LOS ANGELES — The Last of Us was all about the love between a parent and a child. Released in 2013, just months before the launch of a new console generation, the action-shooter served as a fitting swan song for the PlayStation 3. The touching story of Joel and Ellie, enhanced by developer Naughty Dog's trademark top-notch voice acting and visuals, took place against a backdrop of tragedy and violence. But the game showed that even in the worst of times, something good can shine through.
In The Last of Us Part II, it's been 25 years since the initial Cordyceps fungus wiped out most of humanity and five years since the events of the first game. Joel and Ellie are living seemingly normal lives in Jackson County, Wyoming. In some ways, Ellie is a typical 19-year-old: She's rocking a tattoo, playing the guitar, hanging out with her friends and dealing with her feelings toward Dina, who's maybe more than a friend. But then there's the not-so-normal aspect of her life, which sees her patrolling the outskirts of Jackson to keep the area safe from rogue Infected.
I got the opportunity to play two sections of The Last of Us Part II during an event here earlier this week, and the first playable segment took place during one such patrol. Out on horseback and bracing against the elements as a snowstorm brews, Ellie teams up with Dina, whom you might remember from Sony's E3 2018 gameplay reveal trailer.
First things first: The Last of Us Part II looks phenomenal. And it's not just about the gorgeous appeal of snowy mountain backdrops and detailed interiors, which depict a world frozen in the fall of 2013 — although those don't hurt. There's a sense of realness to these characters' every action, line of dialogue and tiny movement. Ellie's voice actor, Ashley Johnson, truly brings the character to life, much like she did in the first game, and Naughty Dog's facial and body animations are second to none. It's really breathtaking.
Here's an example: While traversing an abandoned town, Ellie and Dina need to climb a rope to check out an otherwise inaccessible building. As anyone who's ever failed a school gym class knows, this isn't as easy as most video games make it out to be. You have to use your whole body and exert effort. Instead of simply shimmying up the rope, the characters take their time, use their limbs appropriately and even grunt with effort.
The first demo gave us a chance to test the waters of the combat and stealth systems without being thrown into the deep end. The duo encounters a few groups of Infected, most of whom are either runners or clickers, and must deal with the fungal creatures carefully. Firearms are loud and ammo is scarce, so running and gunning isn't an option. Instead, you'll have to be sneaky, crouching or crawling through environments without being seen (by runners) or heard (by clickers; overgrown fungus has replaced their faces and granted them an exceptional sense of hearing). Ellie has a rifle and a handgun, but I used simple melee weapons more often than not to survive.
Ellie and Dina
Although you control Ellie throughout this section, Dina isn't just a passive NPC. She makes her own observations, starts conversations and moves through the environment in a natural way. This early portion of the game provides background info about life at the Jackson outpost without having to explicitly explain it to the player. We hear updates on Joel and his brother Tommy, while Ellie and Dina dish about past relationships. They also spend some time discussing Eugene, a member of their patrol group who recently died of old age — an aspiration in their postapocalyptic reality.
As the storm gets worse, Ellie and Dina end up taking shelter beneath an old library, where they find Eugene's secret marijuana greenhouse. (Hey, there are worse places to wait out a storm.) As Ellie and Dina get lit, the chemistry between them becomes more apparent. The women clearly have feelings for each other that go beyond friendship.
The Jackson County section of the demo ended there, and things picked up again much later in the game. Ellie's in Seattle, looking for Tommy, and though the circumstances are vague, it's clear that she's out for vengeance. The release date trailer that Sony showed off during its State of Play presentation on Sept. 24 implies that sometime between that snowy patrol and Ellie's arrival in the Pacific Northwest, a nefarious group either hurt or killed Dina (or someone else close to Ellie).
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I'm certainly not a fan of the "Bury Your Gays" trope, so I'm hoping that's not the case, but promotional materials can be misleading. At any rate, Ellie finds herself wandering the suburbs of the lush, overgrown Washington city — a far cry from freezing Colorado. She's not alone, though. The WLF — a shady, murderous group that apparently shook up Ellie's life in Jackson County — is now hunting her.
The human animal
Ellie's not the only one being hunted. The group appears to be pursuing Tommy as well, which can sometimes work in your favor when the WLF gets distracted. Once again, stealth is the name of the game. There are far too many enemies around to move out in the open. If you try to shoot your way out of trouble, you'll run out of bullets long before the WLF runs out of members willing to cut you down.
To make things more difficult, these enemies also use hunting dogs that can pick up your scent. By using Ellie's "listen" ability, you'll be able to get a sense of where foes are from their white, shadowy silhouettes. You'll also see if any dogs have picked up your scent. Crawling through tall grass, tossing bottles to throw the pups off your trail and stealth-killing baddies along the way are tough to manage. There were times when I felt frustrated and overwhelmed, unsure if I was making any progress at all. Thanks to some generous checkpoints, though, I was able to make my way through the hour-long section. That was when I finally got my first glimpse of Joel.
Even close up, the characters' faces are exquisitely detailed and expressive. Joel's starting to show his age, looking grizzled, but he's clearly as protective of Ellie as ever. The Last of Us Part II is Ellie's story, not his, but he's still there, as an ever-present father figure. Just how big of a role he'll play overall, though, is still a mystery.
What's also a mystery is whether anyone ever finds out about Ellie's immunity to the Cordyceps infection, which we learned about in the first game. The impression I got from her conversations with Dina is that it's not common knowledge, but it's never revealed explicitly. We also don't know if Ellie ever found out the whole truth about what happened in Salt Lake City. It'll be interesting to see if the sequel explores these threads left dangling in The Last of Us.
But hey, it's not like Naughty Dog and Sony can show us everything just yet. With The Last of Us Part II still almost half a year away from launch, we still have some time before we can get our hands on the long-awaited sequel. However, judging from the 2 hours we played this week, it should be worth the wait. The Last of Us was something special, and creating that kind of experience a second time is no easy task. From what we can tell, Naughty Dog is up for the challenge.