It’s 12:30 a.m., and I am pulling at my hair in frustration, because I keep letting this teenager get eaten by a zombie. I’ve been stuck at the same load point for almost an hour, and have replayed roughly two minutes’ worth of gameplay at least twenty times. I can’t seem to reload my gun in time to take down this one damn Clicker who keeps dragging their dumb gamey foot across the barn in which I’m hiding out. This is exactly the kind of scenario my training was supposed to have helped me get through, but I’m worried it may have met its match in this close-to-the-end battle sequence. Maybe The Last Of Us is actually me, the sole person unable to defeat this goddamn game. We’ll know soon enough.
Roughly five years ago, I began a month-long education in first-person shooters, for a very simple reason: I was absolutely terrible at them. I was always a fair player when it came to just about any other genre, but the second my character was expected to pull out a gun, a bow and arrow, or any other kind of projectile and send it arcing across the screen at a moving target, I was an embarrassment. Sometimes, when my game avatar realized what kind of incompetent buffoon was controlling them, they would straight-up surrender, rather than suffer the ignominy of spinning around while firing in random directions for a few minutes until some NPC walked up and put them out of their misery. I was bad.
Enter Shooter Tutor. For 30 days straight, I played Destiny, spending 90% of my time getting endlessly gunned down in the multiplayer competition known as the Crucible, all to slowly build up my skills to the point where they were solid. No, that’s a lie: to build up my skills to where I didn’t suck so obviously badly that my PS4 would want to self-destruct out of pity. And it mostly worked! I got to the point where I could routinely land a 1-1 kill-to-death ratio in a match, the informal baseline for a moderately skilled player. Earning my certificate of confidence, I happily bounded back into games, with a renewed sense of confidence at having conquered my Achilles’ heel.
Only, here’s the thing: The initial impetus for my finally taking the plunge—the humiliation that sparked my project of self-improvement—wasn’t even a first-person shooter. It was The Last Of Us, Naughty Dog’s near-universally acclaimed survival-horror action game. It was the game that broke me, forcing me to admit that I needed help—badly—when it came to the whole point-and-shoot element of video games. The sequence that did me in was when my character Joel, along with his partner Tess, ran into a group of low-level goons working for a black-market dealer who stole the weapons cache we had rightly stolen earlier. Again and again, I ran out of ammo and was casually mowed down by these laughing punks. You may remember this moment; it happens roughly 20 minutes into the game.
I put down The Last Of Us, walked away, and never looked back—until now. The announcement of The Last Of Us Part II made me remember I hadn’t actually gone back and completed the game that spawned my commitment to learning how to shoot in the first place. So I approached our Games section guru, William Hughes, with a modest proposal: It’s been five years. Let’s see if those skills have stuck with me. We’d put them to the test by tackling the sequel to the game that birthed this feature. As it turns out, William was the ideal person to mentor me through this process; after all, he may be the only other person who had never played The Last Of Us until recently. So we made a plan:
- First, play and finish The Last Of Us to make sure I’m up for the task of taking on the sequel.
- Next, begin an initial round of TLOU2 to see how it goes, under William’s watchful eye. He’ll make suggestions, assign homework for practicing, and do his best to improve my still-dismal abilities.
- Lastly, see if I can get through the game—and if so, how it goes.
I’ve spent the past month playing The Last Of Us, and overall, it’s going well. I make it through that first real firefight on my initial attempt, proof that I have definitely improved my shooting talents since the last time. (Full disclosure: I kill two of the goons via stealth takedowns, evidence that I have also improved in my general game controls since my first blundering attempts to move quietly.) For most of the time, it seems as though I’m going to breeze through this thing. But as the hours and days tick by, I realize something: Man, this is a long game. Either that, or I’m still a slowpoke, a not-unlikely possibility, given my resolute need to sift through every drawer and scattered pile of detritus Joel and Ellie pass by in their travels.
But toward the end, I find myself stymied once more, and for no good reason save for one: My shooting skills still aren’t where they need to be. During the section of TLOU where the player is given control of Ellie while Joel recovers from an injury, I get stuck in a damn barn with a stranger, the two of us killed over and over by the zombies pouring through the windows and holes in the roof. In particular, I get taken out by the same stupid mushroom-headed butthole time and again—despite knowing that he’s coming, despite thinking, “Okay, gotta be ready for that guy.” I am not. I am dumb as hell. I hope my coach doesn’t think less of me after seeing this.
William: So, here’s the good news, and the bad, Alex: Your shooting’s looking great! It’s also not why you kept dying in this fight.
Watching through this clip, one very obvious thing stands out: Every single death you log is from letting a Clicker, the elite foot soldiers of The Last Of Us’ mushroom-zombie army, catch you and sink its teeth into Ellie’s neck. That makes sense, in that Clickers—unlike their weaker Runner counterparts—are designed to keep players on their toes, equipped with an instant one-hit kill that only requires proximity to trigger. (The more grizzled Joel can get out of the grapple if he’s got the right skills and a shiv on hand, but the game doesn’t afford Ellie that life-saving grace.) So, given how deadly Clickers are, Alex, I have to ask: Why are you trying to take one down with a dinky little pistol, a hastily huffed brick, or, god help you, Ellie’s borderline-harmless melee-range knife?
Defensive fights like this are essentially optimization problems, challenging the player to spend resources as and where needed to meet the coming threat. And in this case, the “resources” you need to be bringing to bear are your hunting rifle rounds, which are not only capable of bringing down a Clicker in a single shot, but which you actually have far more of than bullets for your nigh-useless pistol! I know running out of the “good” ammo in a survival game like TLOU can be scary, but dealing with threats like this is exactly what they’re for—and for stopping me from having to experience the dip from triumph to horror as you blast one Clicker out of a window with expert rifle skills, then inexplicably put the gun away so you can try to fend off the next one with poorly chucked masonry.
So, here’s your homework this week, Alex: Indulge. For the next several fights, try to end up with one clip or less of ammo for your best gun at the end of every battle. I know it’s scary, but the game will provide. And, uh, maybe spend some downtime practicing chucking bottles or bricks at stationary targets; molotovs in TLOU are tricky, but you can’t get away with them being “0-for-3, set myself on fire” tricky for very long.
AM: Eventually, I get through it. I get Ellie to safety, get her and Joel back on the road, headed toward the hospital and that bleakly unsettling ending. Do I throw very many bricks or bombs? I do not. But at least I’ve beaten the game that gave me such grief. And it suggests I’m ready for The Last Of Us Part II—in which I will spend the first few hours of play practicing throwing things for target practice, and relying on the best weapon I’ve got without worry that I’ll run out of ammo. Though, uh, maybe I’ll do an extra save at an earlier, supply-heavy point, just to be safe. Still, this is exciting: Can I actually beat this thing? We’ll find out next week.