I finished this at 3am last night and after spending the whole day ruminating on it there's not a doubt in my mind that it's the best videogame I've ever played. It's maybe not surprising considering that I rated the first game as in my top 2 or 3 of all time (and certainly featured my favourite story and characterisation in videogames) but I did have reservations about whether Naughty Dog would be able to provide a suitably compelling narrative justification for a sequel and whether they'd be able to reach the same heights. I needn't have worried. It's an absolutely jaw-dropping work that for me can be placed alongside the very best examples of their kind in any medium. It represents the absolute pinnacle of what videogames can currently achieve and serves as a landmark for other developers to strive towards in several significant ways.
I went into it as blind as possible having only watched the initial trailer some years ago and thankfully having managed to avoid all spoilers, discussion and reviews until I sat down to play it. Watching the page count tick up on the threads on here it was tempting to have a look and see what the general consensus was but I held firm and experienced it from start to finish with an entirely unbiased and uninfluenced view.
And fuck me am I glad I did because I had absolutely no idea that Joel was going to get his skull caved in with a 9-iron within a couple of hours of starting the game. I really struggle to think of a more shocking moment that I've experienced watching something than that scene. It was such a devastatingly unceremonious and brutal end and it left me audibly gasping. I had a vague notion from a few headlines I'd seen on gaming sites over the last few years that the theme of the game was revenge, so in the back of my mind I figured that someone was going to cop it to provide a narrative justification. The obvious candidate would be Joel but I thought that would be a bit too obvious and it was likely to be Ellie's partner or something along those lines, especially with the deflection of Joel appearing in that first trailer.
Turns out it was the obvious option but the slow burn and unsettling sense of impending dread that was so delicately built up in the opening stretch of the game made it hit that much harder. You could feel that something grim was going to happen and that you were being manipulated into its shocking impact by the awkward interactions riddled with subtext between the characters at the start but it was just the first sense I got that this game was going to be something truly extraordinary.
I won't go over all the narrative beats here but the overarching point is that in terms of writing and in particular the dialogue between characters this game shows that Naughty Dog's writers under Druckmann's direction are streets ahead of everyone else out there. It's a combination of outstanding performances by the actors (in particular Ashley Johnson who was phenomenal), beautifully judged and understated dialogue and truly exceptional facial animation. The line has not only been blurred but completely eradicated for me now in terms of the subtle underlying disconnect between watching actual people and digital renditions of human characters. And it lends those scenes an authenticity and emotional impact that has never been done to this quality before. Death Stranding and Red Dead 2 are comparable (and I adore both those games and after LoU2 place them as my favourites of this generation) but the difference is that the writing and dialogue here is a significant step up and there's a finesse to the direction that holds those lingering pauses and tiny almost imperceptible facial movements that vault across the uncanny valley. It's an exceptional technical feat that serves the ultimate purpose of rooting the story and its characters in an entirely believable world and in the achingly bittersweet flashback scene in the museum where Joel sends Ellie into space it moved me to literal tears, which a game has never managed before.
With regards to Abby I thought that the way she was introduced as this truly and utterly hateful monster that you wouldn't hesitate to mete out brutal justice to in the blink of an eye was brilliantly done. Joel's death was hideous in its sickeningly blunt abruptness and I mean I fucking hated Abby with every fibre of my being just as Ellie did in that moment and setting out to seek revenge, although always an inherently foolish pursuit, seemed like an entirely justifiable course of action. At this point I knew it wasn't going to be as simple as just working my way through the game until a final confrontation with her and then plunging one final knife into her throat. There were clearly going to be twists and turns along the way but I never could have imagined that they would flip the whole thing round and subvert my expectations to such a degree.
When you first took control of Abby I thought that it would be a relatively short interlude that would give you another angle from the perspective of the 'enemy' to indicate that the binary line between good and evil in a morally murky world was not so clearly delineated after all and that would essentially be it. A conveniently pat narrative device that would blur the lines of justification for Ellie's brutal desire for revenge. Joel killed Abby's father, so she killed Joel. Violence begets violence and the cycle continues until everyone ends up dead. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Fine, we've been here before and I can see what you're doing Naughty Dog. No worries, I'm along for the ride.
The penny dropped though when 'Seattle Day 1' came up and I realised that she too had a skill upgrade path and this was going to be a significant passage of the game. At this point I almost felt a little cheated and as if I was being a little too obviously manipulated. I resisted it and almost rolled my eyes at the obvious attempt that was about to be made to humanise a monster. A part of me was just waiting for a sequence of contrived events that would singularly fail to sway my fundamental allegiances and sympathies.
But fuck me they actually pulled it off didn't they. With a combination of a quite brilliant acting performance by Laura Bailey, a slowly growing cast of increasingly sympathetic companions and in particular a masterful building towards a thunderous and literally flaming crescendo via a vertiginous climb towards environmental terror, a harrowing descent into full-on survival horror and creeping among the rain-sodden cornfields, without realising it I ended up in exactly the place that Naughty Dog had precisely engineered me to be. I sympathised with Abby and the pain and trials that she had faced and by her journey's end as she faced up to the prospect of her own semblance of flawed redemption she stood shoulder to shoulder with Ellie in terms of how engaged I was in her story.
A different side of the same coin no doubt but realising that that fucking bastard sniper was Tommy all along, that you knew what savage horror dealt by Ellie to your loved ones awaited you back at the aquarium and that once the (seemingly) final confrontation came you would have to fight Ellie herself was a simply brilliant way to recast the story and the characters' motivations that led them to their place within it.
I didn't want to fight Ellie and it was a horrible feeling of hammering the button to assault her but on the other hand I had through the course of playing Abby's story come to see Ellie as something of a hideous monster too, flung down a path of violent retribution that had spun out of her control. The conflict was no longer one-sided and to create a sense of forcing you to do something that you didn't want to do and yet in another sense felt justified in doing so was masterful and, perhaps most importantly of all, could only have been done within the context of a videogame in which you are an, albeit reluctant, willing and active participant.
The ending for me was pitch perfect. Had it ended all happy families at the farmhouse then I probably would have felt satisfied but once again Naughty Dog provided something that I didn't realise I absolutely needed. Ellie's story wasn't complete because she still hadn't faced up to the fundamental conflict that lay at the heart of all of this: her need to let the memory of Joel's betrayal go. Killing Abby would finally close the circle (or so she thought) but in the final reckoning on the beach with her hands around the emaciated throat of the person she believed to be the root of all her anguish she realised that there was no release to be found in that final brutal act of vengeance. Thank God, because at that point I wanted nothing more than to put the controller down and refuse to be complicit in the utter futility of what she was doing. Only by literally letting go could she move on in a more figurative sense.
The scene right at the end where Ellie tells Joel that she can't ever truly forgive him for what he took from her but she'd like to at least start trying was the single heart of the entire story and the emotional crux around which it all eventually centred. It all tied together in that one single, strained moment. It was ultimately a story not of savagery and violent revenge but of tender forgiveness and the need to let go, lest the horrors of the past consume you forever more. I won't deny that that had a particular intensely personal resonance for me and that a videogame could do that with such power and poignancy shows just how far we've come. It's remarkable stuff and told with a skill and delicate touch within the context of an at times almost unbearably violent and horrific game that is unsurpassed.
All of this narrative brilliance and subtlety of characterisation would in many ways count for naught if the playable game that surrounded it was lacklustre but as a pure stealth action and exploration videogame it's also exceptional.
The term immersive crops up again and again these days when discussing games but it's not surprising when the fidelity and detail of the worlds that we get to play in now are so remarkably authentic. I expected first-in-class technical proficiency but Naughty Dog have completely outdone themselves here though and the environmental storytelling and artistry is simply off the charts. They're the most beautiful and detailed creations I've ever seen and I can't even begin to imagine the amount of time and effort it must have taken to build them all. I love exploration in games and got a massive kick out of hunting around every single bleakly sumptuous nook and cranny. That's not to mention the seamless and seemingly endlessly variable animations which set a new benchmark that looks down on its competitors from a dizzying height. The fact that they managed to do all this on seven year old hardware that is by now positively ancient is frankly mind-boggling. It's almost scary what they'll do with the PS5 by the time they're finished with it. A supreme level of technical talent.
As an action game I think it's absolutely superb with a fantastic core loop of incomparably meaty and visceral close combat and stealth mechanics all wrapped up in superlative level design. I played with everything on hard difficulty from the get-go and it was one of the best decisions I could have made as a game built around the concept of tension took on almost unbearable levels of nail-biting anxiety. Resources were always so scarce and those times when best-laid plans went awry and it all kicked off the frantic desperation of having to adapt on the fly led to innumerable moments when I would survive by the very skin of my teeth, with barely a bullet and sliver of health left. Every single encounter in the game from start to finish was just incredible with all of the various parts coming together to create the single most riveting and fraught set-pieces and confrontations I think I've ever had in a game. I ended up utilising every tool and environmental feature at my disposal and emergent and unscripted moments of savage and heart-pounding survival scrabbling among the ruined beauty happened time and time again.
Particular highlights were the encounters in the lusciously overgrown leafy suburbs of the derelict houses of Hillcrest that became increasingly desperate as my resources were rapidly dwindling and I was being relentlessly hunted down by ever-increasing numbers of enemies culminating in the final frantic car chase, and the peak survival horror descent down through the bowels of the collapsed skyscraper infested with infected buried in the actual fucking walls and into the flooded hospital basement with its untold horrors awaiting. The first encounter with the hooded, bow-wielding primitivist Scars (sorry Lev, I meant Seraphites) and their chilling whistles in the nighttime park was also brilliant and for such a lengthy game I really loved the way it would regularly come up with new ideas or variations of enemies and environments right the way through. I didn't find it repetitive at all and on the hard difficulty each area played out like a giant puzzle of interlocking systems, routes and enemy behaviours that had to be navigated as best as I could manage with whatever I had to hand. I don't want to overuse the word tension but this game is the absolute embodiment of it and my controller has the imprint of my clenched fingers embedded into it forever more.
The sound design deserves a special mention too. Gustavo Santaolalla's soundtrack hit those perfectly poignant notes just like it did in the first game but the portentous deep pulsing synths during the stealth sections ratcheted up the tension to almost unbearable levels and the richness of the soundscape from the rainfall to the echoing gunfire to the terrifying whistles of the Scars all add up to the best sound design I've heard in any game bar none. Up until now the original Dead Space was the king for me in this regard, but no longer. Late into the night with headphones on all the way for me and I've never been so immersed in a game before.
Like with everything else in the game the attention to detail in the sound is unsurpassed. I found a thread by one of the sound designers of the game where they described how they created the Scars' whistles and it's an entire language with 14 distinct phoneme groups that reflects all of the verbal callouts that the Wolves make, such as letting their comrades know that an ally is down, that they're searching a particular area, that they've spotted someone etc. A remarkable level of thought, care and detail that's gone into it.
It would also be remiss not to acknowledge and applaud Naughty Dog for the huge strides they've made in terms of diversity and representation with this game. There's nothing remotely tokenistic about the portrayal of the characters' sexuality or gender identity and it shows the maturity of the writers that they simply wrote a story that happened to be predominantly about women and featured a diverse cast of characters some of whom are lesbian, bisexual and trans. It all serves the story and yet is never forced or used as a convenient hook to hang anything off that feels exploitative or cheap when lesser talents despite their best intentions would have fallen headfirst into this trap.
It doesn't really require spelling out to anyone who implicitly understands but it's quite clear that anyone having some sort of an issue with these aspects of the characters has some glaringly outdated and backward deficiencies with their world view. I'm glad it's held a mirror up to those people and exposed some of them for the unremitting assholes they are and bravo Naughty Dog for having the courage to face that kind of prejudice head-on in implementing with sensitivity and a deft narrative touch rounded human characters across the spectrum of sexual and gender identity in an enormous blockbuster mainstream entertainment product in a medium that evidently still has a serious problem with some vile and very vocal subsections of its fanbase. I hope it serves as a shining example for others to follow and have little doubt that it will be noted in years to come as a landmark in this regard. A small step in the grander picture maybe but ultimately it's things like this that help society's attitudes progress and we should be grateful that one of videogames' most highly visible and successful companies is very much taking the lead.
With all these rambling ruminations said, the first game felt complete and whole and its perfect ending left me feeling as if it didn't require a sequel. The tale of Joel and Ellie was complete and their relationship had weathered the storm and emerged the other side in a somewhat fractured but ultimately satisfying conclusion. For this reason I was a little wary when the sequel was announced and on hearing that it was a tale of revenge I had my doubts. Having played The Last of Us Part II however, I can now see that Ellie's story that followed absolutely needed to be told and I'm hugely grateful that I got to experience it.
A titanic achievement in videogames and exhibiting the very height of its artistry and craftsmanship it's a game that will linger long in the memory and somehow managed to far exceed all of my very lofty expectations. Those six nights sat up in the dark until the very early hours with headphones on are easily the most enjoyable and indescribably tense and riveting I've ever experienced with these occasionally glorious things we call games and it's likely going to be a very long time indeed until something comes along that can hope to measure up to it. Truly and utterly outstanding in every way.