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Monday, January 04, 2021

Review: The Last of Us Part 2

 Several years ago, I reviewed The Last of Us and compared it with eating your vegetables. Not having very much experience with video games, I didn't realize that the game was basically a 3D combat game, where each level could not be traversed without killing everything in it. Yet the story was haunting, as was the music, and of course the art direction and graphics made your jaw drop.

I'm a cheap skate, so I didn't buy The Last of Us Part 2 at launch, but rather, waited until it had dropped in price to $30, and then put in a Best Buy coupon to bring it down further.  I'd played all the PS3 and PS4 naughty dog games, so I thought I knew what to expect, and I really enjoyed the sensibility that Naughty Dog brought --- the games were more like movies than they were simple shooters, alternating between walking simulators, and the art direction and cinematography were second to none.

The opening of the game made my jaw drop once again. I'd played Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy, but The Last of Us Part II made me forget that I was playing a video game and not watching a live action movie more than one. While Xiaoqin had occasionally commented that some of the previous games I'd played looked like movies, none of them (not even Red Dead Redemption 2) came close when I was holding the controller. The game play is quite similar to the first game, but with my expectations set correctly by the first game, I no longer tried to get through levels without killing everything --- I knew now that you had to kill everything to get through, and that the game would actually do a reasonable job of replenishing your supplies, but if you stealth-killed a few enemies early on you had less pressure for the rest of each level.

The levels were huge. I was very pleasantly surprised towards the end that one of the levels was so large that I could go back to a previously cleared section to run away and pick up supplies to continue fighting and eventually cleared the level. That running away is an option was a good thing --- I'm not so good at video games that I can just play through them, and continually dying was not fun and broke the cinematic experience. I mostly played the game on normal, but had 2 encounters where I dropped the difficulty level to easy because the game was so atmospheric that playing in the dark hours of the morning I got more than a little bit spooked.

The scenery is good, but there's nothing as spectacular as what I saw in Uncharted 4 or even in the original Last of Us. Seattle, for instance, was frequently overcast, and I never got high enough to get a grand view, though certain sunsets were pretty.

Which leaves the pacing and story. Here be spoilers. So read no further if you wish to be surprised during the game.

Still with me? Ok. The game starts brutally, with the death of Joel at the hands of Abby, who's actually a player character. Ellie decides to go after Abby to get revenge, but at a crucial moment in the game, the game play switches over to Abby and you replay some of the earlier timelines from Abby's point of view. This swap of perspective gives more sympathy to Abby, making it clear from flashbacks as well as her actions what brought her to Jackson Wyoming for revenge. At the crux of the story, Abby fights Ellie and you get a very similar stealth gameplay but against a previous player character, which I thought was brilliant and had the opportunity to drag out and be too difficult, but was handled well.

The game then goes into a false ending but Ellie is resolved to hunt down Abby. This was the part that made me feel that the game outstayed its welcome. The new faction of enemies that you had to fight weren't invested with nearly the humanity and motivation that the two factions in Seattle were written with, so now Ellie becomes a killing machine, and that's despite she and Dina having had a child. This lengthens the run time by an hour, and gives us a cinematic ending at the end, where on a beach the two women once again have an all out battle, despite being exhausted by the ordeals behind them. I didn't feel the story had earned this ending --- Ellie should have earned the epiphany long before getting to that point, and the game depicts a dangerous world, but she casually leaves Jackson Wyoming and goes to California for revenge? It's not like she could get on a plane!

The game is very American in this fashion. For instance, in the first game, Joel kills the doctor at the hospital when he reveals that the surgery for the cordyceps vaccine would kill Ellie. He then rescues Ellie. This is uniquely American and selfish. I can think of many cultures where the sacrifice of one to rescue all of civilization would be expected. But reading the comments and feedback online, many Americans went much further than rescuing Ellie, killing everyone at the hospital. Similarly, many Americans thought that the mercy showed at the end of The Last of Us 2 ruined the story, but I think that without that redemption, Ellie as depicted would have been even more of a monster than what she already became. The world of The Last of Us 2 is clearly the post-collapse scenario that many Americans fantasize about, and looks very realistic now that we've seen the uniquely pathological response American society has had about a much less deadly and dangerous pandemic.

In any case, I enjoyed the game enough to finish it (and at a 30 hour + running time, it was no trivial investment in time). It makes what I think are very accurate statements about American society, and obviously is an amazing showcase of the technology and artistry available in video games today. Games like this are precisely  why I'm a committed devotee of the Playstation ecosystem. Recommended.

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