It’s no secret that The Last of Us Part II is as much about bad blood as anything. It’s a huge tonal shift from the tale of the smuggler and the great hope for a cure, it’s far grittier and darker than we could have expected. Under the darkened blanket of twilight, Ellie leaves her refuge theatre with the goal of reaching the Lake Hill Seattle Hospital, where a Washington Liberation Front’s Nora is on a resource run, in hopes of digging through to the marrow with blunt force and bring up a bit of that bad blood that’s poisoned her and driven her to Seattle.
Though this slice of Seattle is markedly smaller and more linear than the downtown area Naughty Dog has shown at length, it’s full of a rich and terrible history that Ellie, in her travels, becomes a voyeur to. As you piece together these sad stories, it stresses the fact that the effects of the outbreak aren’t limited to our protagonists, there’s an undercurrent of agony that still lines the convenience stores, conference centers and hotels of Seattle. A reminder that we were once, and some still are, all in the same boat, paddling against an inevitable, ceaseless tide, staying afloat for the moment. A conference center near the beginning of the hunt for Nora sets up plenty of heartache that isn’t paid off until the level is near its end. Naughty Dog do a fine job of setting up these easy to digest slices of their universe’s history and paying off players that put in the time exploring every dilapidated nook.
As someone who didn’t thoroughly enjoy exploring Boston from The Last of Us for a number of reasons, I constantly find myself pursuing leads and seeing them through to their end. A well-placed note hints at a fireproof safe, the windfall of which is locked behind discovering a couple’s wedding anniversary, an ultimately simple task that serves both a mechanical and narrative purpose. Not only does Ellie walk away with an upgraded hip holster to house a second pistol, but she gathers a sense of those who left this place behind.
The adjacent apartment seems innocuous enough. It’s quiet and serene, much like the one I had just pilfered. Ellie takes the momentary reprieve to service her guns at the workbench next to the kitchen. I’d usually consider this a safe space, though the floating menu of potential buffs soon dissipated as a Washington Liberation Front fighter—also known as Wolves—grabbed Ellie, interrupting the action altogether. Whether it was intended or not, it was perhaps the game’s first and most effective jump scare. The soldier’s deranged cries were snuffed out by a well-placed machete to the forehead as his compatriots, filtering down the hall, were reduced to a cloud of blood and viscera by one of the better shotguns in gaming.
After a shortcut through a conference centre, the game funnels the player through a claustrophobic and festering one-floor office, home to more Clickers than you’d care to encounter at once. After a mad dash through the door, Ellie’s sent cascading down into the thrashing river below in a spectacular, engrossing set-piece. Alternating gasps for air with aimless, hopeful stabs at the infected dragging Ellie underneath of course lacks the fantastical explosiveness of Uncharted, though given this world is far more grounded, the developer has done an incredible job of making Part II an immersive experience that drags the player through the mud alongside Ellie. Of course, the big revelation here, that became evident to players during the recent State of Play, is that Ellie can swim now. It’s a small change that doesn’t impact the experience at large, but it’s certainly a relief to not rely on the buoyancy of pellets again.
Soaked from head to toe in grey water, Ellie navigates the sewer underneath Pioneer Park before emerging aboveground, into a beautiful, striking nighttime canopy and bed of overgrowth. The park, the hopeful shortcut to the hospital, has been lost to nature. It’s here that we meet the Seraphites, known to others as ‘Scars’ courtesy of their customary and extreme grins that stretch from ear to ear. They’re a far less organised militia than the Wolves but what they lack in body armour and trained dogs, they make up for with ruthless aggression. A whistle sounds off like a siren before an arrow pierces Ellie’s shoulder which, unless removed, will cause perpetual tick damage until you bleed out. It adds a heart-in-mouth layer of suspense to be sat still, temporarily incapacitated, as primal zealots rush out of the brush. They know the land and they do not fuck about.
Their merciless methods are made apparent not long after as a strung-up Wolf is being tortured. Not for information, but for sport. Though he willingly offers up his brothers and sisters, he is disemboweled for his cooperation. Nearly every street pole in the territory that follows bears the body of a Wolf, it’s a harrowing glimpse at the ongoing tribalism that continually stokes the fires of conflict in this universe’s America, several decades after society’s breakdown.
To my surprise, there are several parts from this ‘Finding Nora’ mission that first appeared in the game’s original showing. From the collapsed parking garage to the behemoth Scar crashing through the rear door of a cleared out Merci shop front, mattock in hand. I remember thinking at the time that these moments, so fluid and clean, couldn’t possibly be gameplay and yet Naughty Dog’s in-house engine and industry-leading animation continues to set the standard for everyone else in the game. It’s staggering the power they’re still able to draw out of a console at the end of its life-cycle.
In the game’s coolest easter egg by far, Devolver’s Hotline Miami—another game that deals with ultra-violence and the fetishisation of it—cameos on what must be the world’s absolute last PlayStation Vita in the game’s timeline. Ellie sneaks up on an unsuspecting Wolf, M.O.O.N.’s ‘Hydrogen’ pumping through her earbuds, extracts Nora’s whereabouts before point-blank plunging her switchblade into her throat as a torrent of blood pours onto the floor. Though it’s hard to watch at times, and killing the dogs is exceptionally uncomfortable, the game’s unflinching violence is a necessary byproduct of its tremendous combat which finds a sublime balance of up-close and personal and ranged.
“Do you like hurting other people?”
It’s a famous question posited in the early stages of Dennaton’s neon-drenched, crime epic. The answer here, as it was there, is resoundingly affirmative. Like The Last of Us before it, safety is never guaranteed in Part II and there’s a satisfaction that comes with just surviving, no matter the body count. Naughty Dog pulls no punches in depicting what this world is and who Ellie has become as a result of it. She has become death, an agent of revenge and a powerful wind of change that, against the odds, assumes the role of predator and corners her game.