The Last of Us Part 2 hands-on preview: Even darker

The Last of Us Part 2 feels like a continuation worth waiting for

the last of us part 2 review ellie

The Last of Us Part 2 hands-on preview: Even darker

“Immersive storytelling and gameplay make a return in The Last of Us Part 2.”
  • Stunning visuals
  • Fine-tuned gameplay mechanics
  • Characters are fully developed and believable
  • New enemies are challenging and smart
  • Ellie’s new tool and skill sets introduce more dynamic combat
  • A.I. can be too smart for its own good
  • Killing dogs feels pretty bad

Editor’s note: The Last of Us Part 2 was originally scheduled for a Feburary 21, 2020 release, but it has been delayed until May of 2020.

It has been six years since The Last of Us first released for the PlayStation 3, and many of us have been eagerly waiting to see what has become of the man and the little girl who almost saved the world from itself. With only the gameplay reveal from E3 2018 to sustain us, developer Naughty Dog has finally offered a sneak peek into what The Last of Us Part 2 has to offer.

Continuing its trend of superb story-telling, satisfying gameplay mechanics, and seemingly alive environments, what we’ve played of The Last of Us Part 2 feels like part of a continuation worth waiting all these years for.

A natural-born survivor

It has been five years since the final events of The Last of Us. Ellie, now 19 years old, has established a somewhat normal life in a snowy enclave in Jackson, Wyoming. In the demo, we find Ellie and her friend Dina patrolling the outskirts of town, riding horseback through snow-covered trails in search of marauders and infected. Their job is to eliminate any small threats they come across and alert the others of any encroaching danger.

The crunch of the snow beneath the hooves of the horses makes for ambient background noise, setting the tone as Ellie and Dina talk among each other as they ride. They speak of romantic troubles and plans for later in the day, and it feels like a moment shared between two close friends. Raw and sincere.

the last of us part 2 review ellie

It’s clear from the interactions between Ellie and Dina that The Last of Us Part 2 plans to continue its theme of strong, capable women. The Last of Us nailed this with Tess and Marlene, allowing each character to feel like their own unique person and not defaulting to a cookie-cutter “badass woman” archetype. They’re equal parts vulnerable and take-no-shit that doesn’t feel forced or unnatural. And it feels so good to see that again.

Ellie and Dina eventually stumble across a corpse of a dead moose in front of an abandoned supermarket. Its carcass has been mercilessly ripped apart, suggesting it is the work of the infected. The two friends dismount their horses to find the threat and take it down.

Ellie and a clicker
Ellie and a clicker

Exploring dark and unsettling buildings is as anxiety-inducing as it ever was. Just like The Last of Us, Listen Mode can be used to pinpoint the location of enemies. Areas like the supermarket will have you inspecting rooms and finding ways to traverse through broken-down buildings, all while being as stealthy as possible as to not alert enemies.

When Ellie and Dina finally found the infected hiding in the supermarket, stealth was the only way I was able to take them down. Inside, there were three infected and two clickers, each one shuffling unpredictably around the fallen shelving and long-forgotten merch scattered across the floor.

Killing an infected using brute force only alerted the clickers and other infected to my presence. With a limited selection of places to hide, inching around the aisles doing my best to not be noticed felt like the only option. Trying my hardest to be as stealthy as possible, I found myself still being discovered by the infected. I would take one down, only to be caught by another a few moments later because I took too long to crawl back out of harm’s way.

Eventually, I was able to take them all down. But it took quite a bit of patience and determination to get there. Luckily, Ellie’s stealth kill speed and prone movement speed are upgradeable abilities, so she isn’t doomed to be an inelegant assassin forever. As progress is made in The Last of Us Part 2, you’ll pick up and upgrade new weapons, items, and abilities that are incredibly useful in situations where Ellie is outnumbered by enemies.

Almost too real

Ellie and Dina
Ellie and Dina

After clearing out the supermarket, Ellie and Dina hop back on their horses and begin heading to their next destination. A brutal snowstorm starts to close in on them, and they’re forced to retreat to an abandoned bookstore until it passes. The bookstore, like many places in The Last of Us Part 2, is home to a variety of items that are found through exploration.

There are parts you can use to upgrade your weapons and pill bottles that unlock new abilities. There are also letters that offer context about characters and situations that help shape the story. I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, but the two end up sharing an intimate moment here. The facial animations, in particular, are a marvel to see.

The curious spark in Dina’s eyes as she gauges Ellie’s response to her questions was only made all the more exciting when Ellie’s defenses fall as her eyes study Dina’s face. These subtle yet very real reactions heighten the intensity of the moment between the two. I could feel the connection, and it made me more invested in their relationship because it felt genuine.

This realism carries over into other aspects of gameplay. I was taken further into the story, following an event that sends Ellie down a path of revenge. Contrasting against the snow-filled mountains of Wyoming, we’re taken to Washington where nature has reclaimed what remains of surburbia. Tall grass pokes through the broken tile and cement. Vines, fern, and ivy crawl along the sides of buildings. Broken windows and cracks decorate the walls. Birds chirp, breaking up the eerie silence of the abandoned neighborhoods.

Ellie in Washington
Ellie in Washington

The lush environments of The Last of Us Part 2 invite you to explore. Every smashed window, unlocked door, or hole in a wall is an opportunity to discover a new item or some more crafting materials. With environments that feel alive, poking in every nook and cranny doesn’t feel as tedious as it sometimes does in similar games. But Washington, just like Wyoming, is filled with danger.

A new enemy enters the scene — the Washington Liberation Front, aka the “wolves.” From what I’ve gathered, they are a rebellion trying to impose their will on the remaining survivors, similar to the Fireflies in The Last of Us. Their true motives are unknown, but they are an incredibly smart enemy type that I found myself struggling to hold my own against.

Right before the demo ended, I found myself in a neighborhood crawling with WLF mercenaries. They were on high alert, already aware Ellie was hiding somewhere nearby. Avoiding mercs is easy enough using Listen Mode, but they have an ally that makes staying hidden more of a challenge: Attack dogs. These trained German Shepards can pick up on Ellie’s scent and track her down with ease, and they won’t hesitate to kill you on command.

Using Listen Mode, you can see the scent trail Ellie leaves behind. With the help of throwables such as bricks and bottles, you can distract the dogs and the mercs, buying you a few precious seconds of time to slip out of harm’s way. But stealth will only get you so far in The Last of Us Part 2.

I asked lead animator Almudena Soria if The Last of Us Part 2 encouraged stealth or dynamic gameplay, and she told me, “It’s definitely dynamic gameplay. Players can choose to try and stealth the game. Having said that, as a story-driven game, we need to make conflict. Sometimes we will have to make you resort to other options that aren’t just stealth. But we want players to experience what they choose for the most part, and stealth is definitely part of it.”

She’s not kidding, either. I quickly realized that confrontation was unavoidable in this situation. No matter how hard I tried, I was spotted, and a swarm of angry dogs ready to break my neck and mercenaries loaded with weapons would rain down on me. I’ll be honest. It was downright infuriating.

Ellie versus the WLF
Ellie versus the WLF

Each time Ellie dies, you land right back where you last successfully evaded an enemy. Sometimes, this isn’t ideal as it can put you right back into a confrontation. Enemy A.I. are mostly predictable but occasionally they’ll throw you for a loop and pop up somewhere else, so any plan you may have conjured up is now void and it’s back to square one.

Prior to playing The Last of Us Part 2 demo, Neil Druckman gave a speech, ending it with a tip that ultimately got me through what seemed to be an impossible situation. Sometimes the best course of action is to just run.

And run I did. Past vicious killer dogs growling in my ears and bullets that pelted Ellie from behind. The entire neighborhood was up in arms trying to track her down. With a couple of dozen attempts already behind me, I was determined not to let Ellie die this time. So I kept running until, well, I was finally caught. But I won’t spoil how the demo ended here.

What I’ve experienced of The Last of Us Part 2 feels like a work of passion. Every detail feels poured over with the utmost care, from the seemingly real characters and environments to the incredibly smart enemies and fine-tuned gameplay. The Last of Us Part 2 feels worth the six-year wait and I’m eager to see more when it finally arrives in May of 2020.

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