The original The Last of Us is getting a remake as The Last of Us Part I, and it’s Naughty Dog’s chance to fix the only real flaw from the original. No, I don’t mean the way it turned every other PlayStation 3 into an aircraft turbine, though the doomsayer in me is anticipating a worldwide chorus of coil whine. Rather, the one change that could elevate The Last of Us Part I nearer to perfection is the ability to weaponize the infected.
It’s a feature that was introduced in The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC and became standard in The Last of Us Part II, but it’s absent from the first game. Instead, The Last of Us pits you against the formerly human infected or the currently human survivors. You could be fending off a fungal behemoth or opening up a scavenger’s jugular vein, but outside of the opening sequence and the odd cutscene, you’re the only one who can die at the hands of the infected — and for the most part, it’s only Joel and Ellie who encounter them.
Admittedly, in a world where a fungus has turned people into zombies, “realism” is debatable. But putting the infected there solely to challenge you and rarely making them an obstacle for anyone else not only undermines the menace of the infected — it makes The Last of Us’s world just that little bit less convincing.
But The Last of Us Part II and The Last of Us: Left Behind are a different matter entirely. The latter is a revelation compared to the main game, and I’m not just talking about Ellie’s adorable but doomed romance. Throw a carefully placed brick and you can watch the mushroom-headed infected descend on the human antagonists.
Up until that point they’re just the bad guys, spawned in like the infected to oppose you. But watching them die in front of your eyes helps breathe life into the world, underlining that the infected do have eyes (and teeth) for other humans. As a mechanic they’re there for the player’s benefit, but watching them take a chunk out of an NPC helps disguise that.
Atmosphere-building isn’t the only reason the The Last of Us Part I remake should add the ability to redirect the infected. Making enemies fight each other is also so, so satisfying. Like with the original Doom before it, Left Behind’s enemy-versus-enemy mechanic is meant to be used — it wouldn’t be there otherwise. But it still feels deliciously wicked, as if you’re gaming the system by refusing to take on enemies individually.
On top of that, if you’ve got a sadistic streak, you get to watch your foes’ demise in an utterly horrifying manner, getting their throats ripped by a Clicker or being overwhelmed by runners. And while you may have thrown the first brick, in The Last of Us Part II the NPCs’ own gunshots can bring Clickers down upon them, so you get to sit at a safe distance and just watch the mayhem unfold.
With this mechanic in place, lurking and planning can be just as enjoyable. The more thought you put into your NPC-baiting endeavors, the better as you work out how to leave the fewest NPCs — infected and uninfected alike — standing. Introduce that element to The Last of Us Part I and you’d have a world that’s as believable as it is bloody.
The Last of Us Part II does lend itself more to repeated large-scale infected-versus-human fights, partly because the maps are more open and partly because you’re dealing with two huge fighting forces, not just pockets of bandits. But there are definitely several opportunities to introduce infected-versus-uninfected scenarios into The Last of Us, and as excellent as the game already is, it could well be the icing on the post-apocalyptic cake.
Naughty Dog is using Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson’s (Ellie) previous performances for the remake, but adding this feature wouldn’t necessarily require any new dialogue. And since The Last of Us: Left Behind is being included, the code to have human NPCs fight infected NPCs could already be in the game.
Does that mean it’d be simple? No. Even if you could drop human NPCs into a level, push a magic button (next to the one marked “just add multiplayer”), and be ready to go, there’d be other considerations. As spectacular and satisfying as human-versus-infected fights might be, Naughty Dog would have to rebalance the game around the possibility.
Like a lot of survival horror games, The Last of Us uses scarcity to keep you on your toes. The infected are less of an issue if you’re well armed, which is why you’ll find yourself scrabbling for bullets and working out how to take out several runners with one Molotov. If you could goad some human NPCs into doing your dirty work, you’d leave the battlefield well-stocked, which could, in turn, dial down the tension of the next fight. Left Behind, on the other hand, was created around those human-versus-infected encounters.
So how likely is Naughty Dog to actually deliver in that respect? According to the developer, the remake is set to be “a total overhaul of the original experience, faithfully reproduced but incorporating modernized gameplay.” In other words, while I still have hope, it seems likely The Last of Us Part I will be halfway between a remaster and a Demon’s Souls-style remake. And as such, major gameplay changes will not be in the cards.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, with its coming to PC, I have every hope that some enterprising modder will step up and deliver the man-versus-mushroom brawls I’ve been craving. And who knows? We may even be able to do it as Beachboy Joel.