I got a TV this year that's actually capable of playing 1080p, so you know what that means... That's right, I went back to a game that only goes to 720p.
The Last of Us. You know, the game that everyone really liked or something. No, not The Evil Within. That's the other game everyone really liked.
I still only have a PS3, so I am not playing the Remastered Edition. But I am playing Grounded mode, a difficulty that was added via $5 DLC(Free for season pass holders) that completely changes how you will experience The Last of Us. And I am getting my shit kicked.
Grounded mode is, by and large, the most accurate and realistic depiction of living in a monster ridden post-apocalyptic world I've ever seen. And the best part is, I get to experience this difficulty over a 15 hour long video game.
Full disclosure: I've beaten TLOU a lot. So much so that when the Grounded DLC was released, I wasn't interested. I had just played through Left Behind and felt like I had already gotten my TLOU "fix". So I started the game just to check it out, then I quickly remembered that it's a solid hour and a half before the game even truly enters the prologue. And so around the time you get downtown, right before you enter the collapsed skyscraper, I quit playing. It was a gimmick, I thought. I've already played the game on hard mode so I already experienced the hardships. Fucking hell was I ever wrong.
A quick aside: As the difficulty levels increase in TLOU, you get less resources in the world. I thought it was tough on hard, in which supplies are less common than normal mode, which can have dire consequences as the game goes on. Another quick aside: I have never played "survivor" difficulty, which is the one following hard. So I had no idea what to expect. Here I am jumping straight into a difficulty I don't understand feeling like hot shit before getting swatted down like an annoying fly. And then stomped on. And then lit on fire. And then fucking galvanized.
As you may have already gathered, Grounded mode is fucked. Resources are extremely rare, enemies are so overpowered that every firefight becomes so unbelievably tense that it creates a whole new atmosphere on a whole new level. The previous difficulties had their challenges, but they weren't as fucking nuts as Grounded mode. I was never once "scared" of combat on hard mode, but Grounded presents combat as a trial of time and patience that can end as quickly as it begins with one shot to the head or a solid right hook to the jaw.
I said before, this is incredibly realistic. What does that mean, you ask? Well let me break it down for you. Everything can kill you, no matter how much health you have. I have been at full health only to be killed instantly by a shot to the head, and enemies often sprint at you with a haymaker to the face, knocking you, as they say, the fuck out. And that's just the firefights. Enemies are so much more intelligent in this mode, as they actively take cover until you forget about them and then begin flanking maneuvers.
*CAN NO LONGER ADD IMAGES OH BOY*
Just today. I was in the hotel sequence of the game. I was sneaking my way through the entire level, stealth killing every enemy I could. I was very excited because I had never done this so successfully before(When Grounded makes you as afraid of combat as it did me, you start to make good friends with the stealth mechanics). I was pressed up against a wall, looking at an enemy. Ellie says "Joel! Behind you!". I laughed. Ha ha ha. No, silly child. He's in front of me. I mock the A.I. for its lack of true understanding. That's when I turn to look and see there's a fucking person standing behind me holy shit what the fuck.
Grounded mode strips you of your "listen" ability, and as such, spotting enemies can be very difficult as the levels are usually dark and enemies find ways to blend in. When Ellie calls the enemies out, they become highlighted as if they were being displayed in Listen Mode. This becomes invaluable as, once more, battles can be over in mere seconds as any stray bullet could hit you in the head or a fast enemy could knock you out within the blink of an eye.
People call The Last of Us a survival horror game, but that's never sat right with me. I prefer to think of it as a modern interpretation of survival horror. But with Grounded, with the subtle changes in the gameplay, I start to wonder if I'm just a psycho hipster that relies too much on labels to feel superior, or I even know what I'm talking about. I say this, because Grounded makes one more difficult change to the game to enforce even more of a survivalist feel than the original difficulties: Less checkpoints. Segments that would originally be separated by two, three, or even four checkpoints are now just one checkpoint.
As I mentioned above, the hotel section of the game in Pittsburgh was just one checkpoint. You need to fight through all of the human enemies on all three floors of the hotel until you fall down the elevator shaft before you get a checkpoint. That's like 15 enemies you need to meticulously sneak your way through lest you be insane enough to take them on in open combat.
I had to take advantage of every, single, opening that I could get. If a character had their back to me, I had to strike. Because I knew that if I didn't, it would be just another enemy left to potentially come after me if I were to fail. And failure, oh boy... there's nothing quite like spending 15 minutes sneaking your way across an entire level only to die because, oh, right, this part is suddenly fucking wave combat and having to do it all over again.
In The Last of Us, one of the better parts of the gameplay is that you are so powerful, but also so vulnerable. You were capable of dropping enemies with a single bullet, but also prone to great danger if you weren't careful. The human A.I. was ruthless and cunning and the infected A.I. were swarming and overwhelming. It's like that scene at the end of Titanic, where Michael Coreleone says "Not like this" only to be put down by Casey Jones. Grounded takes this a level further by making you even more vulnerable.
I have yet to beat the game on Grounded, but so far I sit in awe of my adventure already, not even out of Pittsburgh. So far every encounter with the enemy has been fought tooth and nail, like some kind of street fight between rabid dogs. I'm juggling between four weapons with one bullet in each while staring down 6 or 7 enemies. God forbid one takes cover behind some wall because they are likely transitioning into a flanking position somewhere behind me. They actually use player tactics like breaking line of sight only to move around and on one hand it's incredible, and on the other it's terrifying.
I never thought The Last of Us was a scary game, but Grounded mode adds a level of "scary" to it that feels almost alien. I've already beaten this game a bunch, so I shouldn't really have that much to experience from this game, right? But nope. That's what it wants you to think, man.
The first playthrough of TLOU I felt like an old grizzled badass. I'm Joel, fuckers. And I'm gonna protect Ellie no matter the cost! But when playing through Grounded, I don't feel like an old grizzled badass. I feel haggard, paranoid. I walk into rooms with dozens of enemies only to look at my inventory and see nothing. Completely nothing. No ammo amongst my four guns, no molotovs, no bombs or smoke bombs. All I have is my fists, a brick, and Ellie. And even then, using melee combat is almost an instant failure as enemies hit you back, which can trigger instant death. Really, the best way to go about fighting is not fighting. It's keeping your distance, staying low, and moving on when you can.
Playing Grounded reminds me of a quote Joel has earlier in the game. He says "It's called luck, and it's goina run out". Indeed, I find myself in all sorts of precarious situations against all sorts of elements.
It's truly something special, I think, that something so optional can make the game feel so real, so... natural. Really, it's almost like this is the way the game was meant to be played. And honestly, I find it a shame that it's locked behind a $5 pay-wall in that it's DLC, but I'm sure $5 isn't anything special to most people. So I wish people will give Grounded a try. I wish people will go for that experience of feeling what The Last of Us is like when you're brought down on such a vulnerable platform that any move you make could lead to your doom.
Really, I find the overbearing difficulty unique. For example, you will enter an area and kill an enemy. That enemy will drop ammo for a weapon you really need ammo for(In my case, I'm out of ammo for everything so anything would be great), end up getting yourself killed and when you kill that very same enemy, he drops nothing this time. That gun that you needed ammo for? Yeah, you still need ammo for it. There's also something particularly frustrating about stealth killing an enemy with a firearm and watching that firearm instantly disappear into the ether the second you grab them. Yo! I needed that shit! Where did it go!? The truth of the matter is ammo is a double edged sword. If you have ammo, you can freely engage enemies and kill them, or try to. Doing so will expend all ammo and you're out again. But not having ammo allows you to get creative and sneak kill enemies as best as you possibly can. Sure, there's nothing stopping you from "getting creative" while you do have ammo, but the fact of the matter is I don't even remember what that was like anymore.
For example, Bill's Town sucked. Everything about it sucked. There's infected fucking everywhere and I've got little to no ammo. The best thing is the introduction of the Bow and being able to retrieve arrows from the corpses of enemies, provided that the arrow doesn't break on impact... which they all did, leaving me shit out of luck. But hey! I've got this sick bow, right!? Right... Anyway. The infected are fast and move erratically so accuracy comes and goes along with the natural weapon-sway. The entire thing was a shitshow from start to finish that can only be described as like when The Undertake threw Mankind off the top of the Hell A Cell and Mankind was being carried away on a stretcher only to get up, come back, climb to the top of the Cell again before being slammed through it. It goes from bad, to worse, to really worse instantly.
When I first fought the Bloater on Normal difficulty, I had a fucking arsenal. I had several Molotov cocktails, a bomb or two and ammo out the whazoo. It was a tense fight, but an easily victorious fight. Grounded mode? I had four shots in my shotgun and two bullets in my revolver. That's it. That's not even talking about the random infected that get added to the fight every now and again. I died so many times I honestly didn't think it was possible. Perhaps I had fucked up and somehow went in with too little ammo? Maybe I wasn't supposed to use that bomb from before and could have used it now? All questions, no answers. But when the time was right I got hulked out and picked up that big fucker with those 24 inch pythons, brother and slammed him so hard in the Pontiac Silverdome the entire earth was temporarily knocked out of orbit, jack. Okay, not really, but it was pretty close.
Then I got to Pittsburgh and had to fight an entire hotel of insane fuckheads who smashed me face in a couple hundred times(Or so it felt like), then I had to deal with a hoard of infected in the lower reaches of the building only to make my way outside and deal with three or four waves of hunters. After I beat those guys I saved the game and that's where I'm at now.
Honestly, I'm way into Grounded and think it's an incredible and unique experience. The difficulty makes Dark Souls look like candy land at times because in Dark Souls you're at least allowed to fight back. In Grounded mode, you'd be lucky if you can get a single swing of a melee weapon in before some hunter has you on the ground, flat. The only problem I'm running into is that the game has a very strict script. The game wants you to play the way it intended for you to, and it does not like you to deviate.
For example, in Bill's Town, when you are pushing the truck along. There are three infected along the left side of the road in the front yards of the houses. I decided, hey, I've got less than no ammo so I'll go and kill those guys before the truck gets there so it can lessen the load! Genius, right? Well, not really. What happens is you can get to about two of the infected before it does two things: One, forces Bill into action mode and causes him to sprint at the last infected while blazing-guns and triggering anything else in the neighborhood. Two, it instantly spawns an infected on Ellie so you will have to run back and save her. But, the timer is so short there's a good chance you won't make it. When you fail to save Ellie from the infected, it's game over and you have to do it all over again. And this time you'd probably not want to go and take out those infected anymore.
Honestly, that really annoyed me. My logic: I'm playing on Super-fuck-my-face mode and I'm using logic to solve a puzzle and attempt to make this incredible hard feat somewhat easier. It sounds reasonable, I mean logical reasoning is pretty much the way you get through video games. Logic: Bullets kill enemies, so I'm gonna shoot enemies with bullets! Ding, you're correct. Logic: Killing enemies will reduce the amount of enemies around! BONK YOU'RE WRONG FUCK YOU GO BACK TO SCHOOL IDIOT. JESUS.
I have yet to beat the game on Grounded yet(Echo, echo, echo...) so I'm not sure if any fine details will change, but one thing I wish would have at least been considered was increasing Ellie's dependability. They changed the A.I. to be a lot more cunning and tactical, so I wish they would have made the frequency of Ellie's MLG moments like saving you during a scuffle or hitting enemies with bricks to stun them. The only thing that happens is bricks being thrown, but so far I've yet to be saved during an instakill animation. It's disappointing because playing Grounded makes you more dependent on Ellie's abilities and so it would have been interesting to see what happens when an enemy has you down and mere seconds from game-over, only for Captain Switchblade to jump into the fray and start stabbing people. It doesn't happen. Though, to be fair, and maybe a little hypocritical, I have noticed that Ellie kills people on her own a lot more. She'll run up to some guy, jump on his back and stab him to death almost without prompt. Usually it's someone I'm trying to fight and she comically gets in the way as if she's saying "No, Joel! I've got this!" and take the fucker down.
It's absolutely appreciated, and I'm definitely trying not to whine or complain about it "Because it's just too hard! *insert sad face here*". It's just that they made the enemy A.I. a lot more advanced and yet Ellie just seems to be Ellie. I don't know, maybe I just suck. Whatever. You're not my real dad anyway.
Anyways, let's wrap this up the only way I know how: Bulletpoints!
- Insanely difficult
- Extreme lack of resources forces you to get creative
- Super vulnerability also forces you to get creative
- Suddenly like being forced to get creative
- I feel sometimes like I'm not being given enough time to do what needs to be done. Those infected move fast and some have a pretty wide range for their instakill grab and I seem to always be a few feet away but get grabbed anyway.
- The lack of checkpoints is also a double edged sword as I like the additional challenge of knowing I have to get this shit right, but when I fail quite a distance into an area(Sometimes 16 minutes into an area) I get sent back to the very beginning and I just feel so defeated. I think it's a necessary evil to enforce such a strict challenge, but sometimes it feels more like a noose wrapped around your neck at all times.
My Grounded journey isn't over yet, in fact it's about the half-way point, if I remember correctly. But I like what I see so far. Enemies popping out of the woodwork and then retreating for cover, only to disappear and flank around you makes for some interesting scenarios. Truthfully, I would have preferred a customizable difficulty system, something like Sniper Elite 2 and 3 that allow you to choose from a preset list of difficulties while also allowing you to cherrypick what you want to be easier or even harder. I like the creativity of enemies going to cover so their friends to distract you, giving them an opening to move around and flank you. I can understand why there had to be an entirely different "mode" for that difficulty, but it's more fun to go up against these guys. In a perfect world, I'd be able to choose the super-hard A.I. while also reducing the instakill melee range on these guys so I can get some room to breathe and have intense shootouts while still having to worry about my flank. Because I can't understate enough how fun shootouts are on Grounded mode. It's fucking brutal.
But I guess that won't happen, and I'm certainly not going to knock Naughty Dog for not having some crazy feature that very few games actually have. It's just that I'd love to be able to appreciate the crazy difficulty under a maybe-not-so-punishing light. But that's not going to stop me from continuing on my journey. And until next time, I'm gonna fucking die a lot yeehaw!
I have my own blog here. No one ever comments on it though. Truthfully I'd rather just post blogs to Giant Bomb, but I also like having my own blog to have my own identity, you know? You go there and it's my shit. My opinions. My views. It's great. While I'm on Giant Bomb, I'm a member of Giant Bomb, but on my own blog, I'm just me. You know? Eventually someone's going to yell at me for constantly putting a link at the end of these, but really I'm not doing it for ad money or anything underhanded. I spent some money on the design and on a domain for 5 years so I'm proud and want to show it off. I don't sell anything, I don't have ads. It's just me and my words, my words that kill.