Naughty Dog’s excellent post-apocalyptic character piece The Last of Us, originally released in 2013 on PlayStation 3, is sure to appear on many critics’ “Best of the 2010s” lists. Now, with a recently announced release date of Feb. 21, 2020, The Last of Us Part II is set to stake Sony’s claim in the early months of the new decade. EW traveled to Hollywood on Tuesday for the first hands-on gameplay demo of The Last of Us Part II and sampled two substantial, hour-plus segments of uninterrupted time with Ellie and, yes, Joel (if only for a second). Based on these select hours, the game, which Naughty Dog vice president Neil Druckmann promises will be the largest the studio has ever created, feels as viscerally suspenseful and painstakingly designed as its predecessor.
In the first available demo, excerpted from near the beginning of the game, Ellie and her best friend and love interest, Dina, are out on a horseback patrol near their home community of Jackson, Wyo. As the two make their way to patrol checkpoints, they muse about everything from recent relationships to what life must have been like before the infection spread to the likelihood of dying of old age in the current hostile world.
The formula of two characters traveling throughout the post-collapse environment and commenting on the ambient storytelling set pieces along the way will feel familiar to players of the first game. This type of walk-and-talk relationship building, especially in slower sections, was the heart of TLoU, whether it was reinforcing the central pairing of Joel and Ellie or establishing histories with other important characters like Joel’s brother Tommy or longtime partner Tess. Here, the dialogue between Ellie and Dina is as awkward and charming as one might expect of the banter between two teenagers who are unsure how to admit they’re in love.
After encountering an eviscerated moose and clearing out a grocery store full of Runners and Clickers, the two take shelter from a blizzard in an abandoned underground weed farm, spark a joint, and get intimate.
Nothing has been definitively revealed about Ellie’s overarching motivations in this game aside from the fact that they are rooted in revenge, but the most recent trailer seems to heavily imply that something unsavory is going to happen to Dina. This would be a shame for a number of reasons, since Dina is, so far, a likable character who brings out a side of Ellie the first game didn’t explore enough, and LGBT love stories in all media have a nasty tendency to end in tragedy. But one thing Druckmann made clear during his introductory remarks on the game was that something bad would happen to someone Ellie holds dear, and it will lead her down a path of vengeance and cyclical violence.
The second section of gameplay on display takes place an unspecified amount of time later in the game, after whatever calamity motivating Ellie has already occurred. Rather than snowy Wyoming, this section of the game is set in the lush greenery of overgrown Seattle, which Druckmann confirms will be one of the game’s major areas. Ellie’s goal in this section is to find Tommy and rescue him from a hostile militia group called the Washington Liberation Front. This portion of gameplay is much more focused on combat encounters, and Ellie has more options to deal with enemies, including additional weapons and abilities.
Mechanically, the game feels similar to TLoU, but with a few improvements. As far as traversal goes, the addition of a jump button is a nice touch, and the ability to go prone helps with stealth encounters. Combat, especially in melee range, also feels smoother due to an improved ability to dodge.
But the enemies also have enhanced tactics. One of the largest differences between the first game and this sequel demo is the enemy AI. Members of the WLF will engage in coordinated attacks and flanking maneuvers, and most notably, make use of search dogs when Ellie is in stealth.
The dogs, which follow Ellie’s scent trail, dramatically change the way hit-and-run tactics play out. They also add an additional emotional hiccup to combat, since killing dogs is inherently yucky, which Druckmann fully understands. Even the ways human enemies interact with each other drive home the notion that this violence is designed to make the player feel profoundly uncomfortable. When the grunts hunting Ellie call out to each other by name, it makes it feel all the dirtier to enact violence against them. Hopefully the full game can successfully walk the tightrope of using combat as a compelling gameplay foundation while leaning into that discomfort to make a point about the morally destructive loop of violence.
Another new enemy type in the demo with fewer ethical implications is a type of infected called a Shambler. This fungal fellow is heavily infected and looks like a smaller, less dangerous version of the first game’s Bloaters. It attacks by spreading damaging spores from its body, and when it dies, it explodes in a cloud of poisonous debris.
Since Ellie is on her own in this second portion of gameplay, there’s no on-the-move dialogue, but one of The Last of Us’ other primary types of environmental storytelling is on full display. Without spoiling too much, a series of found notes tells the heart-wrenching story of how a group of people wound up locked in a spore-filled garage and lost their minds to the infection.
Wrapping up the demo was the same reveal that ended the most recent trailer. Joel finds Ellie as she’s working her way toward Tommy and tells her that he’s not going to let her do whatever she needs to do alone. Since Joel hasn’t featured much in the previous trailers, there’s been all kinds of speculation about the role he will play in the second game. With this latest reveal, Druckmann assures that Joel and Ellie will be together for a significant portion of the story. “The first game was a dual-protagonist story, but Joel took the lead, and this one I would say is a dual-protagonist story where Ellie is taking the lead,” Druckmann says. “So Joel has a major part in this narrative, but it is more centered around Ellie and her journey as she pursues justice.”
These demos were a highly effective showcase of some of the things that made the first game in this series so great, but the overall success of the game will come from the handling of the story and Ellie’s character arc, which is something that can’t be shown in an all-too-brief press event. Luckily, Naughty Dog has a solid track record with its storytelling choices, so these initial signs are encouraging.
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The Last of Us Part II