At the conclusion of the previous chapter, The Quarantine Zone, we are introduced at last to Ellie. In a gamble to get some stolen merchandise back Joel and Tess agree to smuggle Ellie out of the Boston QZ for Marlene, the leader of a quasi-vigilante group known as the Fireflies. Their symbol and slogans are spray-painted on the walls of the quarantine zone as they fight a losing war against the military in control the quarantine zones. The Fireflies aspire to restore the world to former glory, erasing the ravages of the ophiocordyceps unilateralis outbreak.
From a gameplay perspective this chapter is a natural expansion on the first chapter. Where as the basics of maneuvers and concepts were introduced before, this chapter focuses on sharpening them, bringing the player a more nuanced view. This chapter also teaches harsh lessons designed to break preconceived notions of how survival horror, or third person action, games are played.
During the first stages of this chapter Joel and company are avoiding military patrols just outside the quarantine zone. Armed with assault rifles and body armor these soldiers are not to be tangled with as it’s almost guaranteed suicide on harder difficulties. In the first chapter stealth was, for the most part, optional. It may have made the encounters easier on tougher settings, but in the end just running and gunning (or in this two-by-four swinging) could get you most of the way through. That won’t work this time around. The design here places emphasis on misdirection and the importance of staying out of sight. Keeping the soldiers distracted while you slip through is a vital lesson to learn. The more difficult the setting the more crucial this aspect of the game is, as resources are even more scarce, so using them on an avoidable encounter will make things just that much harder.
The most brutal lesson comes once the soldiers have given up, called back to the quarantine zone. Heading towards the abandoned state house Joel, Tess and Ellie find numerous infected in the ruins of Boston. Here we are introduced to the clickers, the most terrifying type of infected. The encounter’s setup is borderlines on sadistic and the player should thank the designers for this.
Four runners, one of which is stationary, spread out in a couple adjoined rooms and one clicker, also static. The reason this is such a brilliant design is that it forces the player to learn what works and what doesn’t. If this were another Naughty Dog title such as Uncharted, or another survival horror game, Dead Space perhaps, the usual approach would be to target the most dangerous foe, the clicker, and take them down as soon as possible then shift attention to the lesser threats, in this case, runners. Try it, like I did, and Joel’s throat will be ripped out quicker than you can say delicious jugular veins. So that didn’t work, let’s just outrun the clicker and kill the little guys first then. That should work. Nope, not in The Last Of Us, this game doesn’t play that way. The runners are all over you before you get halfway down the hall, pummeling Joel’s poor body into mush. Four on one aren’t great odds for Joel, and if the runners haven’t managed to smear you all over the floor by the time the clicker gets there it’s game over once he’s caught up anyways.
After several frustrating attempts at shooting my way through with a whopping seven bullets and a two-by-four I gave up for the night. I came back after work the next day and decided to take my time with it, learning from the over-aggression and terrible run-and-gun style of shooting that did me in on my last attempts. Here’s the basics of doing it right which by the way, can still be difficult. Strangle the stationary runner first, as this doesn’t alert any of the other infected. Then notice the patterns the others move in and find the right place for another stealth kill. Bricks and bottles are your friends, there’s a reason they’re all over the place: makeshift melee weapons, ranged stuns, distractions to set up stealth ambushes. Avoid the clicker for as long as possible, you can kill three of the four infected without fear of alerting him, and this is ideal. Once you’re ready for him, then bring the fight to him, using careful aim (the head! the head! they’re still zombies… sort of) or a bottle to the face followed by good old fashioned two-by-four beating.
Why I love this encounter is because it does a marvelous job of showing you just how fast things can get out of hand in this game. Following this the designers then proceed to make the clicker less terrifying, but not by much, by showing you how you can avoid them. Since they’re blind and use hearing to find prey, bricks and bottles do a gear job of steering the clickers where you want them to go. Even this knowledge it doesn’t make walking into a pitch dark room filled with half a dozen clickers any less nerve wracking. I had to pause the game for while and make myself something to eat because I had to build up my confidence to venture further into the room.
The last encounter of the chapter also taught another lesson: when you’re in rough shape and the exit is clear, create a distraction and run like hell and hope you’re not shot in the back.
By the time I was in the latter parts of this chapter I just had to know who was the lead writer for this game, because the story is just that well plotted, and moving. It’s Neil Druckmann by the way.