The Washington Post received a review copy in late May, though much of those impressions are reserved for our final review. In the meantime, we have the opportunity to share some of our thoughts about a 2-hour portion that occurs midway through the game, particularly relating to combat, the open-ended environment layouts, sophisticated A.I. and more. We also spoke to co-game director Anthony Newman, who provided insight into game mechanics and broader story themes.
In the demo, Ellie sets off looking for a woman named Nora, who is somewhere in Seattle. Ellie clearly has strong feelings and ill intent toward her target, occasionally muttering to herself about taking her down.
I explored a variety of locales: forests, sewers, apartment buildings and our final destination, the hospital (the end of this level was shown during State of Play). Both in gameplay and presentation, this portion of “The Last of Us Part II” is polished, bloody and terrifying.
Though the demo was light on storytelling, with Sony and Naughty Dog keeping much of it under wraps until the game releases, we can say that Ellie experienced a traumatic event, placing her on a new journey of vengeance. Because “The Last of Us Part II” takes place four years after the events of the first game, Ellie is no longer a child. As a 19-year-old woman, she’s more subdued, calculating and brutal, clearly affected by the harsh world she inhabits. Fans may be surprised at how ruthless some of her killing animations are, and how relatable enemies can be, especially as they plead for forgiveness before a killing blow or cry in despair when finding their friend or guard dog murdered.
“The emotional thrust of the game is this moral descent, which is the cost of the pursuit of justice,” Newman said. “The game is about examining what the price of this relentless pursuit is, and is that price worth it?”
Several action-packed moments punctuate this chapter of the game, like a Stalker (a phase two zombie) pushing Ellie through a window, and crashing down into water where she nearly drowns. I felt apprehension in each area, especially as I opened doors or moved around corners. The atmosphere provokes a heavy sense of dread, especially when hearing infected (what the franchise calls zombies) in the distance when your vision is reduced to the glow of a flashlight. In one scene, moving into a new room left me ambushed by a broad-shouldered human wielding a massive pickax, who could easily throw me across a room if I got too close.
Like the previous game, you have different strategies to approach enemies (humans and infected) by either being stealthy or direct. Ellie has a familiar supply of shotguns, rifles and handguns, which can be mixed with throwables like bricks and bottles to distract or stun enemies, as well as molotov cocktails and smoke bombs.
On the stealth front, Ellie can go prone by lying on her stomach, hide in bushes and tall grass to remain unseen. You can also craft pistol suppressors if you have the right materials on hand. This can come in handy when picking off enemies silently, as can ambushing them from behind and knifing them with your switch blade (Ellie has no shivs, the breakable weapons from the prior game). You have a trusty bow and arrow again, too, but the aiming reticle is redesigned and much easier to use.
“For the first time, there are entire crafting items like the silencer, the explosive arrows, and the only way to learn them is by choosing to invest your resources in the player upgrade system in order to learn those recipes,” Newman said. “Different weapons and different upgrades can add together to have these additive effects for particular strategies.”
I noticed both familiar and new enemies in the demo: You face off against Scars, a nickname given to extremist religious faction The Seraphites. This pack of foes often come equipped with silent weapons, like bows and arrows, and can take stealthy approaches to attacking you, like hiding in vegetation. When hit with an arrow, it can get stuck in Ellie’s skin and damage her over time if the player doesn’t remove it quickly.
“In order to confuse their enemies, [Scars] use a system of whistle signals instead of yelling out their intention or what they’re seeing,” Newman said. “So if they come across one of their fallen comrades, you’ll hear them whistle shrilly and another Scar will respond with another whistle.”
Another faction you fight against is the Washington Liberation Front, a militia group that takes Seattle back from the government. This faction wields guns and tools similar to Ellie, and are more direct in combat.
“What’s cool about having these two factions in the game is that it really speaks to the theme of the cycle of violence, and that they’re locked in this never-ending cycle of violent retribution,” Newman said. “But also, it gives the player these two very different gameplay experiences when fighting against humans.”
There’s more enemy chatter, too, and it isn’t mindless: Much of the dialogue you hear is dripping with meaning.
“The conversations that you’ll hear between enemies are very frequently referring to other events in the world that either you’ve already experienced, or have yet to experience,” he said.
Fans of the first game will recognize some of the phases of infected, like Runners, Clickers and Stalkers, but “The Last of Us Part II” also introduces Shamblers (burly zombies — similar to Bloaters — who throw noxious gas clouds that inflict damage over time) and others that haven’t yet been revealed. Each infected type comes with different challenges; for example, I found Stalkers to be more aggressive this time around, unexpectedly flanking me from behind corners, and Clickers are trickier than ever.
“We made [Clickers] more perceptive when they are barking,” Newman said. “That’s what we call it when they wind up and take a big breath and then bark in a particular direction, allowing them to echolocate in that direction and see temporarily. In Last of Us Part II, they do that much more frequently. And when they do see, they’re much more perceptive.”
The A.I. for human enemies comes with more sophisticated behavior. Newman explains this is due to a new system that gives foes a better sense of “vague awareness” of not just your surroundings, but the general area you move to after being spotted. This is different than the first installment, where enemies were either completely aware or completely unaware of your presence, without an in-between. This can increase the tension, especially when foes can pull you out of hiding spots or recognize the original direction of gunfire.
“If you use like one of Ellie’s new crafting items, like the silenced pistol and you head shot an enemy then silently take them down and someone sees that happen, they won’t know exactly where you are, but they’ll vaguely know that they were attacked from a certain direction,” Newman said. “So you’ll hear [enemies] say something like, ‘I think it came from over there.’ Or if you’re fleeing an enemy and you go into the stealth grass, into vegetation, they’ll say “she went into the grass.” So they know generally that you’re somewhere in the grass, but they don’t know exactly where.”
Encounters and exploration both occur in bigger and more ambitious environments, reminiscent of other Naughty Dog games like “Uncharted 4” and “Uncharted: Lost Legacy,” giving it a semi-open world feel. I enjoyed taking down enemies in a forest area by crouching in vegetation and sneaking up on them, or maneuvering through an office building filled with Stalkers that could ambush me at any time.
You have new ways to traverse land and water, too: Ellie can now swim, so puzzles surrounding pallets are gone, and you have rope to swing across gaps or reach higher ledges. You can also break glass to crack open vending machines or enter buildings that would otherwise be inaccessible. All these elements bring a welcome, deeper focus to exploration.
“We learned from our past games how exciting having a broad level design can be,” Newman said. “And we learned all these lessons of how to increase the player’s opportunities for self-directed exploration while still having a crafted linear narrative.”
As Ellie moves and fights, I noticed that movements felt heavier than they did with Joel. It makes jumping more satisfying, such as when she rushes across a gap and only barely makes it across with a big thud. She’s more aggressive and brutal with her kills, sometimes repeatedly knifing foes in the chest until they die. Melee has been completely reimagined: You no longer counter a foe’s attack. Instead, your best bet during melee is carefully timing attacks and dodges, bringing a more dynamic feel. The heaviness in Ellie’s movements becomes significant in melee, with every blow feeling especially weighty. When an enemy is about to hit you, pressing the dodge button at the appropriate time can save your life.
“It’s really in keeping with Ellie’s character,” Newman said. “She’s not this overpowering physical presence. She has to rely on her agility and tactics in order to deal with these sometimes much larger enemies than her.”
As brutal as Ellie is in combat, she can also avoid those encounters. While not all combat can be bypassed, the majority can, Newman said. The same can be said for puzzles and scripted scenarios.
“Whenever the story or the narrative constraints allow us to give the player that option, we give the players that option as much as possible,” he said. “In the vast majority of our combat encounters, you can leave some or all enemies alive. Much of the time, you can also escape the level, with enemies never realizing you were there.”
The decisions to hide or kill feed perfectly into the overriding moral journey and the humanization of non-player character adversaries. Many of those you kill feel distinctly human. Even the infected have stories to tell, through notes they left behind in their abandoned homes or elsewhere. Ellie is evolving into something she herself may not be proud of in her quest for revenge. The bloody gameplay syncs extremely well with the journey of the protagonist, and with the ravaged world that only has tiny remnants of humanity left. As a player, it’s so effective that it can feel downright disturbing.