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The Last Of Us 2 Preview: Brutal And Ruthless

The gameplay demo of The Last of Us Part II shown during PlayStation's State of Play was only a small piece of a much larger chapter.

In the recent State of Play presentation for The Last of Us Part II, there's a bit where returning protagonist Ellie sneaks up on a woman playing a PlayStation Vita, interrogates her at knifepoint, and then stabs her in the neck when she tries to retaliate. Ellie says something like "that was dumb" under her breath while wiping the blood off her switchblade.

I winced the first time I saw that scene during my own playthrough of the game, and I winced when I saw it again during the State of Play. Not just because I was bummed about the loss of a fellow PS Vita appreciator, and not just because the violence was so shocking and ruthless (I mean, I'm also playing a ton of Mortal Kombat 11: Aftermath now so a simple throat-stab is probably something I can handle). It's the way the kill was choreographed and framed to be so cold and understated that made it feel almost nauseating. The close-up, the gurgles, the way the camera lingers after the stab really made me squirm in my seat. They're really going to devote this much gory detail to the death of a super minor character? A big part of why it felt so uncomfortable is because it was an ice-cold move from Ellie, a character who I first knew and still kinda see in my mind as a young, relatively innocent teenager. But at this point in The Last of Us Part II, she's obviously not the same person--she's seen a lot of shit. And I mean a lot of shit.

I've also seen a lot of shit, including the lengthy gameplay portion of The Last of Us Part II that immediately precedes what was shown in the State of Play--roughly two hours in length. And even just from this small portion of the full game, it's easy to see that despite how familiar The Last of Us Part II is in its level structures, it's going a few extra steps to make its grisly world as believable and confronting as possible. I'm about to describe most of the chapter to you here but don't worry, there won't be any story spoilers.

This particular chapter of the game starts off with Ellie setting out on her own, with the goal to traverse the overgrown Seattle streets in order to reach a hospital. These kinds of in-between travelling sections will be familiar if you've played the first Last of Us; they're mostly linear sections of exploration with minimal enemy encounters, where you can focus on searching the environment, scavenging for useful materials, and learning more about those who came before you.

In The Last of Us Part II, this chapter shows off an area that's got a lot more to it than first appears. You can spend quite a bit of time exploring a number of optional spaces, if you've got a keen eye. These places often blend right into the rest of the city, but are filled with supplies, environmental puzzles, enemy encounters, and side stories. It might be something as simple as searching the employees-only area in an abandoned convenience store for crafting materials, or something a little more dangerous like the ritzy diner filled with a bunch of infected but probably also a bunch of extra supplies--a place which you can certainly skip altogether if you're not up to it.

Something a little more involved might be the multi-level office with a locked conference room door that you just can't ignore, which requires you to find a crafty way to bypass it. The solution here might involve steps such as finding a way outside the building by breaking glass windows (one of the most satisfying actions to perform in this game, thanks to the heft of the animation and audiovisual payoff), finding some rope, and creating a way to swing into the room via another window. An even more time-consuming side area in this chapter involved a multi-storey residential block with its own subplot to uncover as you go from apartment to apartment, culminating in something surprising--something I'm looking forward to talking to others about when they experience it.

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The slightly more involved side sections are usually more rewarding, too--you might find a safe whose code you need to crack using environmental clues, a place to upgrade your guns (something that's also high on the list of satisfying actions), trading cards to collect, a thing that might prompt Ellie to write a personal journal entry, or books that unlock a whole new skill tree. Getting the sense that all this great stuff could so easily be missed completely once you move on really motivated me to pay extra attention to the world and keep poking around every corner. I always felt like I could be overlooking something, and that makes the world seem very full.

Ellie eventually finds herself swimming in the sewers (which is gross; also, Ellie finally learned how to swim in The Last of Us Part II), and the chapter starts to heat up with a serving of large-scale combat encounters. Arriving at an overgrown city park area, you're introduced to one of the game's enemy factions, often referred to as "Scars"--they're the robed figures introduced in the game's 2017 teaser trailer and seen later in the E3 2018 gameplay reveal trailer. The group behave like hunters, methodically sweeping the area in pairs, preferring silent weapons like bows and melee objects and communicating with each other by whistling, which can be pretty unnerving. Getting hit by one of their arrows will result in Ellie continuing to lose health until she can find the breathing room to remove it, meaning taking Scars head-on can be more damaging than usual.

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The park area you first encounter them in is covered in tall grass, allowing you plenty of opportunities to move about the area unseen and perform guerilla strikes from behind, before quickly escaping and reentering stealth. The following area, the entirety of which can be seen in the aforementioned E3 2018 gameplay reveal trailer, sees you encountering a large group of Scars in a more exposed urban setting--a multi-storey car park and section of freeway. As seen in that gameplay trailer, evasion and using the new ability to go prone and hide under vehicles gives you a few more strategies to consider, and it's important to note that most of these bigger combat areas allow you to continue on without killing every last enemy.

But me? I really enjoy how fluid, weighty, and well-animated the combat is in The Last of Us Part II. At the risk of sounding like a psychopath, the presentation gives every action an "oomph" so satisfying I can't bear to leave an enemy standing as a missed opportunity in the same way I can't leave a stone unturned during exploration. I love the act of throwing a brick at an enemy or shooting them in the leg to stun them, and then sprinting in to finish them off with a big hit. I love the satisfaction of attracting a patrol to a certain location and then landing a particularly opportune Molotov cocktail. I like going toe-to-toe with a hulking melee enemy so I can make Ellie perfectly dodge their every strike and give them a death by a thousand switchblade cuts.

And that leads us directly into the State of Play gameplay demo featuring the hospital combat area, Ms. PlayStation Vita, and cold, cold violence. After these long combat encounters, the game just about had me convinced that in this universe, Ellie is way more sadistic than Joel when it comes to combat. That's thanks in part to technology allowing for a more realistic depiction of bodily mutilation, of course, for better or worse. It's also thanks to the fact that Ellie always has her switchblade on her, and stealth takedowns usually involve multiple torso and head stabbings--a feeling I am not a fan of imagining. There's also something to be said about the way that Ellie haphazardly duct-tapes a couple of knives to a wooden plank and uses that to go to town on human beings--I mean holy crap, Ellie.

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But the ruthless nature is also amplified dramatically by the ways in which the enemies now react and speak to one another--something that's more prominent with the soldier-like faction that guards the hospital, as opposed to the previous groups of Scars. Plenty of video game enemies have banter and barks, of course. But when an enemy in the Last of Us Part II discovers the body of someone they know and says something to the effect of "Oh my god, Alex! No..." with genuine-sounding grief and anger, I can't help but feel a little bit guilty. When I shoot someone in the torso but don't quite hit the critical mark and they're screaming and gurgling on the floor, I can't help beating myself up a little bit for giving them a slow, painful death.

I've seen a few people joke about the presence of a PlayStation Vita in The Last of Us Part II. These people obviously don't know the joys of an OLED screen, nice clicky buttons, and Japanese games. But the more important thing to note is the game the dead woman was (very obviously) playing on it. It's Hotline Miami--a game that lets you--no, requires you to pull off long strings of gruesomely creative kills in a bloodthirsty rampage and mostly lets you revel in it. A top-down perspective, vivid neon colours and a thumping electronic soundtrack help build a haze in which you can forget about everything except doing the best murders. It's hard not to wonder about this weird Easter egg and start to think about the parallels to the game at hand.

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The Last of Us Part II also requires you to pull off long strings of gruesome creative kills, but the difference here is that The Last of Us feels like it wants you to see those actions with perfect clarity. It's presented in a way for you to feel the pain of every cut, blow and shot you give and receive, and the result is far more intense than the first game. There's definitely an excitement when you land a clutch shot with your last bullet, or get a good jump on an enemy and clobber them to death, but it doesn't let you shy away from everything around the fringes that comes with those actions.

The melee combat feels incredibly good, but it's hard not to wince when you slam a machete into a person's shoulder or take them down with a knife to the side of the head. The damage modelling is satisfying, but there's always going to be a shock when someone's head shatters from a rifle shot or someone's skin gets melted by a Molotov cocktail. And when other enemy characters cry out the name of the guard dog you just exploded in front of them in disbelief, it's hard not to feel like a bad person. Whether this approach translates well to the rest of the game is something you'll have to wait until June 19 to discover.

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Edmond Tran

Editor / Senior Video Producer for GameSpot in Australia. Token Asian.

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