Last year’s ginormous video game sensation, “The Last of Us,” was a big-budget, A-list game with the heart of an indie passion project. The game may have had the overall shape of a zombie apocalypse freakout, but inside those lines it was largely about character and storytelling.
The game was a textbook example of how to integrate the various elements of an immersive video game experience: story, sound, visuals, game play mechanics and, in this case, psychopathic fungal zombies.
The careful balancing act paid off beautifully, and now comes the game’s first single-player expansion DLC, the prequel story “Left Behind” ($14.99, rated M). It was worth the wait.
Turning back the clock
Returning players will remember that Ellie, the first game’s teenage heroine, grew up in a kind of post-apocalypse gated community, relatively safe from the perils of the outside world. “Left Behind” turns back the clock to this time frame, pairing Ellie with her pal Riley as they sneak out to explore the ruins of America, circa 2034.
For most of the new game’s running time, the focus is on exploration as Ellie and Riley creep through a derelict shopping mall. The unrelenting tension of the original game is replaced with a surprisingly light and even happy vibe. The two young girls talk and act like you might expect, goofing around and covering up their fear with uneasy bravado.
Thanks to detailed motion-capture animation and superior voice acting, “Left Behind” manages a depth of characterization that’s quite astounding. As a storytelling medium, video games can’t quite match film and TV yet. But with efforts like “Left Behind,” they’re getting close. You get attached to these characters, and because you’re controlling their actions, the sense of identification goes to another level entirely.
Interspersed with the prequel scenes are flash-forward sequences from the original game. In these passages, you play Ellie in a kind of “missing chapter” from the first game. Here, Ellie is her future self, grim and determined, trying to scavenge medicine and fend off vicious enemies both human and undead.
In the flash-forward scenes, the effective combat system from “The Last of Us” returns almost unchanged. Using cover and shadows, Ellie must rely on a combination of stealth and occasional surgical strikes to survive and evade. Ellie doesn’t have the resources to take on the zombies and mercenaries in a blaze of gunfire.
But what she can do is pit them against each other. In one particularly effective sequence, the game designers bring together story and combat scenarios so that both are heightened with delightful tension. Ellie gets out of a very bad jam by leading the human bad guys right into a nest of the Infected – the fungal zombies who are happy to attack anything human.
It’s a moment of high drama, hard violence and heavy consequence for the character. The kind of moment, in fact, that the original game was famous for. By contrasting these moments with the sweeter scenes of Ellie and Riley’s earlier adventure, “Left Behind” finds still another level of storytelling impact.
The game isn’t just about exploring creepy undead-infested malls, it’s about exploring character. The ebullient Ellie of the early scenes is all but gone in the grim later encounters. This raises the emotional stakes enormously, and you may be surprised at how invested you become in Ellie’s happiness. I know I was. It’s possible that I might have even cried a little during “Left Behind.” But if so, it was 2 a.m. and the shades were drawn. No one can prove anything.
“The Last of Us: Left Behind” is available for digital download on PlayStation 3.
New this week: The prologue “Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes” and the PS4 exclusive “Infamous: Second Son.”