Two rifle rounds, a single arrow, a molotov, and a nail bomb. That’s all I have to take on twenty of the infected with, but those last two need to be saved for when a Bloater jumps from the roof and becomes laser-focused on ruining my day.
The first infected screams through the door; no problem. David decides he’s going to have responsive AI -for once- and slugs him three times. Two more run through with one soon to have a brick in his face followed up by a knife in the eye. But David’s in trouble (probably because he’s been dawdling around the room oblivious to the danger we’re in), so the knife comes out again and another one hits the floor.
We’re doing good. No bullets spent. The two clickers spasmodically walking into the room creates a moment of breathless tension before they’re dispatched with the same reliable routine: brick, knife.
They’re coming through the roof. Time to use the bullets. One hits its target; the infected barely had a second to lunge towards me before he collapsed in a heap. Shit, forgot to chamber the second bullet. The enraged clicker thrashing blindly around the room is an inch away from his prey before the round is chambered and then quickly in his skull. I’ve got this, this could be the one.
And then an infected grabs me from behind and it’s the same gruesome death scene I’ve been watching for the last hour.
Welcome to The Last of Us’ Grounded Mode.
In anticipation of The Last of Us: Part II, I recently decided to take it upon myself to play through my favourite game of all-time on its hardest difficulty. Grounded, which was added to the game post-launch as an excuse to inflict more misery on TLOU fans, revels in being an absolute bastard to anyone who plays it. Within a few hours of black screen after black screen, you’ll find yourself becoming fonder of the humble brick more than you could ever imagine.
Grounded strips the experience down to its barest bones. There’s no HUD, which means that you’re going to have be aware of your ammunition in the middle of a firefight, but when you do have ammo, it almost hurts to be separated from it. Supplies are so scarce that every single bullet found or piece of cloth collected will feel like equipping the Master Sword for the first time. When there are only three bullets in your peashooter and five infected to deal with, you could be forgiven for twitching with stress and firing off a round in desperation only to hit thin air. But that’s something you’re going to have to get used to very quickly – Grounded will fray your nerves, solder them together again, and then slap you in the face for being such a Robert.
Joel, who is typically the most grizzled grizzler in all of gaming, is more like an anaemic puppy in Grounded than the anti-hero we know and love. Thanks to having roughly the same amount of health as a regular human enemy, his end comes abruptly and often – it only takes a couple of bullets or an attack from an infected to down the Dad of Death. Every violent encounter is gladiatorial; it’s either you or them. Spoiler alert: it’s usually them.
It often feels unfair and you will no doubt howl at the moon like it’s the Dawn of the Wolf on more than one occasion. This becomes especially true when you’re shifted from one harrowing sequence to the next with little extra ammunition or supplies given to prepare yourself for the latest shitshow. There were many scenarios when I may as well have been given a broken stick to defend myself with, but when the going really gets tough, it became time to “game” the game a little.
The Last of Us is as close to a masterpiece as a game can get, a momentous marriage of mature storytelling and beauty in the midst of seemingly endless ugliness. But it isn’t perfect; nothing is. The AI shows regularly shows its with infected randomly running around in circles when trying to pick a target to attack, or just awkwardly failing to do much on stairs. It’s also a weirdly good idea to let your companions get attacked as it leaves infected vulnerable to melee swings or takes care of them for a few seconds as they get stuck in a loop of attacking and being shrugged off. These are small things to exploit, but they can make a huge difference. There’s also a shiv glitch to take advantage of, if you’re that way inclined.
But Grounded also forces you into exploring every single inch of the game, searching every room that Naughty Dog painstakingly crafted in almost obsessive fashion. Just for some respite, you will want to share some lame jokes and random conversations with Ellie, as well as taking in every gorgeous landscape and allowing your mind to wander over every memento found from a lost world. While Grounded stretches The Last of Us in some areas, it certainly enriches it in others.
If you’re tired of refreshing Neil Druckmann’s Twitter for anything new about the sequel, you could do far worse than revisiting the original game at its most misanthropic. Just remember the brick trick and you should come out of the other side of it with your sanity relatively intact.