"We are making the biggest game we've ever done in Naughty Dog's history."
Those are the tantalising opening words we were given by creative director Neil Druckmann during a preview event for The Last of Us: Part II in LA this week. This was a short presentation though because he knew full well that the press - just like a large portion of the gaming community - were very eager to get their hands on the game, following 16 months of radio silence after the E3 trailer in 2018.
He told us that it's a story of love as well as hate, with the latter being at the forefront of the dark and gritty videos we've been given thus far. It's also about how love plays into the themes of rage, anger, and - most importantly - revenge. The need for vengeance was described as a "universal truth" between humans, and while Druckmann didn't tell us what exactly Ellie is seeking revenge for, we know she's after it. But what's the cost of taking an eye for an eye?
In LA we were let loose in two demos, the first of which we're told is an example of a day in the life of Ellie. You see, she's a member of the safe community in Wyoming that she calls her home, and the now-19-year-old is on a patrol with Dina, the woman she kissed during the aforementioned E3 trailer.
We saddle up (quite literally, with a horse and everything) to explore the snowy landscape on our patrol, and it's immediately clear that Naughty Dog is continuing to make gorgeous visuals. Uncharted 4 showed how good their games can look, and this is no different, from the footprints in the snow to the smallest details like the lighting in a basement turned cannabis farm. This is a cinematic adventure and a feast for the eyes, without a doubt.
That extends to the animations as well, as the faces have been created with loving care and detail, producing an incredibly realistic portrayal of the characters. The acting stood out as a highlight too, especially during this section with Dina, where we got to delve deeper into their relationship and what brought them together, as we saw briefly in the State of Play trailer.
Not everything in this patrol is calm and collected though, as we soon run into some infected, providing a good opportunity to tutorialise the gameplay mechanics. If you've played the first game, Part II is pretty much the same deal, mixing limited ammunition with distraction tactics and stealth. You can craft as well, although there are more options regarding the items you can equip and utilise, not to mention the upgrades for Ellie and her arsenal.
We opted for a distraction with a bottle before sneaking up and taking down our targets, although clickers are especially troublesome as you'd expect. The horrifying cauliflower-esque mutants are even more disturbing this time around, from their sounds to their spasmodic movements, and you'll need to be extra careful when sneaking up behind them. Crouching won't do, as you'll need to also move the left stick lightly to take these things down, making it a real test of patience.
The combat is weighty and impactful, and it's a hard game to play. Stealth is a must, and things quickly turn chaotic if you're detected by hostiles, especially since you don't have a lot of ammo at your disposal. We were the victims of these clickers more than once, which makes it all the more satisfying when you stealthily clear a room of enemies to progress... or blast them all away with a shotgun if that's your preferred method.
The same applies to the human enemies we bumped into during the second section, which took us to Seattle on the hunt for Tommy. The Wolves are a xenophobic group that controls the area, and they're certainly not keen on Ellie being there, deploying patrols to search for us, complete with sniffer dogs to track us down.
Taking on these human foes was a bit different since they were armed to the teeth, and really tested our stealth once again. Taking down the dogs is a must, as they not only track you down via your scent (which you leave behind everywhere you go) but they also nibble on your arms when you're detected, providing new layers of challenge to overcome in the heat of battle.
The good thing here is that Naughty Dog has provided open spaces that can be utilised during combat, widening your tactical options. There are plenty of buildings to explore everywhere you go, and these can help you escape from enemies and you can use the space to your advantage too. Jumping out a window to evade death is often as good as using it to get the jump on an enemy, and there are plenty of other details that show how combat has evolved.
For example, one time we were on minuscule amounts of health and desperate, so as we became surrounded we grabbed a bad guy and used him as a meat shield while we dealt with the two nearby Wolves, killing our victim before heading back into cover. There's a diversity here that we feel wasn't present in the original, so it's not just about throwing bottles and sneaking up behind people anymore. We even get to go prone in the long grass, providing temporary cover at long range, and we can dodge threats in battle with L1.
In this second section, Ellie was a lot more isolated than she was with Dina, traversing the colourful overgrown suburbs alone as the Wolves hunt her and Tommy. There's a distinct feeling of vulnerability, heightened by the lack of resources available to you, and Ellie is clearly more rough and ready, with her hair loose and a ragged shirt covering her back.
We also find plenty of environmental storytelling here, telling of the community's fight with the Wolves, so clearly Naughty Dog is trying to reward those curious enough to explore the open environments. We talked with another journalist who had different experiences to us because they chose different routes, for example, and there are plenty of reasons to venture off the beaten path.
So what did we learn during these two demos? First of all, we got a deeper sense of Ellie as a character. She's certainly not the kid she was in the first game; this version is hardened to the world around her, while still retaining her humanity at the same time. Her interactions with Dina were thoroughly believable and enjoyable, but the other side of her - brutally executing those who want her dead - added a level of nuance to her character that we can't wait to see more of. How will these two sides reconcile?
We also want to mention the stellar audio as well. While wearing a headset we could identify nearby enemies from their loud footsteps and voices. Meanwhile, being in the same room as a clicker meant we had to target them since their gurgles drowned out all other threats in the vicinity. It's eery and works well with the tension created elsewhere, creating this paranoia where you don't know what kind of threat is waiting around the corner.
In some ways The Last of Us: Part II is very similar to the first game, but Naughty Dog has added extra tweaks here and there to bolster the gameplay while at the same time taking the story in a whole new direction. Things look to be a lot darker here, and Ellie is already shaping up to be one of the studio's best protagonists, so all that remains to be seen is where they can take us in February of 2020 when the game finally lands on PlayStation 4.