Ahead of our June 12 review of The Last of Us Pt. 2, Naughty Dog has given us the green light to describe a small portion of the PlayStation 4 game. The content in question is a 1.5-hour mission that takes place roughly 12 hours into the full campaign.
For many games, this would be an inconsequential way to set fans’ expectations of what’s to come. Think of a Halo game, where the shooty-shoot in a later mission is representative of the whole game. Standard game-preview stuff, you might say.
The Last of Us Pt. 2 is not necessarily that kind of video game. Using this preview to make that point is difficult, as Naughty Dog has held members of the press to an incredibly high standard of secrecy, enough to make me debate whether to post this impressions article at all. Ultimately, I can say quite a bit about this game by pointing out what I cannot mention, and why the “allowed” content makes me excited to share more about this game with you. Smarter readers may very well notice what I mention about this single mission and read between the lines. (This is a particularly safe article to read if you’re spoiler-averse.)
With those caveats in mind, grab your spiked bat and crawl through rainy Seattle with me.
Caveats: Many questions remain unanswered (for now)
The spoiler-restriction list for this single mission is pretty massive. We can tell you that Ellie, the prior game’s companion/protagonist, is the lead character in this mission and that she travels alone to infiltrate a hospital in post-apocalyptic Seattle. Her mission is to confront someone named Nora (you may have seen this character in a TLOU2 trailer).
What is Ellie doing in Seattle? How did she get there? Who is Nora? What does Ellie want with her? What has Ellie been up to in the years since the events of the original PlayStation 3 game? Who else does she know in Seattle right now?
Not only can I not answer those questions, I also can’t clarify the way that Naughty Dog tells this story within the confines of this game. I would like to, but I cannot.
Instead, I can describe a mission that is largely divorced from the game’s plot—and feels, quite honestly, like the kind of vertical gameplay slice you might expect at a “spoiler-free” press event months before a game’s launch.
Seattle: So authentic, you’ll check for your ORCA card
The first thing I can describe is the mission’s relatively accurate portrayal of my hometown, Seattle. This many years after an infection took hold of the world, Seattle’s downtown core has become overrun with native, local foliage, which Naughty Dog uses to both show off the company’s impressive leaf-rendering system and to organically block out your routes. That means we only see a few facsimiles of modern-day Seattle landmarks, including the mission’s starting point of the Paramount Theater, a collapsed version of the Washington State Convention Center, and an eventual march to the cobblestone streets of Pioneer Square.
When these moments emerge, Naughty Dog proves itself adept at combining real-life topography and interesting gameplay moments. The convention center’s architecture, full of bulging, rectangular concrete blocks, becomes a perilous series of leaps for Ellie. And the vines-and-trees overgrowth of Pioneer Square transforms one of its bigger parks into a creepy stage of combat theater.
Between these landmarks, Ellie progresses through this mission in mostly linear fashion, often because a path she takes includes some form of “barricade this door behind me” to limit how many dangerous forces can sneak up on her six. These include: mutated people who were overtaken by a virus and shamble in zombie-like fashion; surviving humans who have joined an organized militia, the Washington Liberation Front (whose members adapt its acronym, WLF, to call themselves “wolves”); and a mysterious contingent of surviving humans known as “Scars” who emerge for the first time in this mission. At this point in the game, Ellie doesn’t quite understand either of these organizations’ driving principles, though the mission in question includes various hand-written notes about tensions between the two groups—along with tragic letters that never made their way to loved ones.
Some parts of the mission terrifically tell the story of human society screeching to a halt. In one particularly harrowing battle against zombies, Ellie must sneak and crawl through an abandoned newspaper office, which is occupied by an advanced form of the game’s infected—a class of monster that moves quickly and defaults to dodging and triangulating around Ellie instead of either stupidly shambling or directly rushing. With no electricity, Ellie must rely on her shoulder flashlight and the dim light through windows to navigate this office environment, whose cubicles and editors’ offices look like everyone took a day off of work only yesterday. Photo frames, awards, and plaques can be found everywhere, along with faded crawls of text on walls telling the newspaper’s history.
Familiar combat in new locales
Ellie’s battling arsenal hasn’t evolved too drastically from the original game. By this point in TLOU2, Ellie’s gun selection has expanded to include a pistol, a revolver, a shotgun, and a hunting rifle, and she also carries a bow, three types of bombs (proximity mine, throwable “spike” ball, molotov cocktail), a throwable bludgeoning implement (brick or bottle), and whatever melee object she might find on the ground (stick, machete, etc).
Like in the first game, Ellie can find crafting tables that let her spend “gears” on weapon-specific upgrades. She can also still spend “pills” on upgrading her personal abilities, though she gets more new upgrade options in the latter category, all aided by new “training manuals.” Find a manual in a tucked-away corner of the game, and you’ll get access to a new skill tree; its perks and buffs must be unlocked in order, so you can’t access the handy “stealth kills are 100% faster” perk until you spend pills on its category’s four other upgrades. At this point in the game, Ellie can access up to five skill trees: survival, crafting, stealth, precision, and explosives.
Since those gear and pill currencies are relatively limited, TLOU2‘s missions (including this one) organically nudge players into combing every corner of every abandoned building in hopes of finding more. Buildings are also littered with ammo and crafting supplies, used to resupply things like health kits, bombs, and a new pistol-silencer add-on. Whether you’ll need all of those battle-specific supplies depends on your play style and chosen difficulty.
Case in point: the final part of this mission, in which Ellie reaches a WLF-fortified hospital, includes a few paths to its second floor, which is your end goal. On “normal” difficulty, I tried this mission in two ways, and one of them was a violent, guns-blazing blowout. Normal difficulty includes enough ammunition pickups that you can battle like this roughly 20% of the time and not worry about running out of ammo for your five primary weapons. Bump the difficulty higher, however, and this becomes a tougher proposition.
No, you cannot pet the dog
My other tactical approach, then, included my sneaking to a nicely fortified point of cover where I had solid walls 270 degrees behind me and three points of cover to shift to. Once there, I was able to line up enemies one at a time and pick them off with my two silent weapons: a silenced pistol and a bow. Each time I took someone out, another enemy wandered toward the new dead body, started muttering in horror, and stood still long enough for me to pick them off. And each time, the new straggler walked up and fearfully uttered that person’s name. (Apparently, Naughty Dog had its voice actors recite a ton of names, to be cycled through randomly.)
Thus, I’m afraid I must report that TLOU2 doesn’t magically resolve how easy it is to “cheese” through stealth-battle scenarios, at least in certain battling scenarios. The aforementioned zombie battle in an abandoned newspaper office is an example of a more satisfying and terrifying sequence, as is your first major battle against Scar warriors in an overgrown Pioneer Square. The latter sees those troops flank and circle to annoy you with their bows and arrows. The hospital mission, at least, employs the game’s new dog-hunting system, where humans will patrol a zone with a dog at their side—and this adds a new element to Ellie’s “sense” system, of showing her scent as a trail of her most recent steps. If you sneak carelessly near a dog, it will perk up, bark, and move on your position incredibly quickly.
By this point in the game, I figured out the best way to deal with dogs as a threat: kill their owners from a distance with an arrow or silenced bullet. But be warned: this plays out in a pretty messed-up fashion. This tactic consistently stops dogs in their tracks as they huddle by their former master’s side in utter confusion and begin whining. Killing a dog first, on the other hand, will make its owner yell the dog’s name out and direct more militia members to wherever the shot came from. Either way, TLOU2‘s dogs are too aggressive to be left alive. You can’t toss them a treat or entice them to join your side. The game forces you to kill virtual hunting dogs, on top of killing virtual humans.
Curiously, Naughty Dog’s preview agreement lets us talk about a specific battle that you may have already seen: the “parking garage” sequence, which I’ve embedded below.
I embedded that video because what you see here is by-and-large what I experienced in the final game. Contextual moments in a battle mean that you may very well be shoved against nearby objects, like a car, as foes try to choke you out. The melee system includes a smooth “L1 to dodge” system whose animations mostly flow in smooth, dramatic fashion (with exceptions, of course). Taking an arrow to the shoulder or chest will make you bleed out until you yank the arrow. Camera-angle pans within a battle look this dramatic and professional. And fatal blows and cuts to enemies really are this gut-wrenching to experience.
When Ars reported on this reveal in 2018, I wondered how faked this sequence was. A few moments in the above video, particularly a militia member kicking a dead body, never play out. Others are reshuffled to make the actual sequence more dramatic. Otherwise, it’s legit. Hiding under a car with a finger on the trigger; contending with multiple melee foes simultaneously; operating within organically lit environments in a post-electricity world: they’re all in the final game.
I keep coming back to a sense of hype payoff when I think about the hospital-related mission I’m allowed to talk about. TLOU2‘s combat isn’t a mechanical revolution compared to the original game. Instead, it’s been smoothed over with eye-bulging surprises and cinematic touches that deliver some of the most memorable combat moments I’ve seen in the well-trodden brutal-adventure genre. Our opinions about how those fit into Naughty Dog’s complete package will have to wait until our feature-length review goes live on June 12.
Listing image by Sony Interactive Entertainment / Naughty Dog