The original game moved more than 17 million units and won countless awards, often regarded as the crowning achievement and pinnacle of the PlayStation 3 generation. Now, with likely a year or so left in our current console lifespan, Naughty Dog invited a rather exclusive and limited group of journalists to Los Angeles to take a peek at their—to put it lightly—highly anticipated sequel. Yes, it’s looking good. Yes, it plays well. Yes, Ellie and even ya boi Joel are back for more gruesome and emotionally exhausting adventures in the post-breakout world of the Pacific Northwest. You know you want it, you know it’s going to be amazing, but in case you need more motivation, the following are impressions gained by playing two sections of the game, one from the beginning and another from about halfway through.
The first demo section we got to play takes place about a year after the events of the first game, and finds Ellie and her friend Dina on a scouting mission on the outskirts of the town of Jackson, in the depths of winter. Ellie and Dina are on horseback, searching for infected and marauders while a blizzard rages. The gameplay mechanics are more or less the same as the first game—third-person action focusing heavily on stealth, gun and melee combat, and hunting for crafting supplies. What is new for players boils down to the fact that this is now Ellie’s game, not Joel’s, and due to the nature of her size, stature, and youth, Ellie has a few more tricks up her sleeve for players to take advantage of. First things first, Ellie is faster and lighter than Joel, and she can both dodge and jump, giving her a lighter, more fluid approach to combat encounters as well as traversal. The levels now feature a lot more verticality, with Ellie now able to leap up and clamber over walls and fences as well as avoid enemy attacks. That’s not to say she doesn’t pack a punch though, and the brutal, visceral combat from the first game returns for the sequel.
Shooting an enemy is one thing, but it’s the melee sections that feel truly gruesome and heavy. Whether she’s stabbing an enemy multiple times in the stomach or running them through with a machete, the encounters in this game carry some weight. It simply feels more realistic than most other action games, and the sound design takes it to the next to the level—the gurgling of a dying enemy after you slice their throat or their choking gasps as they collapse with a machete through their chest adds such a gritty, primal aspect to the game that you can’t help but take it seriously. This isn’t a fun and breezy romp through the park, each encounter feels important and risky.
Naughty Dog games are known for their deep and engaging stories and the grounded, genuine, and believable relationships between the characters. A lot of love and care were poured into this game and it shows, but the developers have provided the player with the option to simply enjoy the game at a basic level with brief cutscenes and dialogue that tell the story, but offer the option for the player to instigate conversation encounters—or not— to help flesh out the story or ignore to keep playing. The level of detail in the world, like notes left scattered around the levels and even the layout of items, all help to craft this narrative, encouraging players to investigate and learn more about the world and what happened. It’s up to the player in how deep they want to dive, but those who can’t enough of the world of The Last of Us will have plenty to chew on.
I’m not going to spoil much from the story so far, but rest assured for those curious, the relationship between Ellie and Dina is paramount and it shows. A cutscene that ended the demo section will lay to rest any fears that Naughty Dog is taking the easy way out and avoiding true representation.
The second demo section takes place much later in the game, following a life-changing event that remains the fulcrum on which the story rotates, and the general thematic centre of the game—rage, and cyclical violence. While the first game was about the relationship between father and surrogate daughter, this sequel—according to the devs—is both much bigger and much darker in scope. It’s not light subject matter, and Naughty Dog is evidently treating it with the gravitas it deserves. What this event is remains a mystery, and it’s clear Naughty Dog wants to save some surprises for the release date next year.
The next playable section takes place in a lush and overgrown Seattle that is under the control of a fascistic and xenophobic group called the Washington Liberation Front. The demo begins with Ellie on the hunt for a missing Tommy and features a lot more human enemies than infected. With their dogs, that can now track you by scent. Going back to previous comments about the serious but incredibly violent nature of the game, these tracker dogs make stealth a lot more difficult but they can be avoided using the “listen” feature, which allows the player to see their scent trail. You can distract them by tossing bottles or bricks and avoid engaging completely, or if you’re like me, lure them into a choke point and then light them on fire. The sound design here will immediately make you feel like a bastard for doing so, as there’s nothing quite so heartbreaking as the whimpers and whines of a dying canine. But the future is bleak and brutal for humans and animals. Sorry, Rex.
The Seattle sections were huge and a lot less linear than the first game. While you are still essentially trying to move from point A to point B, your path to get there can be tackled from a variety of directions. Most of the buildings, stores, and houses can be explored, and players will be rewarded for this exploration with crafting supplies, items, and interesting story elements. Your weapons for this section were more robust and varied as well, giving the player access to a shotgun, rifle, automatic pistol, and snub nosed revolver, along with axes, machetes, molotovs, and trip mines—an incredibly fun and useful tool for the crafty player. Set the mine in a choke point like a doorway or alleyway, and slowly draw the enemies towards you by letting the dogs track you or getting their attention via broken bottle and boom. Near the end of the encounter, Ellie also discovers the player-favourite weapon from the first game, the classic bow and arrow. Personally speaking, I played the majority of the original game using this weapon as my primary, go-to death machine, and there’s still something incredibly satisfying about taking out a group of enemies one by one from the shadows and hearing the panic rise in their conversation as they begin to discover the bodies.
All in all, the Last of Us Part II is shaping up to be exactly what players loved about the first game taken to the next level. The developers said that this is their biggest, boldest, and most ambitious title yet and that it is roughly 50 per cent bigger than the first title. We only got a brief glimpse and what’s in store for Ellie, but it was gorgeous, tightly crafted, lovingly designed, and everything you’d both expect from and want from a Naughty Dog game and a sequel to one of, if not the best title of the last generation. Stay tuned to CGM for more details, including a detailed in-depth interview with Neil Druckmann. In the meantime, check out some of the screens and footage here to stoke that excitement and ramp up the anticipation for February 2020.