By Mike Romo
The first time I got a sense of just how rabid the Naughty Dog fanbase was happened at Sony Experience show in Anaheim in 2016.
My company at that time had a trailer for our upcoming game, Dreadought, so we were invited to the show, which was truly unlike any other gaming convention/gathering I had been to before. This was the first cross-consumer show—the audience was comprised of gamers from all stripes, fans of shooters, roleplaying games, sports games, and it really opened my eyes to just how diverse and passionate PlayStation fans were.
So, I am sitting there in the middle of this packed hall, and the last speaker is talking and reveals that they have one last thing to show the crowd. The lights go down and this video starts playing. A hush from the crowd as as deep baseline throbs throughout the hall. The camera pulls back from a lush forest, to a deserted, terrible scene: a deserted house…a wrecked car…and then this mangled street sign with some kind of scrawl on it, just for a second.
Suddenly, half crowd freaks out. Screams. Whoops. Cheers, continuing…and then suddenly the Naughty Dog logo appears and the crowd erupts into absolute bedlam. Now, I have seen some pretty amazing product reveals—I was in the WWDC audience and saw Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone in person—but I have never experienced a reaction like this, not then, not now.
At the end of the trailer, I realized, “I must see what this is all about.” When I got home, I found The Last of Us Remastered for $14.99 and dug in, and, not surprisingly, I was completely blown away by the game. I even played through the whole thing a second time a few months ago to get ready for the sequel, appropriately titled The Last of Us II which came out last week.
To be clear: I am not far into the game. For those of you playing, I am in Seattle and I’ve learned a lot about running. But I will say, just like the last game, I am in the zone. For the first time in I don’t know how long, my wife went to bed and I started playing and the next time I looked up it was well past 1am and I had an 8am meeting the next day. It’s that kind of game, where the blend of story, action and straight up technical mastery combine to really show what can be done with “interactive entertainment.”
The first Last of Us introduced me to characters that I cared about long after the game was over. These were complex, flawed people that I truly became close to in a way that was both surprising and even a bit embarrassing. Naughty Dog clearly knows this because the trailers that they have released over the years? The animated sequences? So far…not in the game. These are scenes that they wanted to sear into our memory — dispatches from the game world to prepare us for the game itself. If you haven’t seen them, here’s the first very violent and controversial one, and here is what Sony showed at E3 2018, which is completely different.
What do I think about the game so far?
Well, Naughty Dog is really leaning in on the player’s history with these characters—there are a lot of cut scenes. They are expertly integrated into the action and impactful, but if you just want to get in there and shoot enemies, living and dead, this is not your game. (It never was, truth be told.).
The gameplay is the same—explore spaces, look for items to build health kits, molotov cocktails (and newer items that so far have been pretty useful) and figure out ways to get out of serious jams using the environment and whatever weapons you can grab. There’s a little bit of this “sandbox” feeling, not the Minecraft version, more like how Uncharted 4: The Lost Legacy.
The game also feels uncomfortably open—I have a goal, but there are times when I feel like I am not sure what to do next—but then, no matter what I choose to do, there’s story and action that makes whatever choice I have made work naturally into the narrative. That’s really great game design, I can’t overstate how impressive this is. I loved Uncharted 4, but you are definitely on rails in that game—there’s choice…but not really. Last of Us II definitely gets you to where you are supposed to be, but the illusion of free will is really convincing.
From what I gather, you either are okay with The Last of Us controls or you hate them. I find them clunky and in the heat of the moment/sheer panic of an encounter I often screwup and have a hard time switching weapons, that kind of thing. Which, honestly? I almost think I am okay with, like, the developers have to know that, right? If I was really running from a crazy zombie and my gun was out of bullets, I am going to be shaking and stumbly and have a hard time getting a new gun out—so the clunkiness of the interface adds to the mania of the scene.
Am I making excuses for the game? Maybe? But it reminds me of what I have learned about acting—the stress/frustration/ease that an actor might have in a scene is usually very familiar with how the character is feeling at that moment; might as well use it.
That being said, if you are used to Destiny or Division-like controls and interfaces, leave those expectations at the door. This is all about the experience, and the game mechanics are all designed to drown you in the story and emotionality of the moment.
Odds are that if you are a fan of the first game, you have bought part II already (though maybe some of you are somehow waiting for the PS5 and the remastered version? You, dear reader, are stronger than me.) For those of you who have not played the first one, please for the love of all that’s holy, play the first one first. Seriously. It’s $20. Play it on Easy mode if you must.
Last of Us II is a violent, gruesome, and emotional monster. If any of this sounds appealing to you, then this is an easy recommendation. As with the first installment, the acting is top notch (I think it was Sarah Bernhardt that said, “act in your pauses”—both games use silence in their scenes devastatingly well) and the stakes are deeply personal. I am excited to start playing it again…but I am also hesitant. I don’t want this story to end. I have to assume this is it for Ellie and Joel and this world. As bleak as this story is, there are moments of wonder and joy that have really stuck with me. I don’t want to go there…but I don’t want to leave, either.