When you finally get to play The Last of Us 2, there's one thing that's worse than fighting the monsters. The uncomfortable, nagging feeling that maybe, just maybe, you're a monster too. It hit me as Ellie was searching through a ruined, overgrown suburb of Seattle, picking off members of a group called the WLF – the Western Liberation Front. I had a selection of guns, a bow, arrows, and a hammer to use as a melee weapon. The WLF had tracking dogs that could follow my scent and when one found me it attacked, and all I could do to survive was fight back. Could I pet the dog? No. But I could hammer it to death and then hear the cries of anguish from its handler echoing through the ruined house.
All grown up
Dark times mean dark games, and The Last of Us 2 feels like the traumatized child of the original The Last of Us, and the difficult years in human history that have marked its development. It has been five years since the events of the original game, and Ellie is now 19, tougher, snarkier, and more capable than the girl we met in 2013. The two sections of The Last of Us 2 that I got to play had very different moods, and it felt like they were glimpses of the two different parts of Ellie. The first, a young woman who wants romance and to fool around with friends; the second, a girl who has to murder her way through dogs and people on a path of revenge.
I started out in a snowy Jackson, patrolling on horseback with Dina, the woman Ellie kissed in an earlier trailer. As they check empty houses for supplies – supplements to level up skills and items for crafting – it's just two women chatting about relationships, they just happen to be armed to the teeth. There was a pleasure is these quieter moments, a chance to explore the world that Naughty Dog has built, to get to know the characters. In this early stage of the game, it was also a chance to test out our heroes' new abilities.
The first thing you notice about Ellie is that she's more agile now, she can go prone to slither under obstacles or hide in long grass, she can jump and climb. It's not that she's super-powered, just that she's an adult now, one who has grown up in a world where being light on your feet is the difference between life and death. Listen mode, which Ellie can use to make out the location of enemies, is more sophisticated, and when that fails there's a dedicated dodge button to help you escape danger. Ellie is a character that has naturally advanced in the time we've been away from her, and she feels more powerful to play as a result.
It all seems like a fairly wholesome apocalypse until you come across a messily slaughtered moose, a sign that there's a cluster of infected close by. The basic bitch infected, the Runners, were easy enough to pick off with stealth kills. There were our old friends the Clickers, who respond to sound and, once isolated, could be distracted with bottles and bricks to let me get close enough to take them out. It all felt familiar, a little refresher on life post-outbreak and was also a reminder that Ellie isn't the same uncertain little girl that she was five years ago. This section of the game just represented her day to day, her new normal. The patrol also revealed some interesting story details. When reaching an area where the air was thick with spores, Ellie and Dina both pulled on gas masks – so Ellie is clearly keeping her immunity a secret from even her closest friends.
A snowstorm forces the patrol into an old library, where we found the den of a member of the Jackson community who had recently passed away, Eugene. From his papers we find out he was a Firefly - the revolutionary militia group from the original game, and there are some nice Easter Eggs to be found among his belongings, including a dusty PS3 with a copy of Uncharted – so Joel could have feasibly enjoyed some Nathan Drake? Stick that in your Naughty Dog Universe pipe and smoke it – and a collection of adult VHS tapes, including one called Smash Brandy's Cooch. *Looks to camera*
Smoke and mirrors
This is also where we get a crash course in using scrap to upgrade your guns at a workbench. Don't expect to be attaching laser-sights or grenade launchers to your arsenal of weapons – this is about steadily improving recoil and rate of fire, not turning Ellie into a super-soldier. If the first game is anything to go by, you'll have to make tough decisions about what to upgrade, as scrap is in short supply.
Finally, our intrepid duo find Eugene's secret stash, a weed farm, complete with a gas mask fashioned into a bong. The women take a break to smoke, chat, flirt, and make out, and Naughty Dog's penchant for writing realistic characters ensures that all of the dialogue feels natural and real, and for a moment like there might just be a bit of hope left even in the ruined world.
Don't believe everything you see in The Last of Us 2 trailer: Naughty Dog's stories are never that simple
But forget all that, friends, because The Last of Us 2's game director Neil Druckmann has warned us on more than one occasion that while the first game was all about love, this one is about hate. The second section of the demo was distinctly Dina free, and it left me with far too many questions about just who Ellie is so dead-set on avenging. This slice of my demo took place in a lush, overgrown section of the Seattle suburbs, and it saw our hero taking on the WLF directly. This group is different from the Seraphites, the religious fanatics we saw in earlier trailers, and have a military feel to their outfits and actions. They hunt Ellie with scent dogs, who can find you even when you're well hidden from the human enemy's line of sight, and whose bite is much, much worse than their bark.
By the time you've faced the WLF and their tracking dogs, the clickers feels like murder for beginners; they don't shout commands out to one another, track your scent, and scream out the name of the dead in horror as you take them down. While the increased intelligence of this new enemy means a few gnarly deaths for Ellie, it also makes for a more satisfying type of stealth. You're forced to really outsmart them if you want to avoid any conflict, and to be fast and efficient if you want to kill them. If The Last of Us 2 is all about choices, this small slice of action proves that the concept is built into its core.
John Wick with freckles
Ellie isn't a helpless ingenue that's all "oh my goodness, what do I do with this machete" but neither is she quite a John Wick with freckles. Ellie is smart and deadly, but she also drops fast and hard when a big German Shepherd has her by the throat, or when someone has her pinned at point blank rifle range. For all her weapons, shotguns, rifles, knives, mine traps, smoke bombs, a stupid mistake is still likely to get you killed. While I won't pretend a few deaths in the backyard of a Seattle home weren't frustrating, they were also a nice reminder that Ellie isn't some all powerful hero, just a woman trying to survive in a very dangerous world. She may have grown up since The Last of Us, but she hasn't spent the whole time bench pressing tractors and growing kevlar skin. This is still a human story, no matter how many hatchets Ellie buries into skulls.
This time around the world that is your battleground feels bigger, offering more routes and ways to avoid detection and sneak up on your foe. These bigger, more varied levels are something Naughty Dog used to great effect in Uncharted 4, and they work just as well in the suburban Seattle as they do in jungle temples. There's a point A and a point B you need to get to, but how you make it there is up to you. I was weaving through overgrown backyards and up and the stairs of family homes, rats squeaking and scattering as I checked cupboards for ammo and resources, the barks of tracker dogs never far behind.
The bow, salvaged from an infected that surprised me after I squeezed through a gap in the wall, was a big help as I perched on the roof of a house, silently picking off whoever I could. It was a punishing set piece, but an incredibly satisfying one, perfectly mixing Naughty Dog's mix of humanity and violent horrors. I gasped when, at the end of my demo, Joel emerged from the shadows, ready to help me on whatever my quest was. That gasp would be repeated around the room all afternoon as other players experienced it too.
In our introduction to the demo, Druckmann called this Naughty Dog's biggest game yet. It feels like it too, but The Last of Us 2 also looks to be the most sophisticated storytelling that the studio has ever attempted, precisely because it isn't neat and simple and tied up in a pretty bow. The writers aren't pulling any punches; Ellie is angry, hurt and there are no guarantees of a happy ending, because that's not how vengeance stories work. Walking away from the demo, it made sense why we've been waiting so long for this sequel, and why Naughty Dog has shown so little of it to us so far.
The Last of Us 2 will be released on PS4 and PS4 Pro on February 21, 2020. You can preorder The Last of Us 2 here, and for more details on the game you can check out our interview with the game's co-writer Halley Gross.