The Fungus Among Us: Facing the Infected of The Last of Us
Our first encounter with the Infected of The Last of Us proves to be tense and challenging.
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I had the chance to play an early section of The Last of Us at a Sony event last week. I spent most of that time holding my breath.
When you first take control of Joel, the rugged protagonist of The Last of Us, he feels a lot like Nathan Drake. He controls similarly and he moves through the environment with a similar sense of momentum. If you've spent time as that earlier Naughty Dog hero, you might, in these early moments, anticipate combat that delivers the same rush of adrenaline that Uncharted's yippie-ki-yay shootouts could trigger. So many of the other hallmarks of Uncharted are present during your quiet traversal of a bombed-out, post-pandemic Boston--fantastic voice acting and facial expressions, environments so stunningly beautiful that you feel compelled to just move the camera around and take in every detail--that it's easy to expect the game to follow the same tried-and-true template where combat is concerned, too. But as you make your way across the ravaged urban landscape, the calm is interrupted by a piercing wail in the distance; it's an unsettling moment that suggests the dangers lurking in your future are eerily unfamiliar.
The wail comes from one of the Infected, a sufferer of the fungus-based disease that has all but wiped out society. Initially, these poor souls retain some awareness of their humanity, but lack the ability to control their actions. Infected who fit this description are called runners; they still look more or less human, though a pallor to their skin and other details make it clear at a glance that they are not exactly the picture of health. Individually, they don't pose much of a threat, but you don't want to attract the attention of several at once and find yourself swarmed. Because ammo is scarce and weapons like Molotovs--which you can craft from items scavenged from the environment--are so limited, taking a reckless, guns-blazin' approach is a good way to get yourself killed.
You'll spend much of your time crouched, moving silently and trying not to give away your position. Being stealthy and smart is key, but the common stealth game behavior of memorizing enemy movement patterns doesn't work here. These twitchy, miserable wretches behave unpredictably, lurching in this direction or that, so distracting them with a tossed brick or bottle before sneaking past them (or sneaking in for the kill) is a particularly handy tactic. If you can creep up behind a runner, you can strangle it to death or execute it instantly with a shiv (another tool crafted from scavenged items), and if you find yourself face-to-face with one, Joel's brawling skills and his ability to hit really hard with pipes and other heavy objects can usually keep you alive.
But it's not just the runners you need to worry about. Eventually, the infection progresses to a more advanced and more disturbing stage, at which point the fungus visibly grows out from the once-human's eye sockets and covers much of the face. These Infected are known as clickers, and though they are blind, they can still hunt you down. The clicks they make don't just serve to send shivers up your spine; they enable the clickers, through echolocation, to "see," and if one locates you, you're in serious danger. Clickers are far stronger than runners, and in a fight with one, Joel's fists will not save him. Clickers are less numerous than runners, but just one clicker in a group is enough to make you think much more carefully about how to handle the situation. I repeatedly fell into the trap of letting myself get distracted by a runner or two, which enabled a clicker to charge up to me from behind; no sooner did it have its hands on me than its teeth were buried in my neck. In order to survive when clickers are present, staying aware of your surroundings and the locations of those clickers is essential.
Luckily, Joel has a gift for situational awareness; by sitting still and listening carefully, he can sense the locations of nearby Infected, who remain visible (even through walls) until you slip out of "listen mode" and start moving again. But while useful, this is no silver bullet for taking care of the Infected. It's still you--not Joel--who has to keep track of how the Infected respond to your behavior once you stop listening and start acting. One group of Infected, roaming around in the gloom of a disused subway station, repeatedly got the better of me as I tried to use a shotgun to take out a clicker, which gave away my position and led to me being swarmed by runners.
Ultimately, I opted for a sneakier approach, tossing bricks and bottles in an attempt to lure Infected towards each other, hoping that I could then take out several with a single, well-tossed Molotov. As I snuck around the station's hallways and put my plan into motion, I never for a moment felt safe. I was constantly worried that one false move would bring all of the Infected bearing down on me, that I'd once again witness the grisly sight of Joel falling victim to a clicker's attacks. It was only after the Infected had all gone up in flames that I finally felt I could exhale, relaxing for a moment but knowing my safety would not last. Facing the Infected made me tense and uneasy, and I can't wait to do it again.