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The Last of Us Part 2: hands-on with Naughty Dog's stunning farewell to PS4

And the possibilities for PlayStation 5 are mouthwatering.

The last big hurrah of the PlayStation 3 era, The Last of Us launched on June 14th, 2013 - five months before the arrival of PS4. A technological masterpiece for the era and a crowning achievement for Sony first party development, there's a strong argument that developer Naughty Dog pushed the ageing hardware to its very limits - a fitting send-off for the console by one of its most accomplished developers. Almost seven years later to the day, the studio is set to repeat the trick with the imminent arrival of The Last of Us Part 2.

Preview coverage for this title is a little tricky. While we've played the game, what we can explicitly comment on is highly limited and the only assets we can share from this slice of the game have already been shown on last week's State of Play. But what we can confidently share is that, put simply, The Last of Us Part 2 does not disappoint. From a technological standpoint, there's a clear path of progression from The Last of Us Remastered, through the still-stunning Uncharted 4 and the often overlooked Lost Legacy, right up to this latest Naughty Dog showcase.

Some of the basics are easily covered - essentially remaining unchanged from prior trailers and indeed Uncharted 4 before it. Rendering resolution on PlayStation 4 Pro is still 1440p, backed up by the firm's clean temporal anti-aliasing solution. Performance is solid at 30fps, with few deviations, and actually improved overall compared to Uncharted 4's showing on PlayStation 4 Pro. In terms of image quality and frame-rate, we don't anticipate many complaints.

However, just as The Last of Us saw the Naughty Dog engine evolve over the Nation Drake titles on PS3, so we see a very different aesthetic in The Last of Us Part 2, with the emphasis on indirect lighting again coming to the fore. Joel and Ellie's story takes place in a world where most areas of the game are illuminated only by the sun, with only select environments seeing any other form of lighting. The way light interacts with the rich geometry and the high quality materials is first class, producing some beautiful but often bleak results. The sheer density is also remarkable. This is the world reclaimed by nature and accurately portraying organic elements isn't easy, especially with the sheer amount of grass, foliage and trees in any given scene.

Digital Foundry's first impressions of The Last of Us Part 2. It's gorgeous.

The emphasis on lighting and fidelity was also a focus with the first The Last of Us except that going back to the PS3 original and its PS4 remaster now, everything looks more flatly shaded - more cartoon-like even. It's this focus on realism that really shines through. Naughty Dog has the horsepower to massively improve material quality and light interaction over its predecessor, while ambient shadowing plays a key part in ensuring that everything sits comfortably and consistently within the presentation. Water rendering and reflection quality is also excellent. In fact, you can isolate individual parts of the game's visual make-up and note their effectiveness, but it's when they all combine that even the less complex areas of the game still manage to look remarkably impressive.

But perhaps what intrigues us most about The Last of Us Part 2 is something that Naughty Dog's Neil Druckmann talks about in last week's State of Play - the sense that Ellie is embarking on a journey into a wider world. For all of its triumphs, the original TLOU is inherently a linear experience - strip back the gorgeous visuals and you're essentially moving forward through a 'tunnel' of sorts. The State of Play hints at something quite different, perhaps an echo of the idea of a more open environment we saw introduced in Uncharted 4: The Lost Legacy.

Expanding the scope of play is a signature evolution of TLOU2 across the board - but again, it's the State of Play that highlights this best. It's here where the AI seems significantly improved over the first game. We see Ellie working her way through an ongoing human vs Infected battle, using distraction to find a way through. More interesting is the clearly smarter partner AI on display: one of our regrets with the first game was that the partnership between Ellie and Joel didn't translate into realistic behaviour in-game. The State of Play's clips reveal more aware, proactive partner characters and it comes across like a significant upgrade.

Is TLOU2 a last first-party hurrah for PlayStation 4? Well, let's not forget that we've still got Ghost of Tsushima to come...

Right now, there's little more in terms of gameplay and technological specifics we can share, but this idea of The Last of Us Part 2 taking on the same role as its predecessor at this point in the current console generation is intriguing. Once again, we have a Naughty Dog epic releasing five months before a likely next-gen launch - and again, when looking at the quality of this title, it's no exaggeration to describe this as the state of the art for the current generation, and perhaps a fitting farewell to PlayStation 4, just as its predecessor was a glorious 'sunset moment' for the PS3.

However, there are some areas where The Last of Us Part 2 and its positioning against the next generation feels very different. For starters, Sony first parties themselves aren't finished with PlayStation 4 quite yet - and Sucker Punch's Ghost of Tsushima also looks exceptional, arriving later on in July. Then there's the intriguing idea that while developed primarily for PS4, The Last of Us Part 2 could possibly play a key role in the fortunes of the upcoming PlayStation 5 - perhaps even at launch.

Of course, the original TLOU was remastered for PlayStation 4 but that was something different - a necessary project in adapting the Naughty Dog engine for a new architecture, arriving over eight months after PS4 launched. Such a fundamental revamp likely won't be needed in bringing TLOU2 to PlayStation 5, where the developmental transition should be a lot more seamless. Conceivably, titles like TLOU2 and Ghost of Tsushima could allow Sony to make a dramatic statement on its own rendition of Microsoft's 'smart delivery' - buy the game now and enjoy it on PS4, then transition across to PlayStation 5 where the developer could deploy the system's horsepower to deliver a raft of advancements. Perhaps The Last of Us Remastered hints at some of the possibilities there - 60 frames per second and/or higher resolution, for example.

The first episode of The Last of Us was a stunning game that arrived in the twilight months of the PlayStation 3's life cycle - and at this point, there's little doubt that the sequel will deliver the same kind of experience for PlayStation 4 and PS4 Pro. But could it also serve to highlight the generational leap in system capabilities provided by the new console? Maybe we'll learn more later in the week, but as things stand, we'll have much more to share on The Last of Us Part 2 on launch day - and we think you're going to like it.

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About the Author
John Linneman avatar

John Linneman

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

An American living in Germany, John has been gaming and collecting games since the late 80s. His keen eye for and obsession with high frame-rates have earned him the nickname "The Human FRAPS" in some circles. He’s also responsible for the creation of DF Retro.