[Note: This article contains spoilers for the first several hours of The Last Of Us Part II.]
It’s a jump scare right out of a horror movie. My character, Ellie, is busily exploring a long-abandoned coffee shop in Seattle, picking up bits of gear left behind by those who fled long ago, when I head to the back to give the bathroom a quick scan. I pop open the door—and bam, there’s a shrieking infected runner launching herself at me. “Jesus Christ!” I yelp, as I take an initial hit before recovering enough to dodge the next assault and plunge my knife into its head. I desperately need to upgrade my weapons speed; there wasn’t enough time to pull up a pistol and fire at such close range. “How do they even get in there?” my character’s traveling companion, Dina, wonders. Oddly, Ellie does not take this opportunity to look right into camera and say, “THAT IS A VERY GOOD QUESTION, DINA.”
It’s been only four days since I began my quest to conquer The Last Of Us Part II, as part of an attempt to see if an appallingly clumsy video-game shooter player like myself can not only get through the game, but improve his skills along the way. Last week, I completed my longtime nemesis, The Last Of Us, in order to prove I was worthy of even beginning this much bigger (and more complicated) game. I sent my campaign coach William Hughes—our head of games coverage at The A.V. Club—some footage of my struggles while defeating the first game, and he gave me some homework: Commit to using the biggest and best gun without worrying you’ll run out of ammo. Oh, and learn how to throw a damn projectile, because flinging a smoke bomb right into your own feet is embarrassing.
Turns out, one of those things was much easier to accomplish than the other. One of the best things about this game—the streamlined narrative, keeping you from just wandering around, open-world-style, to do whatever strikes your fancy—also means that if the game doesn’t want to let you practice throwing things, you’re not gonna get to practice throwing things. There’s a minute-long throwing session very early on, when Ellie and Dina have the opportunity to join a snowball fight with some of the kids living in their encampment, but after a paltry dozen or so flings, it was over. Did I hit my targets every time? I did not. In fact, one little bastard ran straight at me, giggling, while I gathered a snowball, took careful aim, and proceed to launch it directly into the fence several feet to his left. I could almost see the disappointment on his little digital face as he realized he was battling a sentient Random Throw Generator.
Nonetheless, I got my rehearsals in where I could. Any time a bottle or brick would appear, I’d take the opportunity to aim it at a nearby window, door, or tree, sometimes first spinning around in a circle to force myself to reorient and aim quickly. When I took time and was patient, I could land any shot. When I did the spin-and-throw, I was… less successful, let’s say. Still, any moment that can be considered downtime is a chance to catch your breath in this game. A lot of the early going is a combination of stress-filled stealth alternating with pure panic-running. It’s hard to take the time to consider your options when faced with scenarios like this:
The plot of this game has honestly gotten me so intrigued, it’s made it difficult to focus solely on the gameplay. In other words, I’m slacking as a student at times, the equivalent of reading Wuthering Heights for English class without paying attention to the themes of passion and how the tempestuous surroundings mirror Heathcliff’s internal conflict. (It’s been awhile since high school; that’s what you say about Wuthering Heights, though, right?) I half-suspected Joel getting killed would be the act that kicked the plot into gear, but after he made it so long into the opening section, I was starting to think something else would come along and spur Ellie into action. Nope—it’s Joel, and it’s brutal. (Plus, it may be an obvious tactic, but having you play as the vengeful Abby for a few sequences before she enacts her bloody revenge is an undeniably effective way to force you to see things from her point of view.) So by the time Ellie and Dina begin roaming around Seattle, I was deeply invested.
Not so invested that I wasn’t acutely aware of my fighting tactics, however. I was unloading clips without concern for running out of ammo, as per my coach’s instructions. And yet, I still found myself often forced into close quarters combat, despite my attempts to avoid it and focus on blasting zombie heads off from dozens of feet away. I’m not sure why that’s happening; perhaps it’s just an effect of the game’s intentions to keep you off-balance and forced to improvise on the fly during hectic battle situations? I recorded the fourth time through a particularly stressful sequence from when Joel is still alive—when he, Tommy, and Abby are trying to escape the horde that was chasing me in the above clip. Maybe my coach can watch my awkward efforts and tell me what, exactly, I’m doing wrong.
William: Let’s start with this, Alex; Congratulations! Any fight you can walk away from in The Last Of Us Part II is a good fight, and you came through that battle in the gondola room—the first legitimately difficult combat encounter the game puts players through—with flying colors.
The best thing about watching this little throwdown is seeing you grasp, intuitively, that maintaining distance is your best weapon against Runners and their infected ilk. Although Part II has made its melee fighting more robust—most notably with the addition of a dodge move that lets you bob and weave a surprising array of attacks from psychotic fungus zombies—you’re still almost always best served in these kinds of fights by keeping enough space between you and them to be able to aim effectively. (Once you get a shotgun, that pressure is somewhat alleviated, but in this early going, the pistol needs room to do its work.) You also, consciously or not, made perfect use of Joel, allowing him to take some of the heat (and burn off some of his unlimited ammo) to keep the worst of the hordes at bay.
If I’m really focusing on errors in judgment (and projecting some of my own future experiences with the game onto your learning journey) the harshest critique I can come up with is that there are a few times when that dodge move really could have come in handy—most notably that grab that almost takes you down near the end of the clip. So that’s what your next assignment is going to focus on: The next time you find yourself face-to-face with a lone Runner, why not do a little shadow-boxing? Let it swing on you for a minute or so, learning the rhythms of the dodge in a low-impact sort of way. Then, once you’ve worked up a sweat, the satisfaction of clubbing the poor bastard to death will only feel all the sweeter. And keep practicing your throwing! Let the lock-on be your guide; nobody likes self-inflicted molotov wounds.
AM: Okay, this feels like instructions I can put to use. Then again, I assumed I’d inevitably run into an early equivalent of a putting green when it came to practicing throwing projectiles, and the game largely stymied my efforts there. I’ve only had one encounter with a lone Runner thus far (the aforementioned high-stress bathroom incident), but there’s definitely been a few times when only one was left standing during a stealth takedown sequence. I’d be happy to let Ellie spend a little time learning exactly when to duck, and when to lunge forward with that badass little knife of hers. Look out, overgrowth-infested Seattle! I’m coming to heave bricks slightly too far down and to the left through your windows!