The Last of Us Part II preview: Worth the wait

Ellie woods The Last of Us Part 2
Ellie woods The Last of Us Part 2 (Image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Since its unveiling at the end of 2016, Naughty Dog has shown very little of The Last of Us Part II. In fact, the studio has been radio silent since sharing a violent, heart-stopping gameplay demo at E3 last year. Needless to say, the wait has been more tense than an encounter with a Clicker.

Thankfully, following a new trailer and release date announcement, Naughty Dog is sharing more details about the sequel in celebration of Outbreak Day (the day it all went to hell in The Last of Us). The studio this week invited press to a hands on event in Los Angeles, where I got to play through two lengthy sections of The Last of Us Part II.

The first section, titled Jackson Patrol, takes place early in the game prior to the traumatic event that's teased in the most recent trailer. The second section, which sees Ellie travel to Seattle, occurs after the aforementioned event. This event, in case the trailer doesn't make clear, is what sends Ellie down a path of violent retribution. And, as we learned in our interview with Naughty Dog last year, and in the trailers we've seen, Ellie's predator-like pursuit of vengeance could have devastating repercussions.

Over the course of my playthrough, I got a glimpse of both sides of the coin. First, of Ellie's stable new life in Jackson, where she has a job, friends, and a blossoming romantic relationship. The other side was of Ellie the apex predator, hellbent on bringing those who wronged her to justice. Through it all, the infected and other desperate survivors are more dangerous than ever.

Living a normal life

The sequel picks up five years after Joel and Ellie's journey, and she is finally settling down in a community in Jackson, Wyoming, where she and many other survivors are part of a thriving community. They dance. They watch movies. They kiss. But threats are always looming, so it's part of Ellie's role in the community to go on patrol.

Ellie is finally settling down and living a somewhat normal life.

During the patrol section of my demo, Ellie sets out with Dina, who we were introduced to in last year's gameplay trailer. As Dina leads Ellie through a series of winding trails, they talk about relationships, friends, and at one point Joel is briefly brought up. It's almost as if these two are normal teenagers just hanging out. At one point, Ellie and Dina talk about movies and wonder if anyone out there is still making them. Ellie hopes so, because it means things are becoming more normal.

It's these quiet exchanges that Naughty Dog excels at. In the previous game and in the studio's Uncharted series, Naughty Dog uses these breaks in the action to peel back the layers of its characters and further the narrative. Ellie isn't just a survivor who formed an unlikely bond with Joel; she enjoys listening to and writing music. Dina, on the other hand, is much more mysterious — a characteristic that seems to attract Ellie to her.

These quieter moments help build the budding relationship between Ellie and Dina, which is portrayed as friendly and often flirtatious. There are glimpses of a deeper connection, too; the two characters are shown sharing a kiss during a community dance the night prior — something they later discuss with the same angst, awkwardness, and delight as any other teenager.

We get a glimpse of all of this in just thirty minutes of gameplay, and that's before any blood is shed.

Game of cat and mouse

Similar to the first game, many of the encounters in The Last of Us Part II play out like a game of cat and mouse, where you're constantly becoming the hunter and the hunted.

Near the middle of the patrol portion of my demo, Ellie and Dina come across a mutilated animal outside of a department store, which they soon discover is infested with infected. It's Ellie and Dina's job to take them out — and the best way to do that is to use stealth. The second portion in Seattle didn't feature any infected, but instead focused on evading and eliminating other survivors.

It's never a bad idea to run away from trouble.

If you've played the first game, many of the mechanics in The Last of Us Part II will feel familiar. Sneak behind an enemy, grab, and kill. But everything now feels much more fluid and refined, from the way Ellie moves to melee encounters. There are some notable changes in the way Ellie is controlled, too.

Ellie now has a dedicated jump button, and she can go prone, which comes in handy when hiding in tall grass or hiding under abandoned vehicles. These tweaks may sound small, but they give the game more verticality than ever. Not quite like Uncharted, but a step in that direction. When tackling an obstacle, for example, you can go up and over or down and under. It gives players more options when navigating the world and makes encounters more thrilling.

Speaking of which, close quarters melee fights now require precise timing and finesse, rather than simply mashing the melee button as quickly as possible. Thanks to dedicated dodge button, you can avoid incoming attacks and then strike back with deadly precision. If you use Ellie's switchblade, she'll slice people up — you can see every gash in gory detail — before plunging her blade into their gut.

What's impressive about these encounters is how dynamic they are. If someone (or something) is rushing you, with the quick press of a button you can throw a nearby object at them, giving you enough time to strike while they're stunned. You and your enemy will also react physically to your surroundings. In a melee fight, you might push someone up against a wall before slicing their throat. No two fights are the same.

Think back to the gameplay demo from last year, which many thought looked a little too good. That's actually how encounters play out. Everything has a high level of polish and fluidity that gives The Last of Us Part II an incredible sense of realism. Ellie will balance herself when crouched next to a surface, blood will splatter on a gas mask, and enemies cry out in anguish when one of their own is killed.

While encounters with Runners and Clickers are tense, they're even more tense with survivors because they now have dogs. And, yes, they will attack you, and you will be forced to fight back. Dogs can pick up your scent and follow your trail, forcing you to constantly plan on the fly and move from cover to cover. Never was there a point in either section of the demo where I felt comfortable, because the threat of danger is always around the corner. Just when you think you have the upper hand, a dog will spot you and lunge for your throat.

In a fight, melee is a good course of action, because ammo comes at a premium. But you'll often be outnumbered, which means running away is always your best option. If you don't run, you'll almost assuredly die — it happened to me a number of times because I was too stubborn to run.

Craft items and upgrade your weapons

With many of the same mechanics returning in the sequel, so too is crafting, which can again be done on the fly. Crafting items in the middle of a fight, however, will leave you exposed to danger, so timing is everything. Players will also upgrade Ellie's arsenal of weapons, which range from knives to handguns to a bow.

You'll pick up parts and other supplies necessary to craft health and upgrade your weapons. This approach encourages exploration, so make sure you visit every room and open every drawer. Exploration is something you'll want to do anyway, because the game looks absolutely gorgeous. Each individual blade of grass, drop of water, and brick texture looked amazing — on a par with games like God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2.

Some of the weapon upgrade options include improving recoil, magazine capacity, and rate of fire. You can also craft items to give Ellie a leg up, like the ability to move more quickly when in listening mode or a temporary silencer for your pistol. And you can craft health, throwables, and explosive tripwires. The crafting menus can feel a little daunting at first — it was especially hard in the middle of a tense fight — but you'll get used to them.

Final thoughts

Before Naughty Dog let press play the demo on Tuesday, the studio's Creative Director Neil Druckmann made it clear that nobody forced him to make a sequel to The Last of Us. Not Sony. Not the prospect of selling millions of copies (the first game sold 17 million copies). Not us fans. Instead, according to Druckmann, the studio felt compelled to revisit the 2013 mega-hit because it wanted to tell a story that must be told.

"We spent years crafting a game that we feel will do [Ellie and Joel] justice, telling a nuanced story that deals with the core question: how far would you go to exact justice against the people that hurt the ones you love?" Druckmann said.

While Naughty Dog is still coy on details, the studio is heavily hinting Ellie's relationship with Dina — and what potentially happens to Dina — is what sends Ellie on her path to retribution.

The Last of Us Part II is described as Naughty Dog's most ambitious and longest game in its history. Although I only experienced a few hours, I'm already heavily invested in what happens next. The gameplay was thrilling, and the graphics are incredible. But I want to know more about the story. What happens to Ellie and Dina? Will Joel survive?

The Last of Us Part II comes out exclusively for PlayStation 4 on February 21, 2020.

Brandon Russell