I’ll come out and say it: The Last of Us is my favorite game of all time. No other title rivals its intense, brutal combat sequences, beautifully crafted post-apocalyptic environments, and heart-wrenching narrative about a jaded old man and an audacious young girl fighting their way across the country to save humankind from a deadly virus.
Even after playing through its campaign multiple times, and sinking countless hours into its incredible multiplayer, I still find myself coming back to The Last of Us at least once per year. This time around, I decided to put my skills to the test and tackle the Grounded difficulty, and man am I glad I did. Not only did it serve me the challenge I was looking for, it completely changed the way I played the game.
More Flight than Fight
From the first couple of encounters on the docks, it dawned on me that this playthrough was going to be different. Whereas in the Hard and Survivor difficulties I could take down my foes guns blazing, doing the same on Grounded only got me killed fast. Ammo wasn’t as easy to find, so I couldn’t shoot first and ask questions later because I would risk drawing the attention of enemies, essentially fucking myself with no defense other than my bare hands.
So what does one do when they can’t fight? Sneak or run. And that’s exactly what I did on nearly every encounter where I wasn’t required to slaughter an entire enemy horde. Because as little as two gunshots from a hunter or three haymakers from a runner resulted in death, I found myself doing much more sneaking than running. However, there were a few instances where I managed to get through most of an area unseen, only to be spotted at the very end, initiating an intense chase sequence where I had to sprint away from an angry mob while bullets whizzed by my head.
Moments like these gave me an adrenaline high unlike any I’ve experienced in a game before. The fact that death could befall upon me so easily made me think extra carefully about every action I took. I was so hyper focused and cautious about everything I did that I nearly forgot that I was playing a video game where the only penalty for death was respawning at a checkpoint I hit a few minutes ago; I was completely immersed and it was terrifying. It felt like I was really in the gritty, brutal world displayed on my screen. It felt like I was personally fighting to survive against infected monsters and hostile savages. It felt like I would actually die if I made a stupid mistake or acted too rashly. It felt fucking incredible.
Of course the high level of vulnerability frustrated me on multiple occasions: The fight with the bloater in the high school gym, the sequence with the sniper in the suburbs, and the swarm of infected in the sewers. These three parts alone were probably responsible for over half of my 200 deaths. While I appreciate the challenge and the realness, these particular sequences felt a bit unfair with limited ammo and resources. Perhaps when I take on Grounded+, I’ll remember to save my ammo and crafting parts to balance the odds a bit.
Making the Most of All Items
In prior playthroughs, I could care less for bricks and bottles. They were just items I would use to draw attention away from myself so I could carefully sneak past my enemies. While I did occasionally use them for the same purpose on Grounded, I also found myself using them as weapons a lot more.
For instance, if I got myself into a jam and had no ammo to shoot my way out, having a brick or bottle came in handy. With a simple toss to the head and a few swift strokes of the square button, an enemy would lie lifeless at my feet. This was especially useful during encounters where each foe had to be defeated in order to progress.
Knowing the true power these items held, I made sure to always have one in my inventory. On lesser difficulties, it wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t have a brick or bottle on my person, but it was a much different story on Grounded. Every time I used one, I would immediately scour the environment to look for a replacement. The nice thing is, they’re probably the most abundant items in the game, so it wouldn’t take too much time for me to find another one.
The same goes for smoke bombs. Before playing on Grounded, the only time I ever used them was in multiplayer. I just never saw a need for them in the campaign; until I faced a real challenge that is. Since I wasn’t going out of my way to butcher every unfortunate bastard that stepped in my way, smoke bombs became a commonly used item for me. I would simply toss one into a group of hunters, wait for the boom, and carefully sneak by them as they choked on a thick cloud of gray smoke.
Supplies are Few and Far Between
If the over/under on how many items I crafted during my playthrough on Grounded was 10, I’d probably take the under. Crafting resources are scarce, forcing you to more carefully consider what you want to use them to craft. Although I was a bit annoyed that this limited use one of my favorite mechanics in the game, I appreciated the atmosphere it created; a cold, unforgiving environment that had been severely picked over by the scavengers whom passed through before.
Whereas in past playthroughs I always crafted medkits when I could, I didn’t even bother on Grounded. What’s the point when you’re just going to die in two to three hits anyway? Instead, I chose to craft more nail bombs and Molotov cocktails. Having these ultra-powerful weapons in my inventory made me feel more confident when approaching a bloater or maneuvering through a Clicker-infested room. I knew that if I got into a sticky situation, they would be able to easily get me out.
Ammo is just as hard to find, if not harder, than crafting parts. Occasionally a hunter will drop a few revolver rounds or shotgun shells after being disposed of, but forget about finding a box of bullets in a random drawer. Even more difficult to find are arrows for the bow. This disappointed me because the bow has always been a go-to weapon for me in The Last of Us. I’d wager to say that I only found about eight to 10 arrows throughout the entire campaign on Grounded.
To my surprise, supplements and gears were just as abundant as on other difficulties. I had no problem finding 100 gears to upgrade guns, but it didn’t matter because I rarely had bullets to load them with. Likewise, obtaining enough supplements to max out my health was a piece of cake, but it was almost pointless because it only bought me one extra hit (two if I was lucky). I suspect Naughty Dog chose to leave these as is because increasing or decreasing their availability wouldn’t impact the experience much.
Playing on Grounded was one of the most exhilarating and immersive gaming endeavors I’ve ever had. As a huge fan of The Last of Us, and survival games in general, I appreciate how much it encouraged me to focus on surviving instead of initiating combat. It made for a more tense experience where I had to budget my ammo and resources, leverage items I had sparingly used in the past, and strategically plan out my every move. It’s the ultimate survivor experience.
If you haven’t played The Last of Us, what the fuck are you waiting for? Pick up the remastered version this weekend, pop it in your PS4, and prepare for one of the most thrilling and emotionally gripping virtual experiences you’ll ever have. Start off on one of the easier difficulties to get your bearings. After you finish that playthrough, you’ll be ready to tackle the real challenge. You’ll be ready to get Grounded, and you will be happy you did.