'The Last of Us Part II’ preview: Vengeance and vulnerability

Developer Naughty Dog is sending Ellie through hell and back.

It's been years since I've felt so vulnerable playing The Last of Us. While I've finished the original game several times, this is my first time playing the upcoming sequel. I'm stalking my way through the suburbs of Seattle on a revenge mission, and things are getting dire — no health packs, no shotgun shells, just a knife, a revolver, far too few bullets and far too many enemies on my tail.

But let's back up a bit. At the exact moment Sony announced The Last of Us Part II's February 2020 release date, I was playing the game at a preview event in Los Angeles. The demo I was handed consists of two disconnected sequences. Developer Naughty Dog explained that the Seattle segment comes after a traumatic event that sets Ellie -- Part II's protagonist -- off from her home in Jackson, Wyoming.

Game director Neil Druckmann has said multiple times that Part II will revolve around hate -- more specifically, how far you'll go when you've been wronged, when you experience rage, to find vengeance. The brutality with which Ellie treats her enemies in Seattle suggests that she's far beyond the point of mercy.

A note on that brutality: just like the first game, Part II seems like it'll be one of the more disturbingly violent games you can play. One trailer in particular was very hard to watch, and the Seattle battle against human opponents was brutal and unforgiving. Gun-based shootouts aren't particularly different than the first game, but using a melee weapon like an axe or hammer up close is visceral and potentially stomach-churning. I hope that the final product balances these moments of extreme violence with plenty of down time -- while the original had its fair share of brutality, it didn't overwhelm the story to the point that it turned me off. I'm a little worried that Naughty Dog might have gone too far this time, though.

Why Ellie is bent on revenge remains a mystery, but the demo section prior to Seattle may shed light on things. Here, Ellie is in Jackson on patrol outside of Jackson with Dina, a friend/love interest/it's complicated who was first introduced in the E3 2018 trailer. This section was a great showcase of two young women feeling out a friendship that's turning into something more. They tease each other about exes, flirt and swear at each other and generally do their best to be "normal" in a world that's anything but.

Ellie and Dina face down a number of the zombie-like Infected who've overwhelmed the world, but combat is definitely not the focus. The Last of Us had several excellent sequences focused on exploration, conversation and stunning scenery with a few tense battles tossed in for good measure, and this "patrol" sequence felt right out of that playbook. Naughty Dog excels at this type of narrative-driven world building, and I was delighted to learn more about what Ellie's life had been like since the first game ended.

Given the close bond between the two characters on display here, it's not a stretch to imagine that the "traumatic event" Ellie experiences is the death of Dina. Tuesday's trailer certainly hints at that as well, but I hope that Dina is more than a tragic love interest who moves the game's plot forward.

While the demo starts in Jackson, a location introduced in the first game, I didn't get the feeling that I was retreading earlier ground. That said, the landscape was clearly reminiscent of the "Winter" chapter in The Last of Us, and I wished I was seeing more of a totally new, fresh environment. The Seattle suburbs were a new place to explore, but they felt fairly similar to the original. You're still digging through abandoned houses and storefronts, looking for supplies and cover as you try to survive.

The difference this time is that those environments are more vast than ever. While The Last of Us is a linear game, its levels feel like they stretch on uninterrupted for miles, and these two demo areas felt bigger still. In Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Naughty Dog kept its familiar linear structure, but added more open, sandbox-style areas into the mix, and it feels like the developer is applying some of those lessons learned here.

Naughty Dog says this is the biggest game it's ever made, and if these demos are any indication, each new environment will give Ellie boundless options for exploration and surviving encounters with enemies. I just hope that Part II successfully recreates the post-apocalyptic road trip feel of the original game by giving us more ruined United States locales to explore.

Regardless of where the narrative goes, a game needs good mechanics to make it worth playing. Combat in The Last of Us was one of the more criticized aspects of the first game, but there are some improvements here. For one, your AI companions do a much better job of hiding from enemies when you're in stealth. In the original, enemies were programmed to not "see" your companions if you were hiding. This meant that staying in stealth was entirely up to the player, which was a good thing, but it made for seriously goofy circumstances where your companion would run right in front of an enemy that wouldn't react at all.

In Part II, Dina seemed to be far more aware of where Infected humans were and stayed out of their sight while we both snuck around and dispatched them. There weren't enough stealth combat experiences for me to say for sure whether Naughty Dog has entirely fixed this issue, but at first blush it seems a lot better.

As for combat itself, it's largely similar to the original game -- if you're spotted by a group of enemies, things get chaotic in a hurry. Battling multiple humans in Seattle was frenetic and messy, but it also felt more dire and realistic than most other games I've played. Whether or not you like this will dictate how much you enjoy the game, but people who didn't enjoy combat in the first game will be pleased to know there are a number of refinements.

Naturally, Ellie controls differently than Joel, the protagonist of the first game. She's faster and more agile, which saved me a number of times. Ellie can jump, crawl on the ground and dodge incoming attacks, and the latter completely changes how you approach melee combat. She's not an overpowering force, but dodging and slashing with her signature knife can be surprisingly effective if you're low on ammo.

Gunplay has also been refined, and it's easier to know when enemies are down for the count, thanks to a simple red X that flashes when your shots are fatal. The weapons at my disposal were familiar, but could be modified in some new ways. For example, you can craft a silencer for your pistol, which provides another ranged stealth weapon beyond the traditional bow. You can also craft arrows on the fly, provided you have the right supplies, and there are fresh bombs and traps at your disposal as well. I'm so used to playing the game without these mods that I had to stop and remember I had new tricks up my sleeve to get out of a jam.

Beyond the expanded crafting system, there are skill trees that make Ellie more resilient and deadly. The original game had a very limited set of a half-dozen skills that could be upgraded, while Part II has three RPG-style "tracks." I didn't get to fully dive into what skills were in each, but some were focused on health while others improved your weapons and crafting skills. For example, one upgrade made the silencers you craft more durable. Similarly, modifying weapons at a crafting station feels more realistic and thought out than it did in the original. The explanations of upgrade benefits are intuitive and helpful, though it's still a little wonky that you can just find generic "parts" around the world to craft these upgrades.

That's a recurring theme: The game feels true to the original, for better or worse, but everything is just executed better. That's table stakes when you're improving on a game that came out more than six years ago, but it largely feels like Naughty Dog kept what worked and fixed a lot of what didn't.

Unsurprisingly, the world Naughty Dog has crafted here looks fantastic. From character animations and facial expressions to the lush, beautiful outdoors and highly detailed interior of destroyed buildings, everything about this world exudes polish. The sparse music accompaniment from Academy Award-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla adds to both the open-ended exploration and tense combat sequences, though the demo was free of any strong, identifiable new themes. All that atmosphere made me want to jump back in and play the demos again, because there are so many little things to marvel at that make this world come alive.

This all came together in the difficult Seattle demo, where I was tracked by a vast group of enemies who were a lot better at picking up my trail than those in the first game. That's where the vulnerability comes in: The Last of Us has always been about overcoming seemingly impossible odds, and in Seattle that was more true than ever before.

No longer is it enough to simply run away and regroup when overwhelmed -- these rogues are excellent trackers. They check under cars, comb through the grass you're hiding in and even use dogs to track your scent. Fortunately, the "listen" feature that gives you a fuzzy outline of where enemies are returns, with some changes. The further you are from enemies, the less distinct their location and movements are. But as you get closer, it can be a valuable tool to keep you out of danger -- I used it a lot more than I expected I would. You can also pick up on communication as you're being tracked to try and stay one step ahead of discovery.

Staying still will surely result in death, but moving too much means you'll be found, too. I've played the original a lot, and I was truthfully a little cocky after breezing through the opening patrol demo, but that feeling evaporated quickly when faced with smarter, more numerous human opponents rather than relatively predictable Infected. As my ammo and health packs depleted, I turned back to stealth and my new abilities to stay alive.

I survived a battle against three enemies with just a knife and a few bullets thanks to a desperate dodge-and-slash dance and a well-placed headshot, and used a trip wire-style bomb to take out the last enemies on my tail. Having many tools at your disposal means there are a lot of ways to survive a battle, but it also means there's a learning curve here. Mastering my new skills and learning how to avoid death will take some time, but I'm eager to get back into the game and take advantage of the different strategies the game has to offer.

My brief time with The Last of Us Part II ended the way the latest trailer did, with Joel showing up. "What the hell are you doing here?", Ellie asked. "You think I'd let you do this on your own?", Joel responded. Five years have passed in the game's world, and it showed on Joel's face. He's older, grayer, with a few new scars, but his hair was surprisingly well-coiffed and there's a hint of calm and restraint. It seems life in Jackson treated him well, which will surely make what's to come more tragic.

Naughty Dog appears hell-bent on putting these characters I've grown to love through another emotional wringer, but for now, I'm just happy to see the pair together again. Joel's love for Ellie is both destructive and pure, and I can't wait to see where their relationship goes from here. It's going to be a long five months.

'The Last of Us Part II' arrives on PS4 February 21th, 2020. 'The Last of Us Remastered' is free for PS Plus subscribers through October.

This article contains affiliate links; if you click such a link and make a purchase, we may earn a commission.