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We Played 3 Hours of THE LAST OF US PART II
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After playing The Last of Us Part II for three exhilarating, gripping, blood pressure-spiking hours, it’s safe to say that the highly anticipated sequel not only lives up to my astronomical expectations, but is well on its way to being a top contender for 2020’s game of the year.

That may seem like hyperbole, but if this early version of the game—which, as Sony announced on Tuesday, will officially come out on February 21, 2020—is anything like the finished product, then Naughty Dog has another masterpiece on their hands. It’s that damn good.

Inside of a giant warehouse in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood, I went hands-on with an early build of the game that took us through two separate scenarios. Both left me feeling breathless, elated, and ravenous for more in two very different ways. Returning to the game’s post-apocalyptic world full of cordyceps-afflicted monsters, cruel strangers, and an inextinguishable yearning for survival was refreshing and comforting in its own deeply stressful way.

Ellie in The Last of Us Part IISony/Naughty Dog

The world has changed

First announced in 2016 at Sony’s E3 press conference, The Last of Us Part II has the unenviable task of being the sequel to what is regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time. It’s not a challenge that Naughty Dog takes lightly, but the success of the original isn’t what inspired the team to make a sequel. They did so because they felt that had another story that needed to be told.

In 2013’s The Last of Us, you experienced the sordid saga of Joel (Troy Baker), a smuggler with a troubled past, and his teenage ward Ellie (Ashley Johnson) as they made their way across the burnt-out ruins of the United States. Navigating treacherous landscapes, surviving harsh conditions, and avoiding being rent asunder by monsters and murderous humans like, the survival horror game told a profoundly affecting story about love, compassion, and family in the face of certain doom.

The Last of Us Part II, however, is about something far darker: rage, vengeance, and our capacity for violence born from love.

“I want to talk about this idea of rage and anger and hate, and how close it can be actually to love,” said co-director Neil Druckmann during his opening remarks. “What happens if something bad happens to someone you love? A significant other, a family member, a best friend … How far would you go to make the people responsible for that [pay]? What are the costs of that? What are the costs of an eye for an eye?”

Something happens to Ellie that sends her down a path of violence, retribution, and ferocity from which there may be no returning. That something, which is alluded to in the trailers we have seen so far, is so horrible that it compels Ellie to leave the relative safety of her community behind to answer that primal urge within her.

Ellie and Dina trudge through the Colorado wilderness in The Last of Us Part IISony/Naughty Dog

The winter of their discontent

At the outset, at least, it appears that Ellie and Joel have managed to find a modicum of peace in a world blown to smithereens. Set 25 years after Infection Day, Ellie is now 19 years old and a part of the vibrant community of survivors in Jackson County, Colorado. Although she and Joel will always care about one another deeply, the two have drifted apart in the way that many teenagers do from their parents as they try to carve out an identity for themselves.

In many regards, Ellie is an average American teenager. She just wants to hang out with her friends and smoke weed, and maybe figure out what’s happening in the swirling eddy of hormones and emotions that is her love life. Unlike most average teenagers, Ellie has to go out on patrol for supplies and make sure the Infected (humans mutated into horrible monsters by the Cordyceps fungus) aren’t within striking distance of their colony.

This dichotomy was at the forefront of the narrative during our first demo, which took place on a routine patrol. Riding on horseback, Ellie and her friend Dina (Shannon Woodward) make small talk about their love lives, sneaking out after curfew to go sledding, and bits of gossip from around the community. There’s an underlying tension to the sequence, which takes place after the two share a kiss on the dance floor the night prior; seeing them not-so-nimbly dance around the elephant in the room will instantly take you back to your own hormonal high school days.

While their conversation plays out, the game slowly reacclimatizes you to its controls, which are as responsive and silky smooth as ever. Controlling Ellie is an intuitive experience as you run, crouch, and jump across the game’s expansive and fastidiously detailed environments. During quieter moments, it’s hard not to lose yourself in the game’s breathtaking landscape or in admiration of the way that snow sprays off of a tree branch if your horse brushes up against it. You’ll appreciate that aforementioned responsiveness though when you squeeze through a narrow opening in a wall in order to search for supplies only to find yourself face to face with the gnashing teeth of an Infected.

This sequence—largely intended to serve as an extended tutorial and get us up to speed—took Ellie and Dina through a supermarket on a search for supplies, and quickly turned into a life-or-death scenario when rotted floorboards collapsed beneath Ellie, sending her crashing down to a giant room full of Infected. Using stealth tactics and a revamped version of the game’s Listening mode, which allows you to see shadowy outlines of nearby enemies, Ellie and Dina must take out the Infected without being seen. First, they need to take out the Runners, who are weak but can swarm you if you’re not careful. Then they must surreptitiously avoid Clickers: blind but ferocious murdermonsters that can easily turn you into a fine red mist.

Ellie faces off with a Clicker in The Last of Us Part IISony/Naughty Dog

As you traverse the game’s environments, you’ll discover crafting supplies, which you can use to fashion items like health kits, silencers, molotov cocktails, and other goodies to aid you on your quest. You’ll also find little gear-shaped items, which you can use to upgrade and modify your weapons once you find an upgrade bench, and you will discover supplements, little pill-shaped items that you can spend to upgrade skills that will improve your stats and unlock new item recipes.

“We took the manual system and the supplement system and we kind of combined them into one,” co-director Kurt Margenau told Nerdist. “So the way you upgrade Ellie is through manuals, which are the branches of the tree, and you learn the skills with the supplements. Some of those things are recipes, so you can just never get certain recipes in the game [if you don’t collect the various manuals].”

For example, the player is able to craft stun bombs and if they manage to get enough supplements, they can upgrade their stun bombs to also release smoke, which will obfuscate their position and hide them from nearby enemies. As for whether or not it’s possible to unlock every recipe and skill in a single playthrough, Margenau was coy.

“We are very careful to balance that experience,” he said. “We do want people to make some decisions and tough choices in the game, so that’s kind of how it’s designed.”

The gameplay during this segment was quite satisfying, but not necessarily challenging as it was more about giving us a taste of the atmosphere and a sense of the relationship between Ellie and Dina. When the weather takes a turn for the inclement, the two seek refuge inside a bookstore, which the two discover has a greenhouse full of weed in its basement. After facing certain death, the two spark up a joint and finally start talking about the one thing they’ve been avoiding this entire time: their feelings for each other. It’s a sweet moment that serves as a thoughtful counterpoint to the horror they so narrowly escaped, but also a stern reminder that the worst is yet to come.

Wolves at the door

Ellie walks through Seattle in The Last of Us Part IISony/Naughty Dog

Taking place much later in the game—several hours into the experience, according to Druckmann—the second section of our demo took us to the mean, green streets of Seattle. On a mission to rescue her friend Tommy, Ellie must stalk her walk through the city streets to find where he’s being held captive. But with a new organization known as the Washington Liberation Front (or Wolves, for short) claiming the territory as their own, getting from point A to point B won’t be quite so simple.

To say that this segment was stressful is perhaps the understatement of the year. Although you are fully kitted out with an arsenal of weapons and more upgrades, the area is swarming with enemies, including a new type of Infected known as the Shambler, which spews noxious gas when you damage it and explodes into a poisonous cloud when it dies.

As I made my way through the city streets, squeezing through narrow gaps in the walls, clambering through windows, and crawling through the grass, I found myself surrounded by WLF soldiers. My heart was pounding so loud that it was practically all I could hear as I lay prone in the grass, hoping that a nearby patrol wouldn’t spot me. They passed without incident and I breathed a sigh of relief when suddenly a dog started barking. It was another soldier and his bloodhound had caught my scent. Entering into Listening mode, you can see your scent trail and are faced with a choice between getting away from the animal before it can sniff you out or creating a distraction to throw it off your trail.

Ellie wields a bow in The Last of Us Part IISony/Naughty Dog

The AI in this game is operating on another level, executing advanced tactics to flank the player, outwit you, and constantly keep you off balance. If you hide behind a nearby car, they will call out, “She’s behind the car!” One enemy will try to pin you down with suppressing fire while the others loop around and try to trap you in a pincer maneuver. And given how precious and scant ammunition and supplies can be in this game, you’ll constantly be asking yourself whether you should stay and fight or turn tail and run. Of course, as Neil Druckmann reminded us before we started our playthrough, “running away is a valid strategy.”

If you can’t evade your enemies though, Ellie has plenty of tools in her arsenal that allow you to create opportunities. Throwing items at incoming enemies stuns them, giving you a limited window to strike them and deal additional damage. Sneaking up on opponents will allow you to silently dispose of them or take them hostage and use them as human shields. And if all else fails, you can press the dedicated dodge button to try and evade incoming attacks and make yourself harder to shoot.

“The AI was such a big push this game,” Margenau said. “We started with Ellie. What makes Ellie different from Joel from the first game? And what mechanics, what things can she do that we want to give her the capability to do in this game? So you know, squeezing through things, [going prone] in grass, [crawling] under stuff, dodging, the agile nature, jumping—all things that are new and give you this big advantage. So to balance that the AI has to be so much smarter.”

The human cost

When I was discovered by the dog, I ran for my life, scrambling up the dilapidated staircase of a burnt-out house, jumping through a window, and taking cover behind a wall. Two WLF soldiers entered the room I had just left. Feeling cheeky, I popped up and shot one of them with an arrow, the shaft lodging itself deep in their head. They crumpled to the ground in a lifeless heap. It was just another enemy for me to take out. But then something happened that made my blood run cold, something I have never experienced in a video game before. The soldier’s friend yelled, “Oh my god! Omar! She killed him!”

She yelled his name.

That small little moment—giving a name to an otherwise unimportant NPC—had a profound impact on me. It gave weight to what I had just done. From their vantage point, I’m a cold-blooded murderer and I had just slaughtered someone they cared about.

Ellie takes aim at the Infected in The Last of Us Part IISony/Naughty Dog

“It’s like what would happen in real life? You just saw your friend get murdered, in your eyes, murdered by some random person,” Margenau explained. “For them, they’re just on a patrol, and they’re calling each other by name. They have assigned names in the game and they’ll sometimes call them out. They’ll have these different tactics. They’ll be patrolling together, checking in on each other. If you stealth kill one guy and they were in the middle of a conversation, he’ll notice that he’s not responding and go check it out. So you’ve got to be a lot more careful. They’re very clever.”

It’s yet another example of how complex programming and thoughtful storytelling intersect to create an endless string of unforgettable moments. Some elements of The Last of Us Part II‘s story are immutable, set in stone, and destined to happen as your progress through it, but the game operates as a perpetual motion device, generating these unforgettable “oh shit” moments. They can be little moments like discovering a note left by a grieving father, the chilling discovery that your actions have unconsidered consequences, or the adrenaline spike of dropping into a room full of skulking Infected. But they feel unique to your experience and they are ultimately what will make your playthrough of this game so special, leaving you champing at the bit to play even just a little bit more.

The Last of Us Part II comes to PlayStation 4 on February 21, 2020.

Images: Sony/Naughty Dog

Dan Casey is the creative director of Nerdist and the author of books about the Avengers and Star Wars. Talk to him on Twitter about video games.