* FULL GAME SPOILERS AHEAD *
Since the open release of The Last of Us Part 2 there has been a constant controversy over the official reviews coming out of places like IGN compared to the actual user reviews coming from the average players of the game. One would think almost universally that the average user who played the game deeply hated it. Now, I have never been one to believe the mob when it comes down to things like this, because generally speaking the entire thing gets blown out of proportion. However, I have also never been a believer in the weighted words behind the reviews that come from the larger companies like IGN, Game Informer, etc. They all hold up the mask labeling them as a group of average gamers giving honest reviews, but you can never be sure as to whether or not there is a larger agenda fueling them from time to time. I’m not sure what happened in this case. It could be that the larger companies reviewing this game became wrapped up in viewing the game as strictly a piece of art and made the mistake that too many review critics tend to make by not viewing the game as the average user and what they might think.
Artistically speaking, The Last of Us Part 2 is a masterpiece and does a very good job of carrying the water as the sequel for the critically acclaimed original. You can tell that Naughty Dog took great care in designing and developing the world in this game in particular. It may be the best part of the game. The world is appropriate in the way it looks abandoned by civilization while at the same time giving you the feel of being lived in. The entire time I was playing through this game I was taking screen shots at every opportunity, because I was so in awe of the design and natural beauty that it presents. Additionally, the narrative lives up to the standards that Naughty Dog has previously set with their distinguished line of games. This game is driven by it’s notably dark and emotionally heavy story line. The constant state of crisis that all of the characters are living through weighs heavy on them, and gives the player a grasp on what drives them through the tougher scenes. Personally, I believe that Naughty Dog’s largest mistakes are in the way they go about the perspective story telling in this game which I will elaborate on shortly.
A Controversial Narrative
You hear a lot of people saying that the forced social agendas of the game are a big driving force behind the low user reviews like making Ellie openly gay in order to show that it is okay to have major roles portraying the LGBT lifestyle. I don’t see that as the problem at all, there will always be a select few that this may turn off, but it’s just not that big of a deal in The Last of Us Part 2. It is solely used as a piece of character development to show what drives Dina to join Ellie on her revenge fueled trip to hunt down Joel’s killer. Ellie being gay is in no way thrown in our face as a way to force a social agenda. The actual problem that everyone seems to have with this game is a lot simpler than that, and one would think that someone at Naughty Dog would have realized how it would make the players feel.
The problem that everyone who has been giving this game 9.5s and 10s seems to be overlooking is that players spend half of the game playing from the perspective of the evil bitch that just killed are beloved father figure Joel and are sent of an emotional journey of woe is me in order to somehow justify her actions to us. Not only that, this perspective is launched after we play through 10 or so hours of hunting the killer down. It starts following a flashback that shows who Abby actually is and what clearly has driven her to hunt down and brutally murder Joel. By this point in the game, players have achieved their goal. We have finally found the one who’s been fueling our rage, the person who opened Joel’s head with a gold club like it was a can of Pillsbury biscuits. Now you’re telling us we have to play through the other half of this game from the perspective of this murderous sociopath? I clearly can’t speak for the rest of the players, but you can’t honestly sit there and expect me to give a damn about the hard times and cry myself to sleep moments that Abby has to go through after what we witnessed her do to Joel. That narrative decision by Naught Dog shows that they were clearly more focused on writing a good movie rather than developing a great game having no regard for the feelings that the actual players would have about it.
Obviously, if the game was only Ellie hunting down Abby it’d be a pretty short game, but Naughty Dog put too much faith into the players’ interest into what kind of person Abby was and became after killing Joel. The half of the game that you play through Abby’s perspective could be seen as the more fun and eventful half though, because of the increased amount of action scenes, the superior weapons, and the overall feeling that you’re playing as adults that know what they’re doing the entire time. The second half of the game also gave us a better in depth look at the rivalry between the Wolves and Seraphites, in addition to showing that not all Wolves are bad people. Still the point stands tall, all of this would make a great movie, but narratively from the players point of view, we simply don’t care. We are seeking closure to the story of Ellie and Joel. To make all of this worse, by the time Abby’s story line catches back up to when Ellie finds her in the theater the players are then made to chase down, beat up, and nearly kill Ellie and her companions from the perspective of Abby. That moment in particular really rubbed me the wrong way. It would be one thing to have switched back to Ellie’s point of view when the story lines caught up to each other and us have to endure the beating from the perspective of Ellie, but to make me, the player an accomplice in the near murder of the protagonist that I have followed through two entire games just seems absolutely tone deaf. How could the developers possibly think that the players of this game would want to have any part in that?
It is a shame to have messed up so badly with the narrative in this way, because overall the game is still really good. Naughty Dog is a master at making the slow parts of their games really shine and matter in describing the tone of the moments. For example, the moment when Ellie finds the guitar, sits down and sings to Dina. The moments like this one are truly special throughout this game. Nobody playing wants to pick up their phone while they’re happening and check Twitter or Facebook because the moments too slow and bores us. There’s not one of these moments that fails to pull you into the emotional tragedy that is running around the characters’ heads. These parts of the game may be some of the most memorable and emotionally touching of the story. They really show the players how to feel through the characters.
Gameplay & Mechanics
In regard to the actual game controls and mechanics not much has changed, from the original to this one. Players still have to search and loot buildings constantly in order to keep up with supplies to craft arrows, bombs, repair/mod weapons, etc. The developers did a solid job in fine tuning and improving their original template for the game. Despite the improvements, I think it may have been a mistake to not make some small changes in at very least the players ability to scroll through their weapons. The controls just like the original feel a bit clunky when it comes to switching the character’s weapons. There was more than one scenario that I had died during the game because I unable to scroll through and swap weapons after running out of ammo with a specific weapon. I can give the benefit of the doubt to Naught Dog and say this system is by design in order to give a semi-realistic survival aspect to the game. In real life it would be difficult to search through a backpack full of weapons in a high stress situation and pull out the right one fast enough. In spite of that, I just feel like they stuck to what they knew, playing it safe, choosing to focus heavily on the narrative instead. All I am saying is that I would have liked to see a simple scroll wheel system for swapping weapons. By the halfway point you have already picked up enough weapons to make scrolling through all of them a hassle. The current system that Naught Dog uses in this game just feels dated. It’s been seven years, improvements have been made, why not use a couple to really make the action scenes in this game more user friendly to traverse?
They did however, improve upon the open world aspects of this game greatly. While the game is pretty linear in the sense of where you’re going and what happens when you get there, The Last of Us Part 2 does a great job of giving you the freedom of how you get there. You can choose stealth or all out war, you can choose to run through and escape with bullets flying past your head or take your time and loot up supplies along the way, and there’s almost always more than one route to take to get around or through an enemy encampment. Now, there’s actually only one time in the game where players are truly given an open world to explore, that is when Ellie and Dina first arrive in Seattle on horseback, but that’s not to say that the rest of the game doesn’t give you the freedom to choose your own actions and pathways.
The best example the game provides for this is in the very beginning when you’re playing as Abby initially during the snow storm. As you are walking through the storm trying to find your way a horde comes out of nowhere causing you to have to run through the woods with very little visibility, not being able to stop and consider your choice of directions. The entire time during this action sequence the player is on edge, constantly running trying to escape the horde not knowing where you’re going or if you took a wrong turn along the way. Ultimately the horde ends up guiding you to a house, but you don’t know for sure if that is where you’re supposed to go, there’s no obvious way in, the horde is closing in, you don’t have time to look around for other places so you find a window and jump in. During moment in the game there is an obvious end point that the players need to go in order to advance the narrative, but the players are given the semblance of free will choosing where to go and how to get there. The Last of Us Part 2 does this remarkably well throughout the game, by presenting situations that feel like the player is making the choices, all while at the same time constricting them very linearly to the designed narrative. This false sense of free action in a game where players know going in they can’t change the outcomes is very important in order to hold the interest and not make the game feel like an interactive movie.
Naughty Dog is traditionally know for their unbelievably well told in game narratives, the deep character development and growth, and the emotionally enveloping moments that take place during their games. The Last of Us is known for it’s notably dark, trauma filled characters that are driven forward by the goal of some day escaping, or at the very least replacing their tragedy with a form of hope. The Last of Us Part 2 delivers on all of the daunting expectations players had going into the game. However, the game in itself is a tragedy because despite all of the good, its developers didn’t take into account how the player would feel in a select few significant plot moments. Being an accomplice, forced to take part in and view the brutal beating of the game’s main protagonist from a first person perspective as if we chose to do it was the wrong move. That is the tragedy. After creating something so good you throw it all away in one moment. I’ve never been so immediately alienated from a story that I have come to put so much time and emotion into. After that point, I played the rest of the game just to finish it, emotionless, empty, without a care of what was to come. I became detached from the narrative from that point forward. Players were seeking closure for Ellie with this game, and did not want to live through the perspective of Joel’s killer in order to understand why she did it or what kind of person she became after. The Last of Us Part 2 chose to create a great movie with its narrative rather than a great game. Now, don’t get me wrong, they did a great job, but don’t sit there and act like you’re clueless as to why the user reviews for the game are falling through the floor, because it’s quite obvious.