Our final preview is already online and in just a few days the final review will be as well, but that's not all. After getting new details during last month's State of Play we talked to game director Kurt Margenau to learn more about Naughty Dog's reason for selecting Ellie as the new protagonist, how her expanded moveset changes gameplay, and how the new enemies will keep players on their toes.
The original The Last of Us is such a perfectly self-contained game. When and why did you decide that you wanted to return the series?
Kurt Margenau: "We only wanted to make a second game if there was a story worth telling and, it took a little bit of time, but we found something we're really excited about, something that honours the characters and the relationship of Joel and Ellie and, at the same time, expands the universe by focusing on Ellie and her journey. Compared to the first game, we're allowing ourselves to see more into the world through her relationships and her view of the war-torn Seattle. So it was about really broadening our view of the world while still focusing on what makes The Last of Us important, which is the really close interpersonal relationships that you have."
So was Ellie always intended to be the new protagonist?
Kurt Margenau: "It was a logical and natural step. You obviously play a little bit as Ellie in the first game and that way we dipped our toes a little with regards to passing the torch. Ellie brings a lot of opportunities for the story and gameplay with her moveset having things like jumping, squeeze throughs and going prone. That and the new crafting and upgrades make a lot more sense because Ellie is herself growing, so we can feel like it's not shoehorning in or stomping on the first game to grow her mechanics."
Yeah, we've seen the jump mechanic a few times now. Can you give some examples of the gameplay opportunities it brings about?
Kurt Margenau: "We have a lot of experience with traversal. One of the big things with The Last of Us (Part I) was restraining ourselves because it's such a different world than Uncharted. It's a more grounded world, the characters have more realistic, human-like capabilities and for Joel's character it made sense to have a more limited moveset. Ellie is a lot younger, she's a lot lighter, more athletic, so it made sense to us to have the ability to jump, to have her being a little quicker, being able to dodge attacks. So, in a gameplay design sense it allows us to build interesting puzzles and really intricate combat spaces, but it also lets us feel like the world is more real as they are actions I can do in real life. We can build environments that are more authentic to the real Seattle. We have more opportunities to include things like smashing windows to attract enemies, throwing rope over fences. All these new interactions with the environment that we have, give the environment itself more meaning."
And how does the jump mechanic affect traversal?
Kurt Margenau: "It allows the player to have more freedom in all of the spaces we have such as overgrown suburb areas with houses and fences and tall grass everywhere. And yeah, you can climb out onto those rooftops, you can jump across them. We're really pushing the authenticity of those spaces in a way we couldn't do without a jump button or a prone button."
You mention puzzles. In the footage we've seen so far, we haven't really seen them featured. How big of a part do they play in the game?
Kurt Margenau: "We try to design the puzzles in a way that makes them feel like you're not doing a puzzle, you're trying to get from A to B and there are obstacles in the way. A lot of times that involve moving an object around or finding a rope and using it in an interesting way, or needing gas to turn a generator on. It's a bunch of realistic, grounded things that, if you're in a post-apocalyptic world, are challenges you might have to overcome. We try to use our mechanics to find interesting ways to overcome them. By having more mechanics, we have more variety, more things you can do and play with."
I've gotta ask, and don't tell me if it's a spoiler, but who taught Ellie how to swim?
Kurt Margenau: "Well, we see that she can swim and we hint at how that happened. There is a payoff."
I feel like the last couple of Naughty Dog games have focused more on exploration and less on combat than previous titles. How is The Last of Us: Part II structured in this regard?
Kurt Margenau: "It's always a balance and pacing is one of those things that we are always trying to tune and make sure it's appropriate for the narrative. We want to open up the spaces more when it feels appropriate for the story. There are really big areas in the game and the narrative structure supports it in a way so it doesn't feel like there is a very specific, urgent goal. That's an issue that comes up a lot in general game design in bigger games: the urgency problem of the narrative telling you that you need to go do this really specific thing right now, but you can also go do all this other stuff. So, we're trying to solve that the best we can by using that space as a tool when it makes sense in the narrative."
From the footage we've seen, combat looks faster with a greater emphasis on improvisation. Is there also a bigger focus on stealth?
Kurt Margenau: "We feel like the game really shines when you're in that stealth mindset. You have lots of tactics available: you can watch people patrolling around, there are dogs, and you're in a state where your brain is engaged at a high level. We wanted to make sure that it was possible and realistic to reset that state as much as possible on your own by escaping instead of just dying and restarting. We want to immerse you in the world so much and never make it feel gamey or pull you out of that experience - obviously dying does that. Not to say we're making the game easier, we're just extending the combat interactions and making them more interesting. And because we added so many more abilities for the player, AI had to become so much smarter to compensate for that. So, because you can hide in grass, they will search in grass. They'll start looking underneath vehicles and they'll call out and investigate if you kill one of their friends. There's a lot of interesting AI systems to play with."
An example of the types of systems Kurt is talking about is the ability lure infected into areas where the human enemies are patrolling, thereby setting off a chaotic battle between the two that the player can either participate in or let run its course. The unlucky humans in question belong to either the WLF or the Seraphites. The former is an urban militia that has taken control over Seattle after the collapse of the government. They are very organised, have semi-automatic weapons, use patrol dogs, do coordinated searches in pairs, and speak English making you able to understand their communication. Seraphites, on the other hand, are a tribalistic, low tech faction who use silent weapons such as a bow. They communicate by whistling, making it much harder to track their plans. In addition to this, they are actively using the environment, such as the tall grass, to hide from you and surprise you.
In addition to new human enemies, new types of infected, such as the enormous Shambler, have found their way into The Last of Us: Part II. This tank-like enemy emits a cloud of poisonous gas that lingers around and hurts bypassers. It will also charge you and explode on contact dealing massive damage. Another even more terrifying enemy is the revamped Stalker. As the name implies it stalks Ellie and, even worse, it doesn't show in listen mode. Generally speaking, Naughty Dog has focused on giving each type of infected its own characteristics and a unique role in the game.
The idea of giving more weight and meaning to each single element also applies to the upgrade system, which, according to Margenau, consists of bigger, more influential, more meaningful gameplay changes. Each weapon only has a few areas in which it can be upgraded, but the changes are substantial rather than incremental and can be seen physically and felt gameplay-wise.
Before our time runs out, I decide to go off the beaten path and ask Kurt, who has been with the Santa Monica based company since the Uncharted 2 days, what his favourite Naughty Dog title, other than The Last of Us Part II, is.
Kurt Margenau: "Hmmm, that's really hard, because my perspective of Naughty Dog games is on the production side, how fun the game was to work on, where it was in my career. To me, Uncharted 2 will always have a special place in my heart because it's the first Naughty Dog game that I worked on. So, because it was very well received and we were doing really interesting things, that was a high that I have been chasing ever since. Always trying to capture that excitement of development and I think we've done a really good job of that."
We will soon find out whether The Last of Us: Part II will be as well-received as Uncharted 2 when it releases June 19.