Let me just say this: I am terrified of the Cordyceps fungus. This is a fungus that infects insects and arthropods. It attacks its host, replacing tissue and sprouting ominous stems that grow outside of its body. Eventually, these stems release spores into the air, infecting other hosts, and the cycle repeats ad nauseam. It’s rather special, like the work of a mad scientist whose only goal is to eradicate everything. So far, the fungus has no negative effect on humans and is even used in some medicine and recipes, though I have no desire to nom nom on creepy shrooms.
The Last of Us imagines a world where this is not the case. Where one unlucky dude got infected–and then millions did. I ended up dog-sitting for some friends during that recent, so-called storm of the century, and I took The Last of Us, Destiny, and Red Dead Redemption off my friend’s PS3 gaming shelf, intending to give all a whirl in between petting dogs and letting dogs go outside to do their canine business. Alas, I only ended up playing the first of the three, and it really took me by surprise. Yeah, I know, I’m pretty late to this train, but, based off all the talk in 2013 during “game of the year” time, I’m well aware that many are thrilled with how The Last of Us turned out. That it is a good, possibly great game. That’s not what surprised me. Let me explain.
I thought The Last of Us was going to be scarier than it is. I mean, its ideas and the inevitable actions of man in a post-apocalyptic world are horrifying, but that actual sneaking around enemies, both human and mutated, is more mechanical–and often frustrating–than anything frightening. Sure, I’m still not a fan of the sound Clickers make, but I can get past it. Literally. It just takes patience and willpower. For the longest time, I stayed away from The Last of Us, liking it to things like Dead Space and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, horror adventures built mostly around jump scares, tension, and a sense of hopeless dread. The Last of Us does feature the latter two elements heavily, but there are no cheap scares here. At least as far as I’ve gotten, which is up to when Joel and Ellie arrive at Eastern Colorado University.
I’m playing The Last of Us on its normal difficulty, but have found several sections extremely frustrating. Namely, navigating a room full of shiv-only Clickers, running from a noise-making generator, and that suburban sniper sequence. I may or may not bump it down to easy, which is not the worst thing in the world, seeing as I’m really just going through the combat scenarios to see the next cutscene or interaction between characters. This could’ve totally been a highly polished point-and-click adventure game sans guns and action-driven conflict, and I’d be enjoying my time all the same. Or maybe not. Maybe these combat sections are imperative to the plot, to see how violent Joel gets, how violent he has to be to stay alive. All I know is that playing The Last of Us is not what I look forward to most.
That said, possibly one of my favorite trends in videogames over the last decade is being able to see enemies–and track them–through walls. This was one of the early upgrades I got in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I know tagging enemies in Far Cry 3 and 4 is important to keeping tabs on everyone, and that very same tagging system helped keep me alive in Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Here, in The Last of Us, Joel can enter “listening” mode any time he wants; this puts him in a crouch, turns the world black and white, and pops up visible silhouettes of enemies in the area. I find myself walking around in this mode so often that I forget how colorful Naughty Dog’s world is, how lush with greenery and rust and blood it actually is. I hide by listening.
I suspect I’ll be back for some post-The Last of Us writing, given how powerful the narrative is turning out and unfolding. Plus, I think, unlike with Tomb Raider and Dragon Age: Inquisition, I will give the online multiplayer a shot. A sneaky, stealthy bow shot, that is. Er, hopefully.