I can’t really tell you why zombie stories are so popular. Maybe it’s the violence, maybe it’s our morbid fascination with death, maybe it’s the feeling that a dystopian pandemic could break out at any time (ahem), but the zombie survival genre has been alive and kicking for decades now. Whether it’s Dawn of the Dead, or The Walking Dead, or Zombieland, it seems every few years people congregate in large masses to watch undead monsters eat human flesh.
The most anticipated zombie story of 2020 is The Last of Us Part II, a sequel to the award-winning 2013 PlayStation title that’s frequently cited as the video game of its console generation. Fans of the series will get mad at me for referring to it as a “zombie survival game,” and rightfully so—while there were infected freaks running amok, The Last of Us also happened to be among the most sensitive and touching experiences that gaming had (and still has) to offer. Cinematic, dense with emotionally complex storytelling, and steered by a tragic narrative that had you bawling by its stirring conclusion, the game felt like a goddamn film that allowed you to control its main characters.
So when a sequel was announced in 2016, expectations were high for Naughty Dog director Neil Druckmann, who this time helms Part II without longtime collaborator Bruce Straley. Why do a second game? Could it ever compare to the first? Would a sequel even make sense? While details on the upcoming game are still sparse, the story of Joel and Ellie looks to be back with a vengeance—at least based on the promotional footage and trailers we’ve seen so far. The title is set to finally drop, after a few delays, on June 19, 2020. Here’s everything we know about The Last of Us Part II, including my hands-on experience with a pretty extraordinary (and grim) sequence midway through the game.
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We’re picking up at least a few years later.
Spoilers ahead. The first Last of Us ends with our main characters, Joel and Ellie, heading to the town of Jackson in Wyoming, which seems to be one of the last remaining hubs of human civilization in America. Based on the information divulged in Sony’s May 25 State of Play, the sequel takes place some years after the events of the first game. Joel is older, with a lot more grey in his beard, Ellie is nearing the end of her teenage years, and whether or not they’ve settled within the community in Jackson, the two seem to have met some new friends. They’re definitely not as alone as they once were.
A quick refresher for newcomers or fans who haven’t played the game since its release: Joel loses his daughter in the beginning of the first game after a hectic confrontation with local soldiers. He soon runs into Ellie, a wise-cracking teenager who may or may not be the only human being who’s immune to the Cordyceps Brain Infection that has reduced humanity to rubble. Joel, still mourning the loss of his daughter, is tasked with taking Ellie across the country to a hospital so doctors can extract a vaccine for the virus. But when Joel finds out that the extraction would result in Ellie’s death, he decides to rescue her from surgery—and kill everyone in the process. Joel can’t bear to lose another daughter (even a surrogate one), and in the end, he lies to Ellie, telling her that the extraction couldn’t be done. The game ends on an unsettling note, as Joel’s questionable choices prove that he’d rather save one of us than create a vaccine and save the last of us.
Joel and Ellie may not be on the best terms.
Because of the events of the first game’s finale, it’s safe to say that Joel and Ellie will likely not be on great terms in The Last of Us Part II. Whether Ellie finds out about Joel’s lie or not, the abrupt end to their mission after weeks of trekking across America will have inevitably led to questions. And Joel isn’t much of a talker.
The first Last of Us was very much Joel’s story. You played as Joel for most of the game. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. All the gameplay footage that Naughty Dog has released—including the sequence later in the game that I played—has Ellie front and center. In fact, Joel is barely shown at all in any of the promos so far. In the official story trailer, Ellie says that she has to “finish it.” Perhaps we can assume that Ellie will be tying off one of the series’ many loose threads. That could mean getting revenge on the dozens of soldiers, agencies, or ragtag rebel groups who tried to kill her and Joel in the first game.
We’re not in Jackson anymore.
The Last of Us gained renown for its extremely detailed recreation of cities throughout the U.S. Cities such as Boston and Pittsburgh factored heavily into the first game’s story. This one is projecting the effects of a viral onslaught onto the city of Seattle. Instead of Jackson, where Joel and Ellie were headed at the end of Part I, Druckmann has said that a large part of the new game will take place in Seattle (the portion of the game that I played was set completely in this rainy city). Why, or how, exactly, Ellie finds herself out in Seattle is anyone’s guess.
Gameplay looks familiar, but vastly improved.
This brings us to my experience playing the game in the “Finding Nora” section that Sony allowed critics to pore through pre-release. I can’t speak to my experiences with the rest of the sequel just yet (stay tuned for a full review on June 12), but I can tell you this: Ellie is back, man. She is really back. She’s every bit as fearless, caring, and perilously human as she was before. Except in this sequence, she’s alone in a very rainy, very dark Seattle, a part of the country that Mother Nature has almost completely consumed. But that works to her benefit here. Unlike the first game, which had you running out in the open like a madman, gunning down horde after horde of zombie, The Last of Us Part II takes full advantage of its environment. That means you’ll be crawling under cars, hiding yourself in tall muddy grass, and concealing your whereabouts by any means necessary.
Aspects of the gameplay that felt needlessly confusing before have, as expected, been fixed here. The combat system now has a dodge button, scrolling through guns is fluid, crafting is quicker—these are the kind of necessary adjustments the game had to make to live in the modern gaming world. And I’m happy to report that The Last of Us Part II very much feels like a modern game. Perhaps the most modern game I’ve ever played, at least in terms of how immersive it is. I can’t go into detail on the story or the cutscenes in this sequence, but the transitions between narrative and gameplay are so smooth and intuitive that, many times in my playthrough, I couldn’t even really tell when I was playing and when I wasn’t. That can be a bad thing, but in this case, it just made the experience feel even more intimate.
In this sequence, as you can tell from its title, Ellie is after someone named Nora. She’s cutting through zombies and non-infected people to get to her. What she wants, I would bet, is not something you’d expect. The game releases on June 19 on the PS4 (and it’ll be cross compatible on PS5, whenever that comes out). It’s a weird time to be playing The Last of Us. But spending some time with Ellie again is worth it. I can’t wait to talk about everything I’ve played so far.
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