The Last of Us is a purposefully brutal game. Set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic United States, it explores the entropy of humankind and the extent of what we, as a species, are willing to do to survive. This hellish, dog-eat-dog paradigm is also embodied in how the game plays, with a particular focus on stealth and the rationing of ammo and resources.
Even when playing on normal or easy, The Last Of Us can prove quite the challenge. Roving packs of scavengers will work in sync, flanking Joel and Ellie in an attempt to flush them out into the open. Then there are the Infected, Naughty Dog’s fungal zombie-like creatures. Unlike human enemies, they have a more direct approach when it comes to combat and can often kill Joel with a single attack. After throwing in a mixture of weapons and the opportunity for melee takedowns you have yourself a intense action game that often feels different every time you reboot a checkpoint.
As you ramp up the difficulty, however, things get even more intense. Resources become more scarce, human enemies use cover more often, their weapons dealing more damage. Survivor mode takes this one step further, stripping away hints and tips as well as the game’s focus mechanic, completely changing the game’s flow. Whenever being pursued or scouting an area, thrusting down the R2 button acts as a sonar radar for Joel, pinpointing hostile targets for a brief period.
As someone who’s currently attempting their Survivor playthrough, take it from me, it’s incredibly intimidating and can often leave players in a dire predicament. Still, it’s no way near as cutthroat as the game’s latest downloadable difficulty setting, Grounded. According to developer Naughty Dog, this additional mode is meant for the hardcore: dedicated survivors who border on the masochistic. Needless to say, going into Grounded, I feared this new setting would turn me off one of my all-time favourite video games.
Thankfully, it didn’t. Grounded certainly handed my ass to me on multiple most occasions, though my enjoyment of The Last Of Us remained intact. Like Survivor, it renders players blind by snatching away Joel’s Listening Mode and on top of that, enemies dish out triple – yes, triple – damage compared to the game’s default setting. If that wasn’t enough, the human survivors are even more ferocious and cunning, dashing from point to point in an attempt to confuse players.
However, the real icing on the cake is Naughty Dog’s decision to take out the heads-up display. This means players will have no idea how much ammunition or health they have without using some guesswork. Again, hints and tips are out the window, with resources and melee weapons being incredibly hard to find, especially in the heat of battle.
For gamers who enjoy a steady balance of story and gameplay, Grounded sounds like one of the most unappetising things imaginable. However, after getting to grips with all of the newly-imposed limitations, you will start to develop different approaches to combat. Not only that, you’ll actually make use of some of the equipment shunned in previous playthroughs. Instead of being a two minute gunfight followed by quick looting session, each skirmish becomes a much more premeditated battle.
Having said that, some areas in The Last Of Us do present a particular downside to Grounded mode. A scripted sections will sometimes purposefully drop players into fights where they are either heavily outnumbered or otherwise disadvantaged. One example I found was during Bill Town’s when Joel and Ellie stumble across the unhinged survivor’s trap. After stepping into a building, players are caught in a snare and left dangling by their feet as a plague of Infected inch closer and closer. With one bullet left in my clip and no option to swap weapon, I found myself snookered. Even when I reloaded, the sporadic movement of the Infected meant that at least one would always find its way to me, shredding me in one blow.
It’s certainly not the faint hearted but those who persevere will be entitled to two delicious gold trophies for their efforts. Whether or not adding these two shiny trinkets to your digital cabinet is worth the hassle is another matter…