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March 31, 2014

PS3 Review – The Last of Us: Left Behind (2014)

by Master Pillow

While the significant character reveals in The Last of US: Left Behind will be debated upon for years to come what isn’t in question is Naughty Dog’s gaming wizardry at work as the developer has crafted one of the best examples of how to create compelling downloadable content that adds significantly to the original experience.  The Last of Us: Left Behind might not exactly last long but this is a clear case of quality over quantity at work and should serve as a reminder to all companies that trying to make cash through either single-player campaign or multiplayer add-ons should not be the overriding goal as gamers will strongly voice their displeasure.

Ever since it was announced that The Last of Us would be receiving post-launch single-player content, speculation had been rampant as to what it would focus on.  As many gamers would probably surmise, adding content that chronologically took place after the main campaign wouldn’t exactly be compelling considering the title had been lauded with having one of the best endings of all time.  The answer to this problem is to do what most correctly guessed and that was to fashion the DLC to essentially be a prequel.

The Last of Us: Left Behind is only partially a prequel as it is chronologically set between the Fall and Winter segments of the main campaign specifically starting right after the fateful encounter in Colorado where Joel manages to get himself impaled through the abdomen leaving Ellie to tend to his wounds.  Left Behind features a bifurcated narrative whereby Ellie attempts to scavenge a local mall for needed first aid supplies to help Joel survive while flashing back to a much earlier time in her life when she was in a military boarding school and her complex relationship with her best friend, Riley.

This simple decision to split the narrative works wonders as it not only provides some needed backstory to Ellie’s character and her relationship with her best friend Riley but it also allows the DLC to feature combat/stealth gameplay where Ellie has to avoid/combat the infected and human antagonists in the present.

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Fans of the game will immediately have preconceived notions as to how this DLC will ultimately end, considering that Ellie had spoken about Riley before in the main campaign but even with this foreknowledge the DLC manages to be incredibly compelling due in large part to Naughty Dog’s masterful storytelling and their keen sense of pace that keeps the DLC moving forward without any lulls.

The Last of Us: Left Behind plays almost exactly like the main campaign, the one exception being the inclusion of more hectic battles between three competing groups which are actually incredibly fun to partake in.  Throughout the entire original single-player experience, players are essentially tasked to control Ellie against either different infected mutants or numerous human characters.  This time around, Left Behind adds combat when all three groups are facing off against one another at the same time.  The sheer joy of this simple addition cannot be further stated as gamers will undoubtedly realize that part of the fun comes from setting up the situation in such a way as to have the infected and human antagonists battle one another while Ellie sits safely in a secure position.

Still, these moments are few and far between and, for the most part, gamers will be controlling Ellie as she stealth kills infected beings or goes head-to-head against human opponents.  There’s nothing really new in these segments but there was no compelling reason for developer Naughty Dog to somehow change it as it was nigh perfect to begin with.

When not in combat, players will once again find that they are scouring each part of the environment for items to pick up to combine into first aid kits or bombs or merely scavenging spare bullets from fallen foes.  However, when the narrative switches gears to the past the gameplay feels much more akin to a simple point-and-click adventure game just because there is no combat whatsoever.  In these cases, players merely move Ellie around the levels checking out strewn items amidst a broken mall and talking to her friend Riley.

While the combat provides a decent jolt of adrenalin it is undoubtedly the flashback sequences which are the highlights of this DLC add-on and the strong emphasis on narrative and character development is assuring.  Utilizing kids or young adults in non-aggravating ways has always been the bane of video game and movie scriptwriters as oftentimes they come across as either incessantly cute or outright offensive.  Thankfully, Naughty Dog has managed to avoid these pitfalls and the banter between Ellie and Riley really compliments the plot of just showcasing two friends “hanging out at the mall.”

This gives the game ample time to show two girls simply being themselves and the various joyous moments they experience in this once grand shopping complex that excite them to no end considering the dark blasted world they have grown up in.  Taking pleasure in trying on Halloween masks or riding the carousel really accentuates their innocence even if it ultimately feels bittersweet merely because players understand what hardships lay ahead for Ellie beyond this point.

The events that take place in the present aren’t nearly as compelling as it really only boils down to combat encounters that unfortunately, ultimately end with perhaps the most hackneyed sequence imaginable that runs counter to the high degree of creativity seen in the rest of the DLC.  In other words, prepare for a ridiculous situation where enemies come in waves and suddenly spawn as if they were teleported in from the USS Enterprise.

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Considering this is the end of the DLC and, perhaps the entire Last of Us experience, it is understandable that Naughty Dog wanted a slam-bang no-holds-barred John Woo ending where Ellie faces off against infected and human foes but the way in which it unfolds really makes one feel as if time constraints forced them to utilize the worse combat situation imaginable.  The sequence isn’t enough to ruin the DLC but surely it could have been handled in a much more organic and believable fashion.  Enemies that pop out of thin air is a gameplay mechanic that is as old as the dinosaurs and like those giant creatures it should be made extinct.

Thankfully, everything else in Left Behind oozes class and quality and Naughty Dog have to be commended for not taking the easy way out and recycling previous environments unlike, say, Capcom Vancouver did with their Dead Rising 3 DLC packs.  The environments in Left Behind both in the present and the past are wholly new and feature the same high-level of detail seen in the main campaign.  As well, composer Gustavo Santaoella returns to add more moody atmospheric original music and kudos goes to the voice actors who really bring Ellie and Riley to life.  Even though their relative time together is short and sweet, the two voice actors really manage some nice chemistry that really accentuates the bond between the characters.

In some ways, The Last of Us: Left Behind functions very much like the Citadel DLC for Mass Effect 3 in that it is probably a better idea to play it after the single-player campaign is completed.  Even though, it is set chronologically between the game’s Fall and Winter sequences, Left Behind really doesn’t tonally nor narratively fit if one plays it linearly.  It is arguable that the game’s strongest and most powerful segment is when it moves into Winter where events occur that are not only jarring but also incredibly emotionally moving.  Part of its allure stems exactly from the almost hard-cut from Fall to Winter as players are suddenly introduced to a totally different scenario and the narrative responds in kind with a wholly spine-tingling twist in the plot that will make many squirm.

I doubt many reading this review will even think about linking the Citadel DLC and Last of US: Left Behind together in the same sentence but the two add-ons function well as post-single player campaign content.  In Mass Effect 3’s case, whether or not players liked the ending is irrelevant, in that the game was clearly structured in an effort to become bleaker in tone as the story progressed culminating in a third act where things look exceeding dire.

That carefully constructed tone is essentially blasted into oblivion if players were to purchase the Citadel DLC and proceed to play the game in a chronologically linear fashion.  If done in this manner, gamers would experience a plot that gets progressively darker until they hit the Citadel DLC where the game takes a sudden hard turn into campy comedy.  Only when the DLC is finished would the narrative veer quickly back to becoming bleak but by then the established mood would feel completely discombobulated.

The Last of Us: Left Behind might not be as tonally disconnected as the Citadel DLC was to Mass Effect 3 but the tale it weaves and, more specifically, the combat presented in it really feel out of place in the grander narrative considering how the entire Winter sequence is paced.  The moment players realize that they are suddenly left in control of a different character who, essentially must now utilize everything learned throughout the game, works well because the player can empathize with what they must now contend with and a large part of that stems from the fact that they have to kill other human beings by whatever means necessary.

Many gamers might have forgotten by now since The Last of Us released last year but at the start of the Winter segment there is a good 5-10 minutes of gameplay which is masterfully executed since it purposely withholds information on whether or not the main protagonist, till that point, is actually alive or dead.  This feeling of dread actually amplifies the action and the highly charged atmosphere is filled with tension, almost as if a countdown clock had been activated.

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If gamers instead take a break after the end of the Fall sequence and immediately play Left Behind just because they want to experience a chronologically linear narrative the entire punch of the transition from Fall to Winter is essentially lost.  In other words, those who have not finished The Last of Us or want to pick it up sometime soon are seriously advised to just play the single-player campaign right to the end credits before jumping into Left Behind.

With high production values and a compelling plot that showcases the bond between two young women who are forced to grow up amongst the remnants of human society, The Last of Us: Left Behind is an exemplary addition to the franchise and a shining example for other developers to follow in terms of crafting downloadable post-game content.  Some might bristle at the relatively high cost of entry as $15.99 is rather steep but the entire package is well worth the experience.  Those who are really tight in the wallet should probably wait for the inevitable price drop or the Game of the Year edition that will probably include the original game and the DLC content in one package.

Naughty Dog has constantly proven itself as one of the best developers out there and Left Behind is no exception to that and though the 2-3 hour DLC isn’t the longest ever made, it does make one wish that The Last of US experience goes on.  Before this DLC many will probably have convinced themselves that the game was perfect as is and that this is clearly a title that does not need a direct sequel.  Left Behind might change that opinion as it is just too damned addictive to keep seeing Joel and Ellie somehow triumph against all odds.  Left Behind comes highly recommended although, do yourself a favour and play it after you finish the main campaign.

***1/2 out of ****

Developer: Naughty Dog

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Released US: 02/14/2014

Released EU: 02/14/2014

Released JP: 02/14/2014

© 2014 The Galactic Pillow

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