The Last of Us tries a bit of an odd gameplay mix, a combination of stealth and action shootouts, that occasionally doesn’t strike the right balance. It’s one of my only complaints about the game. When it works, it’s exciting – you can switch from stealth to shootout to stealth again in one encounter, waist-high cover and AI patterns permitting. But sometimes enemies magically spot you from behind your cover and a swarm of ten or twenty bandits home in on you instantly.
The mixed styles more generally give you two ways to approach most combat scenarios, either you take it slow and knock everyone out one by one without giving away your position, or charge in guns akimbo (often not the best of ideas). But there’s a third option, and that’s to simply avoid combat altogether.
It doesn’t happen everywhere, but there are a number of instances in the game where you can wait for enemies to leave an area, or you can stay crouched and loop around them to reach the area exit, avoiding combat entirely. And those are the moments that make The Last of Us special, where you have to make a choice in the heat of the moment as to what you want to do.
Groups of Clickers are the best examples of this – enemies that detect you based only on sound and are an instant death should they grab hold of you (and you don’t have any shivs). You can sneak very slowly around them and even loot the entire area before moving on, and they’ll never know you were there. Choosing not to kill them will save you some precious materials while you scavenge around for more, a particularly useful tactic in the game’s Survival difficulty where materials are far scarcer than usual.
Clickers require patience, and it’s natural to think that killing them all is the easy option. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s better to take the methodical approach, scout the area slowly, and end up leaving an infected tunnel still fully populated. And after so many years of just killing everything in my path, it’s incredibly refreshing, to look back on that hallway still full of enemies and say ‘look at that, I didn’t kill anyone.’
It’s not that a pacifist run in itself is necessarily better. But the moments you spend crawling around quietly trying to avoid combat, whether against humans or infected can be far more tense than any actual combat. And it reminds us that there’s more ways to solve a problem than killing everybody.
Compare The Last of Us to Naughty Dog’s last work, the Uncharted series, where Nathan Drake mows down hordes of enemies game after game. No matter your objective, when faced with enemies your only option was to fight. Everybody in your way needed to die before you could proceed. And that’s by no means a trait exclusive to those games. Lara Croft singlehandedly takes down an entire island cult in the latest Tomb Raider, after all. Direct combat is the answer to so many problems in video games today. It’s the path to progression. It’s such an ingrained concept in gameplay now that, even in The Last of Us where an actual choice is presented at times, the first thing we think is ‘alright, how can I take out all these dudes?’
But if you do stop and think about it before jumping into combat, you might find that alternate way forward. You’re ducked behind a car and can hear a group of bandits talking. They split up for a minute before regrouping and deciding to move on. They start heading straight for your cover spot. You can engage them in combat and shoot them down quickly, that’s always possible. But if you’re lucky, if you time it right, you can switch cover without them noticing, or loop around the spot as they move past, and they’ll leave the area without ever knowing how close you were.
It’s an added level of stress but it’s also incredibly rewarding as a result, and it simply works for the kind of game The Last of Us is. Ammo is relatively scarce but enemies are many. There comes a time where you realise it’s better to be conservative. Crawling through a hallway of Clickers, hearing them click, and stopping in panic thinking ‘oh crap, I was moving too fast’ only to turn around and see them casually limping along in the other direction kind of takes you through the motions. Tension, stress, mild relief, and then tension again. And it’s a better feeling than taking them all out, though doing so isn’t necessarily bad. Just different. It’s the choice you make, to assess a scenario and decide for yourself which way you’ll approach it.
You’re going to have to kill people in The Last of Us. That’s a completely unavoidable fact. But you don’t have to kill everyone, and that’s what’s important here. There’s a choice to be made.