Jun 19, 2020 - Technology

The Last of Us Part II debuts as the game for an uneasy summer

A screenshot of the video game "The Last of Us Part II," depicting player character Ellie riding a horse and overlooking an abandoned city.

Screenshot: Sony Interactive Entertainment

"The Last of Us Part II" is debuting Friday to rapturous reviews and towering expectations as the sequel to a landmark 2013 Playstation game. Its tale of a society shattered by an infection also turns out to be full of unplanned resonances in a season of pandemic and civil unrest in the U.S.

The big picture: Nintendo's "Animal Crossing," the video game hit of the spring, offered escapism as people hunkered down for an extended stay at home. "The Last of Us Part II," with a post-apocalyptic storyline full of moral quandaries, could become the game of the current moment.

Details: The years-in-the-making game, developed by Naughty Dog and exclusive to Sony's PlayStation 4, is a sequel to 2013's hit, "The Last of Us."

  • The earlier game saw the player control Joel, who develops a fatherly bond with teenaged Ellie — the only person known to be immune to a fungal infection that has ravaged the earth's population. (The disease is based on an actual fungal parasite that hijacks insects' brains.)
  • In the sequel — which Axios previewed thanks to a review copy from Sony Interactive Entertainment — you primarily control Ellie four years after the events of the original game, as the characters confront a fractured society, breakaway groups in Seattle and their own trauma.
  • Across 20 to 30 hours of gameplay, "The Last of Us Part II" grapples with the repercussions of a choice Joel must make at the end of the first game that leaves the world with little hope of curing its epidemic.

As with the first game, "The Last of Us Part II" offers narrative sophistication and moral ambiguity — rare in video games, particularly in big-budget studio products, which typically have players spend hours mowing down scores of enemies.

  • Some more ambitious games — like the rebooted "Tomb Raider" trilogy that kicked off in 2013 or recent entries in the "Far Cry" series of games — have tried, less satisfyingly, to graft weighty questions onto conventional "kill the bad guys, save the world" storylines.

Between the lines: "The Last of Us Part II" at times forces the player to make choices most of us would resist, then answer for the consequences. That, along with exceptional graphics and animation, gives the game, for all its fantasy elements, a real-life feel.

  • It's an echo of our broken world, filled with fractious, irrational people doing ignoble things with the best of intentions, and horrific things with no intention at all.

Of note: As Axios' Ina Fried has noted, "The Last of Us Part II" is also one of very few games to prominently feature a major LGBTQ character.

  • Ellie is gay, while another character is trans. In both cases, these facets of the characters' identities are presented matter-of-factly and handled more thoughtfully than other games have managed.
  • Naughty Dog is also introducing an unprecedented range of accessibility options for people with vision and motion impairments and other disabilities.

By the numbers: The 2013 original was a huge hit, selling 7 million copies on the PlayStation 3 and then another 10 million copies on the PlayStation 4 after being remastered in 2014, becoming among the top-selling games on both consoles.

  • Sony declined to offer preorder totals or internal sales expectations, but the sequel is bound to be a mega-hit as well.

The bottom line: Those playing "The Last of Us Part II" in this uneasy time may get a feeling of deja vu — whether or not they played the first game.

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