2020 has been one hell of a year. But one thing all of us can agree on is that it’s the video games that helped us get through these dark and challenging times.
From massive single-player games like Ghost of Tsushima, DOOM Eternal, Spider-Man Miles Morales, Demon’s Souls, FF7 Remake, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to big multiplayer games like Animal Crossing, COD Warzone dominating the scene to the indie scene thriving with the likes of Hades, GhostRunner, Ori, Plasmophobia and Risk of Rain 2, one could argue that 2020 was the best year in this entire console generation.
And in this behemoth of a year for video games, I delve into why Naughty Dog’s dark and depressing post-apocalyptic thriller( which some might argue is the last thing we needed in 2020) takes the top spot for me.
I am amongst the minority who preferred The Last of Us Part 1’s gameplay over the story. Now granted, I was 15 when Part 1 first came out,
Over time and many replays, I’ve come to appreciate what the writers accomplished and how the first game laid the groundwork for more character-driven stories in blockbuster AAA games. But for me, the real charm of Part 1 was how it was a brutal stealth shooter where every hit felt impactful, from blowing someone’s head with a shotgun to Joel driving a punch through someone’s neck. It was super satisfying to play(especially on harder difficulties where the enemies are smarter and more aggressive). This core combat loop was why I kept coming back to both campaign and multiplayer of The Last of Us Part 1. It’s Multiplayer Factions (which has developed a cult following of its own over the years).
So unlike most people, I was looking forward to the actual gameplay more than the story itself. But what Naughty Dog has pulled off with the narrative has managed to blow me away. During my first playthrough, I enjoyed the story during the first half, but it lost me when the game switched to Abby. Her Day 1 felt like a never-ending drag and got me thinking that it’s all downhill from there. But during her next days, the story picks up greatly, and her character dynamic with Lev and Yara was my favorite part of the story. And by the time Abby’s part concluded, I liked her a lot. I didn’t want to kill her. Naughty Dog’s “emotional manipulation” worked on me. I ended up liking Joel’s killer. And when I went to replay Abby’s Day 1, a section I earlier found a slog to get through, I liked it way more the second time around because I missed a lot of cool character moments while trying to rush through it during my first playthrough.
And by the time the credits rolled, I was staring at my TV screen to process what I just experienced. The game stirred something in my soul, and it’s scarce for a piece of media to do that for me, and no game has made me feel in such a way as this one did. Despite this game being out for nearly half a year, I still can’t stop thinking about it. And it’s gonna continue living rent-free in my mind for a long, long time.
(I won’t even get into Gustavo Santaolalla’s incredible music, which went a long way into making the story as impactful it is. And a huge shout-out to every actor in the cast gives a run to most Hollywood actors working today, Especially Ashley Johnson, who can nab an Oscar if video games were nominated)
A Technical Tour De Force
Naughty Dog has managed to do black magic with their code because there is no way this game should look as good as it looks and runs on my launch PS4 (which is essentially a low budget computer from 2011 in terms of hardware) smoothly. Even though this game runs at 30FPS, it felt a lot smoother than its predecessor, which runs at 60FPS on the PS4 thanks to the insanely fluid animations and Naughty Dog’s coding prowess. But it doesn’t end there. The game oozes detail in every area. Be the nature-rich recreation of a post-apocalyptic United States or be the sound design that makes every grunt, shot, stab, wail, bark, and smash come alive. I spent one hour of this game just smashing the windows of cars and buildings just because it sounded so heavenly. All in all, The Last of Us Part 2 is an incredible treat for eyes and ears, and it’s gonna be quite a while before this game gets dethroned. Even with the next generation consoles on the market.
The Gameplay: Saving the best for the last
I have already mentioned how my favorite part of The Last of Us Part 1 was its gameplay, and to no one’s surprise, its sequel improves the gameplay in every conceivable way. Naughty Dog’s experimentation with wide linear levels, which they started with Uncharted 4, feels fully realized here as the scarce resources encouraged me to loot every nook and cranny of Seattle and the incredible world-building at play here ( how every collectible adds to the lore and goes great lengths into showing how other inhabitants have been affected in this world by the virus outbreak) makes the exploration incredibly rewarding.
Now for the combat. This is where all the stars truly align. Naughty Dog took the first game’s combat mechanics and expanded and polished them to an insane degree. The enemy AI is amongst the absolute best I’ve seen in a video game (especially on the hardest difficulty where they can even hear you reloading your weapons). Every combat encounter is filled with tension up to the brim. I am not exaggerating when I say that playing this game on Grounded difficulty had me doing the most intense crawling I’ve done in a video game, and I have been playing stealth games since MGS on PS1.
Apart from the stellar AI, this game owes a lot of its intensity to Mac Quayle’s (Composer on Mr. Robot) combat music. His music took the intensity from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds as soon as the encounters started and kept my blood pumping all the way through.
It’s also commendable how the level design perfectly accommodates both a ghost stealth playstyle or killing everything that moves in a John Rambo way and how seamless the transition switching between these 2 states is.
As for the core combat mechanics itself, this is by far the best third-person shooter I’ve played. The controls fit like a glove( and even if they don’t, you can customize every button to your liking). Then it’s incredibly satisfying blowing up a group of enemies with a dynamite arrow, clutching the last moment headshot with a 9mm, and I could go on and on about the combat all the day, but you get the gist. Call me a psychopath, but I absolutely love how Naughty Dog tried to humanize the enemies more. It makes the carnage I am unleashing on them even more weighty. Blasting someone’s leg off with a shotgun, hearing them scream in anguish, and then stomping their head with a baseball bat is what I live for in my video games. The violence here makes Gears of War look like Kingdom Hearts, and I absolutely love it.
I will be doing this game an injustice if I fail to mention how many bonus gameplay modifiers ND included here. From visual filters, which change the game’s entire look to mirror mode to unlimited supplies to a bullet-time mode like Max Payne. It makes replaying all these encounters entertaining. And I have already spent around 170 hours on this game (which is more than 4 times what I spend on an average open-world game), and I plan to spend even more time replaying these encounters again and again when the inevitable PS5 version comes out.
Breaking new grounds in Accessibility
This piece wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the gargantuan steps Naughty Dog has taken in pushing the envelope of video games accessibility as they did with their narrative. This video from blind gamer Steve Saylor perfectly explains Naughty Dog’s dedication to making gaming more accessible to people from all walks of life. This right here is the gold standard for what a AAA studio should strive to surpass if they want their games reaching out to more people.
Naughty Dog has managed to catch lightning in a bottle twice in a row.
The Last of Us Part 2 has broken new grounds for narrative-driven games once again, just like its predecessor did in 2013.
With the success of The Last of Us Part 2, it’s only a matter of time when more AAA studios tackle more ambitious and risky narratives with mature themes instead of cookie-cutter crowd-pleasing ones. And I, for one, couldn’t be more excited to embrace this future.