The Last Of Us Part 2 Remastered developer tells us to expect the unexpected
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Featured Image Credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment
The Last of Us Part II is an incredibly special game to me, as it is to so many people. I hardly need to explain why it is so exceptional as a piece of art - you need only look at the vast critical-acclaim and hundreds of accolades the game has garnered - but allow me to do so anyway. The Last of Us Part II, even more so than its predecessor, so meticulously weaves the strands of every development discipline to create an end product that is intoxicatingly gripping.
For me, The Last of Us Part II isn’t simply one of the greatest games of all-time. It’s one, if not the, best narrative experience I’ve had across any medium. The story and combat work together to draw - and thrive - off your complicity. As such, you become both the wronged and the aggressor, identifying with the highs and lows of two very different sides of the same story. Every other facet, from sound design to performance, serves this one purpose resulting in an end product that is easily one of the most emotionally-affecting games out there.
Take a look at our video preview of The Last of Us Part II Remastered’s No Return mode below.
I’ve always held a particular affinity for Abby, a character who says so much by saying so little. Abby’s a character who hides a profusion of emotions behind a calm, steady exterior - something I’ve always identified with within her. It’s no secret though that she’s a character who caused intense backlash, largely upon release but also with some players, to this very day.
When it was announced that The Last of Us Part II Remastered was on the way, I was unsurprisingly thrilled, but also intrigued to see what kind of reception would unfold. Over three years on, would players be more forgiving of Abby’s actions? And then there’s the new No Return mode, an intense combat roguelike. How would The Last of Us Part II’s combat fare without the support of its narrative?
I had the opportunity to sit down with Naughty Dog’s Matthew Gallant who served as game director on The Last of Us Part II Remastered and lead systems designer on the original release to chat about how No Return felt like a natural progression for the studio, alongside what it was like to revisit such a precious yet divisive project. “We started planning for The Last of Us Part II Remastered not long after Part I shipped, around the fall of 2022,” Matthew began. “We wanted to offer something more than just the next-gen upgrade.”
Naturally, those looking for a next-gen upgrade won’t be disappointed. “We're thrilled to offer players the definitive way to play The Last of Us Part II with everything maxed out as far as we could take it on the new hardware,” Matthew explained, which includes the addition of improved haptic feedback thanks to the DualSense controller. There’s far more to Remastered though than just a shiny new lick of paint.
“No Return speaks very much to people who enjoy the combat and are looking for some new challenges and excitement there, but we also have the lost levels and the director’s commentary, and I think a different subset of players will be interested in learning more about the making of the game and the ideas that got left on the cutting room floor,” Matthew added. There’s a new Guitar Freeplay mode too. “We just thought it would be fun to offer a really rich selection of features and ideas that would appeal to different people.”
Arguably, the star of The Last of Us Part II Remastered is without a doubt the aforementioned No Return. The roguelike mode sees players face off against waves of enemies in a series of rounds with the goal of reaching a final boss. Having been hands-on with the mode, I appreciate that it suits all playstyles, regardless of whether you prefer to take a stealth-based or more aggressive approach to combat, something I expressed to Matthew.
“What you're saying there was really something we were pursuing with this mode. We wanted to make this a mode where the richness and the diversity of The Last of Us Part II’s combat systems really got to shine - where we were showcasing the stealth, the melee, the gunplay so that players could, you know, not only utilise [their typical] playstyle but also actually, in some situations, try a strategy that they were less comfortable with,” he explained.
I confessed I typically took a stealth approach. “You're a stealth fighter, I'm the same,” he began. “I really like playing as Lev because he starts with a bow and kind of very naturally builds into a stealth playstyle. But sometimes you're playing as Lev and then on the first [encounter], you get a shotgun or you get the momentum upgrade or something and you go, ‘Oh, this isn't a stealth run anymore, I'm gonna try something really different’. You’re forced to build the character in a different way because of the opportunities you get.”
It’s true. I too leant towards Lev, knowing his bow would help me keep a low profile. In ‘hunt’ rounds though, your enemies are immediately alerted to your position, closing in on you in a matter of seconds. Such an encounter can quickly force you into becoming a melee player. “It’s also the fun of being uncomfortable. Those situations where you think, ‘Oh, I'm not usually a random player, but here I'm going to be either because I'm forced to or because I had some interesting opportunity to develop that way,’” Matthew said.
Perhaps my favourite aspect about No Return during my time with the mode was just how much the character you select changes the feeling of the game. With Abby, I fell into a melee approach. As Dina, I was forced to be far more considerate as she’s a character that favours crafting. “Yeah, that was something that we really wanted from these different characters. It’s exactly what you said, it's giving players very different abilities that would make replaying the mode really fun.”
“We've seen this in other roguelike games where you can master the game, but then you change characters and it feels like a totally different game because they have a different skill set. We had two main goals with the characters that we chose. We wanted to reflect a broad range of the playstyles, but we also really wanted to resonate with the characters’ identity from the main story. We didn't want to give them just a random ability that didn't make any sense.”
For some characters that is simple. Lev typically uses a bow, Tommy has his sniper rifle. Yara posed a unique challenge. Matthew explained, “Other characters we had to be more creative with. Yara’s trait is that she always has Lev as an NPC companion. [...] Having that pairing is just a really fun and different way to play the mode and Yara actually has upgrades where you can increase Lev’s lethality as a buddy.”
He continued, “Dina is the crafting character. You see that in the main story when she fixes the radio. [...] I'm really thrilled with where we landed with all these characters. I think they all provide really interesting trade offs and opportunities and identities. And I'm hoping that players who get very comfortable with one way of playing the game will play a different character and then all of a sudden find themselves, say, doing a run and gun as Manny.”
It isn’t simply the character selection that’ll alter the feeling of a particular run. No Return also introduces mods which affect an encounter’s difficulty rating, raising it or lowering it depending on whether they provide an advantage to you or the enemy. I asked Matthew about the process of finding out which mods worked against which didn’t: “It was a little bit of just open-ended exploration. A lot of what was fun about making this game was that you could just try things. You could settle on a mod idea, prototype it, throw it in the mix, and just see if it works. We certainly had some ideas that didn't pan out.”
One of the more difficult mods I came across during my time with the game increased enemy health. “On the surface, you're like, ‘Oh, increased enemy health? Whatever,’ but what that actually means is that melee kills, all of a sudden, become a lot harder. Body shots are a lot less effective. Suddenly, you really need that instant headshot kill. A very small tweak like that can completely alter your strategy.”
Throughout the mode, you’ll revisit familiar locations although one has a new twist: “We were fortunate in that we had a wealth of combat encounters from The Last of Part II [...] but we allowed one retrofit of a level and that was Jackson. It was really interesting to design this space differently for combat. We had to think about sight lines and paths and clearing,” because as fans will know, Jackson isn’t a locale we fight in in the main game.
I was surprised by just how new certain familiar locations felt. It’s incredible how by playing as a different character with a different enemy type in a known space can transform the feeling of that space completely. “It sounds silly, but something as small as playing as Ellie during an Abby encounter can be huge. You’re thinking about the space so differently now. As someone who's played some of the original encounters hundreds of times, I noticed the smallest change can really throw you in a good way, make you think on your feet.”
I was curious to know what it was like for the team at Naughty Dog to revisit such a precious project. The Last of Us Part II is clearly a game that the studio holds dear, but it’s also well known that both leaks and Abby backlash perhaps marred its original release, or so you’d think. “The wording you used, precious, was foremost on our minds. We love this game and we wanted to honour it,” Matthew explained.
“I've never taken a ton of stock into naysayers. I was blown away by the positive reception of the original game. So many players showed immense love and we were very fortunate to win, you know, awards for it. [...] It was thrilling back then to see players react to it, and that will be thrilling again with this remaster to see players reacting to it again, and maybe catch things they didn't catch the first time. Noticing details, noticing connections. It's a very rich game with details that benefit from multiple playthroughs.”
The Last of Us as a franchise wholeheartedly fuelled my love of gaming, and it’s funny that it led me here to this. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose life it’s transformed, I expressed to Matthew.
“I've been very fortunate to attend fan events and to hear from players who share your perspective. This game meant a lot to them, and the story meant a lot to them. For some players, the accessibility meant a lot to them. It meant a lot to us too, and it continues to now. It’s really exciting to revisit The Last of Us Part II once again.”
The Last of Us Part II Remastered launches on 19 January 2024 on PlayStation 5.