The gaming industry is infected. Just like one of the horrifying Clickers from The Last of Us, it is full of noise and fury. Everything must be a battle, us against them.
Battle lines have been drawn over The Last of Us 2. On one hand are the majority of critics, who have given the game an average of 95 out of 100 on Metacritic, making it one of the best-reviewed games on PS4. On the other side are some vocal consumers, claiming the game has trampled over their memories and that it is a product of ‘woke’ agendas.
The truth, unsurprisingly, lies somewhere in the middle. The Last of Us 2 is not comparable to Schindler’s List, as one prominent critic claims. It’s also not pushing any particular agenda, despite some refreshing gender reversals. Instead, it is a masterfully created, but flawed game that will appeal much more to newcomers than fans of the original.
It’s difficult to discuss The Last of Us 2 without spoiling the surprises, but we can safely that this gaming experience hinges on the plot. Picking up a number of years after the original, Joel and Ellie are still surviving in the overgrown remains of infected America, fighting a combination of rival ‘tribes’ and infected humans. However, unlike the first game, the sequel has Ellie take the lead role, with Joel very much consigned to the background. There’s also a second, new character to control.
The theme of The Last of Us 2 is revenge, grief and violence. On that score, it does a truly haunting job. The acting and writing are some of the best we’ve ever seen in a game. But that doesn’t mean much when compared to film or other mediums, which is where some of the problems arise. This is an experience most suitably compared to a gritty samurai or western film at best - an enthralling, shocking, but comic book depiction of human emotion.
Fans of the original loved that style of depiction for Joel, who was easy to sympathise with and a ‘father’ figure many gamers loved. Eight years later, in The Last of Us 2, Joel is treated very differently, with sympathies instead falling to a lesbian Ellie, a separate largely-muscled woman and even a transgender character. For the intended audience, these sympathies may be difficult to strike up, especially if the player goes into the experience expecting a continuation of Joel’s story.
For this reviewer, the shift in focus was a brave and welcome one, and the new characters were refreshing. While the world of The Last of Us 2 is dark, depressing, overwhelmingly violent – it also does a commendable job of making us believe that anger and grief and violence apply to everyone, not just gritty male gunslingers or stoic samurai. In the doomed version of this Seattle, we believe that a teenage girl can do terrible things in the name of revenge, and that a muscled woman can be a physical guardian just like a father.
Where The Last of Us 2 fails is in combining that reality with the gameplay. Although the world is incredible, simply breath-taking at times, the mechanics of gameplay are boring and at odds with the plot. Ellie largely uses stealth to avoid and stab enemies that hunt her, crafting weapons as she goes, moving from point A to B with predictable outcomes. The Last of Us 2 doesn’t have many stand-out moments in this regard, either through set pieces or emergent gameplay. It’s all very similar to the original game, which is almost a decade old.
In addition, having Ellie brutally murder hundreds of people, and being capable of such murder without hesitation, severely weakens the themes of the story itself, which seem to denounce violence. When the moments come for Ellie to be doubtful of her vengeful goals, those moments fall flat, knowing that Ellie never once hesitated murdering nameless enemies on that same journey, without a second thought.
Despite all that, The Last of Us 2 is a magnificent game. It may be flawed, but it is also one of the bravest, most technically amazing blockbusters ever released. It is gaming’s equivalent of a high-end subversive western movie. Fans of the original have a right to dislike the direction Naughty Dog took, but don’t let those battle lines dissuade you from experiencing it for yourself.