Fighting for your life in a world that wants to kill you is part of the core of The Last of Us Part 2, with the game often putting its characters in situations in which survival requires acts of vicious brutality. Throughout the first game in the series, developer Naughty Dog raised questions of what people are willing to do in order to survive, as well as what they will sacrifice for the people they love. In The Last of Us, those questions centered on the parental relationship between protagonist Joel and his 14-year-old charge, Ellie. In The Last of Us Part 2, the spotlight is on an older, more capable Ellie, who's motivated by similar forces but which stem from a different place.
The post-apocalypse of The Last of Us sees the world thrown into chaos by a zombie-like fungus that turns humans into unthinking killing machines, which has collapsed almost all of civilization. In the wake of that event, every day is a fight for survival, both against the infected and other human beings who are willing to kill one another just to stay alive. Fighting other people was a huge part of The Last of Us, and in Part 2, Ellie embarks on a quest for revenge against other survivors.
We played about two hours of The Last of Us Part 2 at a Sony event in Los Angeles, and throughout the session, Ellie killed a whole lot of people. The preview we played consisted of two sections, the first of which seemed to be the setup for Ellie's crusade. Naughty Dog didn't fill in the details of her motivations, but the first scene was all about Ellie's relationship with Dina, her best friend and burgeoning crush. We last saw Dina in Naughty Dog's E3 2018 trailer, which showed Ellie and Dina sharing a kiss during a dance in their relatively secure town of Jackson, Wyoming. That scene suggests Ellie has romantic feelings for Dina that aren't necessarily reciprocated, but by the end of our first gameplay session, Ellie and Dina's relationship had changed to become a romance.
During the event, writer Neil Druckmann said that some terrible event pushes Ellie to track down a group of survivors to exact her retribution. The most recent trailer for Part 2 implies that the event is something very bad happening to Dina.
For the most part, though, the first section of our demo felt a lot like its predecessor. There was a lot of sneaking around, killing infected "runners" (the more agile, more recently infected enemies), and a few "clickers," their blind but deadlier elders. Ellie carries a switchblade now--gone is the need to constantly craft shivs to stealthily kill clickers--so in most combat situations with the infected, your go-to approach is to sneak up behind for a quick silent takedown.
Figuring out how to use the environment to your advantage and distracting enemies with thrown bottles and bricks are still essential to these moments. And as in the last game, getting spotted turns the slow and stealthy approach into a heart-pounding nightmare as you try to take out enemies before you're overwhelmed or grabbed and killed by a clicker.
The Last of Us was essentially a cooperative experience with Joel and Ellie working together, and in the first scene, every combat encounter found Ellie working with Dina. Co-director Anthony Newman told GameSpot that Naughty Dog has amped up your allies' capabilities in Part 2. Where the studio could get away with keeping the younger and less experienced Ellie mostly out of the fight in the first game, in the demo we played, both characters are seasoned survivors. Thus, Dina is a more active ally who you can rely on. She'll execute her own stealth kills, for instance, and is helpful in a straight fight. Dina's active participation in combat also paves the way for additional strategic considerations.
The Last of Us 2 News
"In the past in almost all of our games, the allies have done kind of fake damage, where you see them shoot enemies and it's a little bit theatrical--like their bullets are clearly doing way less damage than yours," Newman said. "What I'm really excited about is that with a lot of effort and some clever AI tricks, every time you see an ally shoot an enemy, their bullets do exactly as much damage as yours do, which is just another way that players are able to make predictions and think two or three steps ahead. When they see Dina take a couple of shots, and then they realize, 'I only need one more shot to finish off that enemy because I saw that happen.' And I think it's great that players can now count on that and make those kinds of plans interacting with your allies."
While there were clickers to kill and buildings to scavenge, most of the first scene we played was about the relationship between Ellie and Dina. The original game was filled with conversations between Ellie and Joel as you explored the world, with both characters commenting on landmarks, objects, and collectibles. You'll find those same optional conversations and character-building moments in Part 2. Ellie and Dina stopping to check out a snowy mountain vista triggered one of those conversations, as the pair took in the view while dancing around their clear attraction to each other and the rapidly changing nature of their friendship. Watching Ellie and Dina figure out how to deal with their feelings was the highlight of the demo--Naughty Dog beautifully captures Ellie's struggle to determine exactly where she stands with Dina in the wake of their kiss.
Killing In The Name
The second section of the game was a much later level that mostly focused on combat, stealth, and crafting. It began with Ellie alone in Seattle, a former quarantine zone that has been overtaken by a militant group called the Wolves. Druckmann described the group as xenophobic, killing trespassers on sight. The level was apparently a bit of a pit stop for Ellie--her goal there was to find Tommy, Joel's brother, who was also trapped in Seattle and is being hunted by the Wolves.
Ellie's new abilities in Part 2 are countered by smarter human enemies who coordinate more and work together to flush her out of cover or flank her. The biggest new change to combat in this section was the addition of scent-seeking attack dogs that some of the Wolves employed to find trespassers. As Newman explained, the dogs change up stealth gameplay significantly because they force Ellie to be a lot more mobile and reactive. You can't just hang back to stay out of sight and keep quiet--you now have to deal with enemies who can pick up your scent.
Ellie now leaves a scent trail behind her as she moves around an area, and if dogs cross it, they can start to track her. You can see the trail in the refined Listen mode, which allows you to see enemies behind walls and through obstacles, to give you the sense of the dog's path before it finds you. Getting dogs off your scent requires either distracting them by throwing something or staying on the move until your trail dissipates. Luckily, Ellie's ability to crawl through tall grass makes her a lot tougher for other enemies to spot, so while you're forced to move around a lot more in Part 2, you have more options for avoiding detection, at least at a distance.
The dogs are a vicious addition to combat, as well. Get spotted, and you'll have to deal with incoming fire from enemies as well as the attack dogs attempting to knock Ellie down and tear her throat out. Ellie's switchblade gives her close-range melee options, as do other weapons you can find in the game, like axes and machetes. With so many Wolves wandering around, we found ourselves getting caught quite a few times during the second section--and fighting a lot of dogs.
As in the first game, Naughty Dog puts a big emphasis on the horror of Ellie's battles with other characters, whether human, infected, or canine. But fighting other humans takes on a significant note of savagery. Stealth kills are an intense affair in which a person struggles as Ellie slams her knife into their neck, gritting her teeth as she strains against their panicked flailing until blood and life pour out of them. Melee fights often end with a blade embedded in the side of an enemy before they sputter and collapse.
Naughty Dog has also increased the brutality of fighting for your life in another, more thematic way: Every human enemy in Part 2 is named, so characters will often call out to each other by name as they discuss tactics or shout orders. Kill someone, and their friends will call out their name in anguish. The same goes for the dogs; it seems you'll hear a lot of pained cries from dog owners as you kill their companions in Part 2. Hearing your enemies react in emotional pain (in addition to physical pain) is a jarring addition that Newman said emphasizes the core thematic thrust of the series--and it's meant to be unsettling.
"A big part of the theme of the game are the parts of your humanity that are lost or potentially stripped away when you pursue justice," Newman said. "The lengths that you go for justice can have a very high human cost to you personally. And one of the ways I'm really excited about that we're kind of bringing that to life is our named enemies. ...Not only does it show how intelligent they are that they're able to coordinate, but by naming them, they become that much more of a real human."
Ellie's ability to get around in stealth also helps her out in combat, making a hit-and-run style more viable than it was for Joel. Naughty Dog's encounter design emphasizes your ability to run to get out of trouble, find a better spot to make a stand, or re-enter stealth. Most areas where we fought enemies were large, with lots of opportunities to jump through windows or crawl through holes in walls to lose pursuers or trick enemy combatants. Running is a major part of your repertoire in fights, and Ellie's ability to quickly reposition herself in big areas with lots of different options is all but essential if you want to survive against several enemies at once. Your sprint button is also now a dedicated dodge button; time it right and you can slip under the swing of an enemy axe to open them up to a counterstrike, or make it tougher for someone to shoot you as you try to find cover.
Combat is as harrowing in Part 2 as it was in The Last of Us, and no more forgiving. Wolves quickly descended on Ellie's position if we started shooting and hunted her once they knew she was around. Even after we'd given enemies the slip, they stayed on alert, combing the area for any sign of Ellie. The enemies are smarter, but as Newman explained, making them more realistic also makes them more predictable, which gives the player some advantages, too.
"Our AI now has a new state of awareness between complete awareness of your position and being totally unaware of where you are," he said. "We sometimes call it 'vague knowledge.' An enemy can see another enemy get killed by a silent weapon like the bow or our new crafted silencers that you can attach to the pistol, and they will infer from the direction that the arrow came from, 'I think it came from over there,' but they don't know your actual position. ...By having these kinds of more refined and nuanced layers of knowledge and perception and coordination, players can make better and better predictions, and make more refined strategies about what to do next."
Crafting is still a big part of The Last of Us Part 2, both in and out of combat. You'll spend a lot of your time checking every drawer and shelf for things like alcohol, rags, bullets, and weapon components, in order to make things like medkits, molotov cocktails, and smoke bombs. As with the last game, you can craft anywhere on the fly if you have the right items but the action doesn't stop--you'll need to find cover or hide yourself before opening your backpack.
Crafting works pretty much the way it did in The Last of Us, but Naughty Dog has made some significant changes to how you'll improve Ellie's abilities in Part 2. You'll still look for supplement pills throughout the game to help make Ellie stronger, but the game's new skill trees put a lot more emphasis on giving her new abilities than in increasing her stats. Ellie has several upgrade trees that are usually linked to a certain theme; you can increase her movement speed while prone on one tree, for instance, while another allows her to craft smoke bombs that also stun enemies. The ability to build new consumable silencers for your pistol is something you'll have to unlock from a skill tree as well. We also discovered a training manual in the preview level, which unlocked a whole new archery-related skill tree for Ellie, full of its own specific upgrades.
Weapon modding has also been revamped quite a bit. The basics are the same as in The Last of Us, in which you pick up generic components and use them to upgrade your guns at a workbench. But most of the upgrades alter how your guns work and handle, making them a much more important part of customization. We slapped a scope on a hunting rifle for long-range combat, while cutting the recoil and sway on a pistol to make it more viable for stealthy situations when paired with craftable silencers. Newman said Naughty Dog wanted Part 2's weapons to feel more like part of your character as you customize them, to put an emphasis on allowing you to enhance your particular play style through your choices as you upgrade both Ellie and her guns.
The Last Of Us Part 2, Not The Last Of Us 2
Newman said Part 2 will be a blend of the kinds of scenes we saw, with sections in which Ellie will work with allies and others where she'll be alone. But like the Last of Us Part 2 trailer released during Sony's State of Play event this week, the second preview section ended with Ellie discovering Joel in Seattle, suggesting that at least part of Ellie's journey will see the two characters reunited in both story and gameplay.
Newman also said that Ellie and Joel's relationship is a big part of the story in Part 2, despite the fact that Joel has been absent from everything Naughty Dog has shown about the game until now.
"Thematically, I think what I would say is there's a reason this game is called Part 2 and not 2," he said. "It really is an exploration of where their relationship goes at the end of the first game. There's kind of a little bit of a hanging note of discord after the first game, where after everything that happens, it's clear that Ellie isn't quite on board with what Joel is telling her at the end of The Last of Us 1. And really I think Part 2 delves into what happens next, where does it go from there. And I think that the world of The Last of Us is so rich and has the opportunity for so many stories in general that can be woven in and out of the story of Joel and Ellie that we felt really compelled to try and explore those kinds of stories."
But it also seems pretty clear that Naughty Dog's focus is on Ellie's story in Part 2, what her search for revenge will cost her, and what she--and you--will be willing to do to get it. As Newman said, it's supposed to be unsettling.