I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to play The Last of Us Part II, the sequel to my favorite game, for a long time. I figured it would be part of Sony’s PlayStation 5 lineup, and that anticipated game console hasn’t even got a launch date yet.
So I was thrilled to play a preview this week in Los Angeles, as Sony and developer Naughty Dog showed off the game to the press for the first time in 16 months and then said it would debut on the PlayStation 4 on February 21.
This is a very welcome development. If Naughty Dog tried to do the game instead as a PS5 title, it might focus on spiffing up the graphics. But this way, by publishing on the huge installed base on the PS4, they have a chance to make more money — but only if they beef up everything like the gameplay, the story, and the quality of the title.
And I’m glad to report that all looks good, based on a couple of hours of gameplay. Naughty Dog itself is very confident. Co-creator Neil Druckmann, vice president at Naughty Dog, said the game is the longest and most ambitious one that Naughty Dog has ever made. (For the record, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was a very long game). I’ve got a lot of impressions. I also interviewed co-game director Anthony Newman about the decisions Naughty Dog made.
The story so far
The Last of Us could have passed for a typical postapocalypse zombie game. But it focused on the relationship between two characters, the elder grizzled Joel, who lost his teenage daughter in the fungal outbreak that triggered the apocalypse; and Ellie, a 14-year-old who was immune to the virus and grew up quickly in her trek across the country with Joel.
Their daily existence was about survival in a dangerous world full of zombie-like creatures and human predators. As Joel and Ellie journeyed on and learned to count on each other for survival, they formed a bond. As I played, I was so fearful I was going to lose one of them to the countless dangers they encountered.
“The question was like, ‘How far are you willing to go to protect the ones you love?'” Druckmann said. “And by the end of the first game, Joe was willing to sacrifice himself, his friends, all of mankind, and even his own relationship with a girl who was a surrogate daughter, in order to protect her.”
For the player, the emotional transference of that fear is real. And you feel it not only for Ellie, as the stereotypical father-daughter bonding would suggest on the surface, but also for Joel, as Ellie has to step up, become a hero, and protect Joel in the same way he protects her. I played this game with a couple of my daughters, and those fears hit home.
Druckmann said “Everything we did in the game — from the gameplay to the music, to the mechanics, to the cut scenes to the pacing to the genre that we picked — was all done in service of creating that feeling, provoking that emotion, and then playing with.”
A new story takes shape
Now, Druckmann said, the second game is different. We’re not sure about the full story, but Druckmann wanted us to know the larger theme and thinking behind the sequel. Druckmann says that something happens to Ellie’s life that turns everything upside down. And as you can see from the new trailer, Ellie’s ferocious and violent side returns in Part II.
“We wanted to explore this tangential feeling that sometimes comes up with love, which is hate,” he said. “And just to give you a glimpse of this thing, we’re talking about this feeling. Maybe you’ve driven on the road, maybe someone has crossed to the wrong way. But I’m sure all of you — I don’t care how much you meditate — how you want to give them the finger and yell at them.”
The question now becomes, if someone does harm to someone you love, how far are you going to go to get revenge? How much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice as you bring the people responsible to justice? Is there any coming back from this emotion around revenge?
Naughty Dog crafted its second game and the whole experience around these ideas.
“And without giving too much away, just like in the first one we didn’t give a lot away,” Druckmann said. “We feel like we have a story that’s in a familiar genre. But it’s very unique in how we’re telling it what we’re saying in it.”
The Last of Us took place 25 years after the viral apocalypse (the year 2013 in the game). And The Last of Us Part II takes place five years later, when Ellie is now 19. She has grown up and become a ferocious killer, with plenty of post-traumatic stress.
And she and Joel have fallen in with a group of survivors in a town called Jackson in the middle of the country. Nature is reclaiming cities. Infected human monsters (fast but weak Runners and blind but powerful Clickers) roam the countryside, and humans are left in small enclaves.
Jackson is one of the beacons of hope, a refuge of civil society in a world of chaos.
“This is where Ellie and Joel ended up,” Druckmann said. “Elle is trying to live without trauma and get past it. And she has hobbies, she has friends, she has a job she has crushed. And she almost lives a normal life in a way that we know.”
As we know from the previous trailer from E3 2018, Ellie is infatuated with a young woman named Dina, who kisses Ellie on the dance floor. Ellie and Dina go out on a patrol together to help keep the Jackson colony safe.
So why does Ellie go on a rampage in the trailer? I think that someone she loves gets killed.
Of course, this is a video game, not a movie.
The Last of Us got criticism for having repetitive gameplay. You had to sneak up behind the dozing Clickers (who could sense your movement) and the Runners (who have poor eyesight but some human senses). Then you had to stab them in the brain or elsewhere to take them down in a stealth kill. I didn’t mind it. It was a kind of macabre ballet, where you had to choreograph a death scene perfectly or find yourself in a sea of ravenous beasts.
The same is true now, and Naughty Dog keeps you guessing about which way the Clickers and Runners (and later-stage enemies) are going to turn. Getting behind them isn’t easy, and it’s more complicated when there are a bunch of them.
By comparison, the humans who hunt you actively aren’t nearly as difficult to shoot or fight in melee combat. But the humans hunt you in packs. Again, you have to choreograph your stealth kills or get discovered.
And once all hell breaks loose, you have to pray that you have scavenged enough ammo to do the job. After the apocalypse, they aren’t manufacturing more bullets. And so in every place you can, you have to scrounge for ammo and other things to craft.
One of the good things about Part II is that there are more useful things to craft. If you find a bow, you can craft arrows. That replenishes ammo in a way you have never had before.
In a mission dubbed The Patrol, Ellie and Dina leave Jackson on horseback and go out on a long patrol to make sure that no trouble is brewing for the town. Jackson is in a valley in the mountains, surrounded by a wilderness. In the snowy winter, Ellie and Dina ride into a ghost town.
For a second, playing as Ellie, I almost lost Dina in a snowstorm. But they were reunited and found evidence of trouble with the bloody corpse of a moose. Sure enough, dozing in the town are a bunch of Runners and Clickers. You have to take them out, with Dina taking out one while Ellie takes out another. They make a good team. I noticed a few things that were new. You can squeeze through narrow spaces by pressing X. And you can dodge a melee attack.
Once they take out all of the enemies in the place, they can relax.
They talk a lot about a friend named Eugene, an older man who died of a stroke. They find his hiding place and found that he was growing a bunch of marijuana in the basement of an old public library. They find a stash of weed and take some hits.
Dina asks Ellie, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate last night’s kiss?” Ellie blushes. They do this kind of courtship ritual that reminds you of the awkwardness of young romance, and then they end the scene in a passionate makeout session. Ellie never looked so happy.
You see why I think things don’t end well for Dina later in the game?
After I played the Jackson level, I moved on to a scene in Seattle. Overtaken by greenery, the city of the great northwest is now in a quarantine zone and is run by a paramilitary group that is after Tommy, Joel’s brother.
As part of her revenge story, Ellie goes there to save Tommy, but she must deal with a bunch of hostile and xenophobic soldiers, who shoot outsiders on sight. These human enemies are very different from the small packs of human thieves or zombies. These are soldiers who travel in groups and hunt methodically, using dogs.
You go from shop to shop, house to house, trying to get around the soldiers. When they discover you, you have to take them out in a melee. In the worst case, you go into a gunfight. But that will draw others upon you.
Sometimes, I won these big gunfights. But it’s better to avoid them via stealth kills. And if you take the nearby soldiers out, you can return to stealth, as the distant enemies will lose track of you. As Druckmann said, sometimes running away is the best course. I liked how you could now go prone and hide under things or stay still in the tall grass.
And yes, you have to shoot Rover. Just think of the dog as someone who is going to get you in trouble by sniffing you out. In Seattle, it seemed like about one in five of the humans were accompanied by a dog. The dogs can smell you.
But you have one advantage. By pressing the R1 button, you can see the outlines of nearby humans. And you can see the trail you have left behind that will lead the dog to you. If you throw a bottle, a brick, or create some other diversion, you can throw the dog off your trail.
The dogs are tough because they require your immediate attention, even if humans are shooting at you from multiple directions. If the dog gets to you, it will attack and you will have to jam the square button over and over to get it off you. If you fail that, you die. With the dogs, it’s no longer a great option to just sit and wait to ambush the humans.
I had to use whatever I could to get through this level. The bow was useful, but I did not have enough arrows and I could not find enough ammo. I used some trip mines, which blow up if someone comes nearby. My best hiding spot was an upper level bedroom with two smashed windows. I could hop out one window, hop in the other, and then attack from behind.
The game threw a surprise at me in another way. I opened one door and I found six Runners locked in one room. They attacked and overwhelmed me. I tried again, threw in a bomb, but it missed. Then I had to empty almost all of my bullets at them. That left me incredibly low on ammo as I had to deal with wave after wave of human hunters.
I actually ran out of ammo and couldn’t pick enough up off the bodies. I barely made it out of the level alive. I had just a single bottle left, and a knife. That was all. I was so pissed that there wasn’t more ammo scattered throughout the landscape. But that’s The Last of Us style.
Upgrading weapons is something you can do at a workbench. These are once again scattered throughout various buildings in the levels. But now the process is a little more visual, as Ellie goes through the motions of modifying the weapons. It takes a bit longer, but it is visually pleasing.
I felt like I was finding a nuts and bolts to make mechanical improvements. But, in contrast to recent Tomb Raider games, I didn’t feel like there was nearly enough wood available in the big forest to craft arrows. I could only collect a few arrows, not a whole quiver, and that meant that I was still dealing with the fundamental problem of not enough ammo.
Like I said. It was a thrill to play the game. Druckmann kindly said to me that he can’t wait for me to play the whole game.
The only possible drawback is that Naughty Dog’s comments and this revelation will only elevate the already impossibly high expectations.
But I think Naughty Dog can meet this challenge. They aren’t relying on technology. They are taking a long time to get the quality right. And they are attacking this challenge and the expectations with good old-fashioned gameplay improvements and a good story. I am already worried about who I have to protect and who I have to save.