SPOILERS. SPOILERS. SPOILERS.
If you’re yet to play through The Last of Us Part II TURN BACK NOW. If you’ve finished it, or don’t care, read on…
AGAIN – SPOILERS.
I’ve said it plenty already, but I’ll say it again – a longer game does not make a better game. I just never thought I’d be saying that about a Naughty Dog game.
In case you hadn’t read the news, or somehow evaded the targeted advertising on social media despite being a member of every ‘console owners’ Facebook group, The Last of Us Part II is out. The follow-up to one of PlayStation’s most decorated exclusives has been a long time coming, and the critical reception has been nothing short of a unanimous “It’s fucking awesome”. Our own Managing Editor Zach Jackson showered it with praise and a bit fat 9.5/10 in his review. For the purposes of making this a succinct opinion piece and not an 8000-word rant, let’s for now pretend that sweaties on the internet aren’t review-bombing the game on Metacritic right now.
The cool thing about being a part of a gaming outlet with a range of contributors of various tastes and opinions, is that not all of us are going to agree with Zach’s review. If I’d been the one to pen WellPlayed’s review, for example, I think I’d have scored it more closely to an 8/10. That’s less than I gave Team Sonic Racing – can you imagine? I’d be laughed out of the business. I can explain though! See, I quite enjoyed The Last of Us Part II. It’s a brutal and beautiful product of a team of incredibly talented directors, developers, artists, writers, musicians and more that stands head-and-shoulders above most other games in almost every way. In that much I can understand the scores of critics heaping limitless lashings of praise on the game. If you ask me though, it’s just a bit bloody long.
This is where things start to get a bit spoil-y so if you somehow made it past the big, aggressive warning at the start of this, get outta here! For those sticking around, let’s talk about that mid-game twist. I’d really love to know at just which point in the design process it was decided that The Last of Us Part II would feature the surprise switch-up of playable characters halfway through. It’s a great moment – the steady build to a crescendo for Ellie’s journey in the game suddenly stops and gives way to the realisation that it’s not the end but another beginning, this time as the very person the game had been billing as the antagonist. Love it. A soft restart almost, and very much a second campaign that sees players take on the other side of Ellie’s revenge story to find that things aren’t as clear-cut as they seem. Very, very cool. To fool an entire fanbase into thinking they were getting an Ellie game only to find it’s really more of an Abby game. That takes gumption.
Seems that Naughty Dog blew the rest of their gumption budget on nose hair physics though, because they sure could have used some more and just cut Ellie’s campaign by about half. Yes, we all love our Ellie, but do we really love her enough to spend upwards of 10 hours traipsing around Seattle waiting for the story to kick off? I don’t reckon so. Yes, some of the more mundane moments are used to inject a nice bit of world and character-building, but (without writing out an exhaustive list) there are more than a few long sections of Ellie’s chapters that could easily be made more brisk. It’s as though the people at Naughty Dog didn’t trust players to appreciate the new ideas and so felt the need to meet a minimum quota of Ellie time equal to the original game’s runtime to soften the blow. Abby’s main portion doesn’t escape issues with filler either, but Abby is fresh and new and exciting. We know Ellie, we already like Ellie, we don’t need to be tricked into enjoying the sequel. Trust us to take the Abby medicine without the spoonful of Ellie to help it go down.
Outside of narrative, The Last of Us Part II’s struggles with pacing also extend to gameplay, though everyone’s experience with this issue might differ. See, Naughty Dog’s big, cinematic action games have always been mostly linear affairs that push the player in a single, constant direction from beginning to end. Now I’m totally down with that, but as time went on and detractors’ cries of “It’s a playable movie!” rung ever louder we started to see the developer experiment with wider explorable spaces like those in Uncharted 4. The Last of Us Part II thankfully doesn’t run wild with the idea, but its environments are undoubtedly larger and allow for more freedom of movement than ever. That’s obviously a win for anyone who despises being funnelled down a one-way track in their games, and it certainly gives the game a sense of place and scale that helps sell the world, but again Naughty Dog don’t seem to trust their players to enjoy these new ideas without clinging onto old ones. Which is why the game has tons of useless collectibles.
I like collectibles as much as the next guy. I have completionist tendencies for sure, and collectathon platformers are a particular guilty pleasure of mine. But The Last of Us doesn’t need them. Scavenging for crafting materials and ammo makes sense, sure, as does finding notes and other bits of incidental lore as you go through the world. Collecting trading cards and rare coins on the other hand, while not without relevance to the characters, is a pointless exercise in trying to hold players’ attentions in between all of the shooty and talky bits. This is partially my own problem, but there’s something about seeing empty checkboxes in the Chapter Select menu that drives me to potter around every corner of every area to make sure I’m not going to miss something. It makes me nervous to engage dialogue with the game’s secondary characters or act with any of the urgency that most situations demand for fear of accidentally moving the story forward. It hurts the pacing, and the trade-off is nothing. Turning an already-long 25 hours into 35 and encouraging people to replay chapters of the game you’ve intentionally made uncomfortable, confronting and emotionally exhausting to go on Easter egg hunts does not make your game better.
At the end of the day, the last thing I want is to sound like I didn’t enjoy The Last of Us Part II. It’s a well-crafted, gorgeous and gripping game that could only have come from a studio like Naughty Dog, but the more I reflect on it the more I feel disheartened by yet another ‘AAA’ game trading in brevity and pacing for extended gameplay hours. I speak to the entire AAA industry, not just Naughty Dog, when I say that I’d prefer to be wowed for 12-15 hours alone than wowed for 12-15 hours out of a total of 30. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to sign off before Zach chimes in with something about The Order 1886.