note in comparison. A key aforementioned part of this that is also vastly improved…
8. THE AI
Aside from a select few enemies that do have coded set paths, majority of encounters feel so unpredictable, desperate, and organic especially when spotted. When in an oblivious state, enemies have their sections that they may return to or cover which can be observed and learned. Combined with that labyrinthian level design, many comrades can catch you in the act if you make a single wrong move at the wrong time.
It’s when that routine is disturbed that the AI truly shines. From contextual smaller relationships between various AI conveyed through reactionary dialogue, the aggression in which the WLF will corner you, or how the Seraphites may
stalk you, means that if you don’t think on your feet it can all hit the fan fast. A lot of effort has also been put into the way these combatants will try to protect and avenge one another.
While what Naughty Dog have made can still be dazed and confused by the odd bottle and brick thrown in an empty corner, and a group of dwindled numbers is much more manageable, there’s nothing quite like when you initially come across a new encounter and the feeling of “how the hell am I going to take all these guys on.”
7. WORLD BUILDING
If Part 2’s journeys into both the heart of darkness and the light of redemption weren’t enough, along the way you will be engulfed by an expansive and riveting story of events prior to what our protagonists witness. Not only does the environmental story telling show us the ways in which the world itself is physically warped by the apocalypse, but we see a not too distant history unfold before those who are willing to pay attention.
While the Last of Us of course had this in spades, its approach was more to litter much smaller pieces of separate stories of past encounters, overall tailored to a broader application of different themes. They were also made to give an interpretation of humanity’s downfall as a whole.
This could be much more open to debate, but I believe that the way Part 2 layers clues to a separate and epic story concerning the rise of the WLF, the Seraphites and their feud is done to far better effect. The way we come to understand this tale of belief, revenge and war outside of the main narrative was the highlight of my playthrough – topped off by directly presenting us with the games core themes on a much more recognisable scale of all out war.
This is Part 2’s Ish sewer story spanning densely through the entire title. Bravo.
The Last of Us blurred no notion of where we are or why on the straightforward path to save the world as that rugged Joel we love to love and the smack talking, wise beyond her years, Ellie. The premise of the first game is so simple yet executed so well it’s hard to ignore the merits of less is more.
With all the praise in the world to what the The Last of Us achieved, I have to side with the much more creative approach to Part 2’s multi timeline narrative. It shifts seamlessly from present day to flashbacks as Ellie, revealing more and more of how she and Joel progress since the ending of the first game – while pushing forward with what is clearly an internal battle that Ellie is losing.
Right as we build to what would normally be a finale, we are taken right back to start of events taking place in Seattle but from Abby, the new Joel murdering protagonists’ perspective. For some this choice of pacing could understandably be too Jarring compared to Part 1’s cleaner take. Other’s relished in Naughty Dog taking risks and flexing their creativity. I sit with the latter.
5. Set Pieces
When comparing either titles in The Last of Us franchise to Naughty Dog’s other efforts, it’s set pieces are subdued to say the least. Having said that, The Last of Us’ smaller scale approach gave us much more intimate moments of
desperation and panic rather than excitement. Not only that, but Naughty Dog’s goal to keep control in players hands as much as possible has only been realised more and more with each new release.
The scale of Part 2’s set pieces are upped across all facets and hitting us in larger numbers. Like with Part 1, it’s important to note that all set pieces are tailored to a core gameplay loop, but the creative scenarios in which we engage with that loop is what keeps it fresh, and Part 2 really does step it up.
Abby’s escape with Joel and Tommy, Ellie and Jesse’s facing the horde in a beaten up car being the early examples building to Abby’s descent to ground zero, and the rescue mission through the Seraphites island while it collapses in a furious blaze. For me, the highest point across both games was the first time Ellie and Dina approach to silent radio station, with our first glimpse of the gutted and hanging corpses left by the Seraphites. This slow burn infiltration was all I needed to fear them, and I had control of it all.
4. SOUND DESIGN
It’s fair to say this could be due to a step up in tech, but it’s a step up regardless. The Attention to detail in foley recording, the sounds of Seattle taking over you is the best across what Sony has to offer. This isn’t to put down the sound in Part 1, but more to applaud how Naughty Dog took it further in Part 2.
The calm and quiet wilderness is brimming with a life of its own as you as the player could close your eyes and be stunned at the immaculate details of nature that the sound team have brought to life. The heavy hail of rain is a crisp and soothing white noise spreading out from Ellie’s coat to the surrounding concrete and discarded cars.
Be it the shuffled snow or splash of each step through flooded streets before descending to the grim and deathly pits consumed by the cordyceps. The frantic cries of a runner will stagger past the twitching screech of the clickers and
set you at an immediate stand still. Frozen completely then by the curdling roar of the shamblers, blemished with acid bloated pores that engulf you in a burning fog.
You know to run when you hear the crash and anger of the bloater, who will rip your skull in two if they catch you. Naughty Dogs infected have sounds so distinct,that they are recognised in an instant. The fact that you can close your eyes and feel such a sense of place needs to be forever commended, play this game with headphones for the love of god.
For a game that goes all in as being such a sensory experience, who’s to say the player can even experience this to the fullest? Whether you’re hard of sight, hearing or don’t like how the default game handles, you can tailor that to your preference.
Alternate button mapping, HUD settings, motion sickness – visit the Playstation website, look into it and you will see that the list goes on and on in a display of just how inclusive Naughty Dog have made their game.
Maybe visual impairment makes a puzzle trickier than it normally would be, you have the option to skip them without loss to story content. Navigation assistance prevents players from falling off ledges that they didn’t see, resulting in a loss of progress over a hard-won fight. Enhanced audio cues aid in timing a stealth attack, or prompt you to vaguely placed resources. Options for different coloured subtitles lend a hand to hard of hearing with varying contextual signs; more importantly, controller vibration is implemented to clearly inform you of instances like a head shot, letting you know when you’re aim is on target, and incoming melee attacks.
Don’t get me started on the difficulty settings, there is just no way you can’t tailor this game perfectly to you.
Throughout the majority of The Last of Us you could say the antagonist is the infection and harsh world that’s constantly pushing against you – that is until you come across David. He is without doubt the most sadistic of characters throughout the story, and away from that it’s made easier to define right and wrong.
NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT ISAAC!
Played with terrifying absolution by Jeffrey Wright, six minutes of screen time made Isaac unforgettable to me. We find remnants of his rise against FEDRA and eventual takeover of the WLF. Results of those who sided against him, executed teenagers for graffiti over WLF propaganda and more. However, we also come across thoughts of those who believe in him. That prop him up as the saviour who stood against military oppression. You come to understand why anyone would follow him in these times.
His descent is subtly laid out through the opposing ideals of his skewed mirror image in the religious Seraphites and their “Prophet” (another point to world building). When it’s clear these two sides will not cohabitate, he is the kind of
man who honestly believes destruction will bring peace.
Next to a main story of opposing perspectives between Ellie and Abby, the broader folly of human prejudices, and we have a title containing the most complex interpretation of antagonistic forces put to AAA gaming.
We all love Joel. After just one game he became iconic to us like few others can, without any gimmicks or badass costumes and stylish moves with one a liner. He was just a man deeply flawed and made of his world torn asunder by the events of The Last of Us Part 1. We were with him all the way to Ellie’s final challenge of trust to him before the credits rolled and beyond.
What was done to him was grotesque, by someone who had a score to settle – and while we knew him as a man who settled many a score and maybe did worse, we couldn’t help but react with such ire, tormented grief and self-sustained justification to murder all responsible. Who was the last character you felt that for?
He was gone but always present in Ellie’s memories, where we got to see Joel as the father he might not have been without this game. No matter what it meant for him, we saw his unrelenting fealty to saving Ellie over the world and I for one am glad he doesn’t say sorry.
What we believe we knew of him was done far more justice here than so many have given credit for, as Joel transcends from video game character, to truly someone we felt like we lost.