Reviews & Articles

The Last of Us: 50 Changes and Improvements – Part 3

Part 1 – The Story, Survival
Part 2 – Consequences, Clickers in the Fancy Hotel
Part 3 – Improving On The Uncharted Formula: Animation, Camera, Graphical Detail
Part 4 – Improving On The Uncharted Formula: Lighting, HUD, AI
Part 5 – Improving On The Uncharted Formula: Audio, Craftwork, Gameplay, Story

Game Changer: Improving On The Uncharted Formula

What is strikingly clear so far is that The Last of Us has been designed from the outset to be far more immersive than the Uncharted titles. Many, many changes and improvements have been made to the presentation, gameplay, game engine, art and audio specifically to draw you in to a horrifyingly beautiful and more believable world. Naughty Dog wants you to feel like you are Joel, experiencing the highs, lows, tension, actions and emotions.

After Uncharted 2 shipped Naughty Dog built up two separate teams, one to work on Uncharted 3 and the other to start development of The Last of Us. Now that Uncharted 3 has shipped, the U3 team is presumably hard at work on the next Uncharted title while development on The Last of Us continues. It leverages and builds on the same game engine and uses the AI, animation blending, character dialogue and other low level systems in their shared NDLib code library.

From the established formula and engine demonstrated and polished over the three blockbuster Uncharted games you might think that Naughty Dog were pretty much done, right? After all, there isn’t much power left to squeeze out of the PS3, or so we’ve been led to believe. And then, after breaking down and analyzing everything we know about it so far, we discover that the Last of Us is bringing over 50 significant changes and improvements.

Animation

A huge amount of work has gone into animation, building on the additional blending added in Uncharted 2 and body language added in Uncharted 3. In The Last of Us there is a multitude of additional animations and fidelity has been improved. Touching walls and objects during movement appears much more natural. Characters prop a hand against walls and other objects behind cover and this interaction with the environment, using an interpolated animation to make the connection and then inverse kinematics to maintain it, looks far more grounded than the obvious floating hand positions in the Uncharted titles. Carrying a ladder looks perfect but there is still room for improvement in some foot placement and climbing animations which aren’t perfectly grounded.

Joel ducks when fired at and when he takes a bullet he recoils from the hit, having to recover from the loss of balance. Enemies stumble, duck and enter and exit cover realistically instead of the position and animation pop that is present in most games, the Uncharted series included. The blending of multiple simultaneous animations and the transition between animations is much more fluid.

Animations also play out most tasks in real time. Picking up items is sometimes coupled with a short reaching animation and the item teleported to your inventory like the previous games, shown with the bandage and bullets in the PAX demo. Sometimes, however, a full animation sequence shows the entire process unfold such as picking up the revolver to extract the bullets and lighting a Molotov cocktail in the E3 demo and applying a bandage in the PAX demo, now points of tension during combat and adding to the immersion.

Contextual animations enhance the action in combat, taking the fist-a-cuffs and fish slapping seen in Uncharted 3 to a whole new level. When physically attacked an off-angle camera shows the eye bulging and blood dripping struggle unfold and pulls you right into the action. Complex animation sequences such as boosting Ellie to the ledge in the elevator shaft in the PAX demo are far superior to those used in Uncharted and most other games.

The Last of Us also includes tweaks to facial animation, particularly in the use of texture changes used to convey emotion, such as adding wrinkles in different facial expressions, and it looks good. As good as the animators are though there is still room for improvement with speech animation. It’s reasonable, and far from the Pacman-like system used in some games, though still unnatural and doesn’t appear to have evolved from Uncharted 3. It’s one of the biggest let-downs seen right across games today.

The motion capture stage used at Naughty Dog records body and voice only. Video is recorded as a reference for the animators but there is no direct facial motion capture as Naughty Dog believes that it would be too limiting. With the AAA budget used in Naughty Dog’s games surely it isn’t beyond them to re-create most of the required expressions used in speech (around 60) and play them back based on text-to-speech with manual tweaking for magnitude and lip sync – the transitions and complete anim data could be pre-computed. Sounds like a good middleware product idea to me.

L.A. Noire made a good attempt at facial animation but was still a split performance which showed during interactions between characters. There is no doubt that full performance capture, like that used in BEYOND: Two Souls and in some sections in Halo 4, is a huge leap forward, though it does present other challenges.

Camera

Third person games have a tendency to make everything look small, so doorways and other spaces and objects are often modelled substantially larger to compensate. Like Uncharted 3 the automatic camera movement in The Last of Us is stellar, adapting to the surroundings very well, pulling in fluidly in tight spaces, rotating, panning and zooming out in open spaces but in an effort to increase immersion and present a more realistic world most static camera positions have changed.

In open spaces Joel is positioned to the side, about a quarter from the screen edge, with the camera at shoulder height and much closer, cutting off around Joel’s mid-thigh similar to some of the market scenes in Uncharted 3. In confined spaces the camera pulls in closer to an over the shoulder view with Joel more central to the screen. When aiming Joel the camera again pulls in close, with Joel further to the side to provide a wide field of view. And when aiming while crouched the camera pulls in very closely. These close viewpoints bring you slightly closer to a first person view.

Uncharted 3 and The Last of Us – Open Spaces

Uncharted 3 and The Last of Us – Tight Spaces

Various off character angles are used to show action sequences such as the pipe attack, choking opponents or when being choked. When sprinting the camera pulls lower and shakes to create a handheld feel. Some players don’t like the shaky cam approach but in The Last of Us it appears less nauseating than games such as Gears of War.

Graphical Detail

Textures are large and detail is high and even in repetitive patterns such as sprawling carpets, rugs and wallpaper, it is extremely difficult to see texture re-use, avoiding the common-place shortcut that makes environments look bland and hiding the repetitive wireframe models such as that used in the brick walls.

Object detail is also high, with rich indoor and outdoor scenes well realised. Some coarse n-sided elliptical shapes are evident, but so far less so than in some of the vases, wheels and more prominent objects see in Uncharted.

Only Naughty Dog would know if they’ve managed to squeeze a higher polygon count into the rendering budget of their new engine, it was around 1.2 million polygons in Uncharted 2, or in fact lowered it to make room for the other improvements. Many games suffer from bland, poorly detailed indoor areas but these are very well detailed in The Last of Us with varied objects and dirt, debris and plants encroaching on the once clean and orderly spaces.

As in Uncharted, particle effects are put to good use, with small dust particles floating in the air and billowing from the floor and other objects and fire and smoke looking equally as impressive though not in the same volume in the footage shown so far. It’s the small details such as blue flames from the alcohol in a Molotov cocktail, or the burning feet of the hunter that walked through it, that stand out.

Water and other liquids look impressive, something that Naughty Dog tweaked heavily in Uncharted 2 and refined in Uncharted 3, with smaller ripples adding more detail, though to our tastes it is still too jello-like, with ripples moving and dissipating too quickly. Algae and congealed blood add a matt finish to the otherwise reflective surface, an improvement over the water sim in Uncharted.

Blood splatters from victims and pours onto the floor after a violent kill which is a nice change but leads to one of our gripes. The speed and amount of blood spilt is excessive for many of the blows dealt and the blood is too reflective. In the dimly lit hallways of the hotel the blood is basically a red tinted mirror and reflects only the environment and not the victim lying next to it (character reflection also seems absent in the bathroom scene, there’s no Duke Nukem self admiration here, so this is likely a performance choice). In an effort to allow blood to spatter through a window a bug is also presented where blood splatters excessively through the wall but it’s a reasonable attempt (and we note that the trailers were produced in far from final code but smaller details such as this don’t often get fixed for release).

Motion blur sees a return from Uncharted and is used for just about all moving objects which has the effect of making movement look more fluid than the 30fps rendering but it’s not to everyone’s taste. A soft edge filter is applied to characters under certain conditions to reduce edge sparkle. Further improvements in anti-aliasing are required to reduce jagged edges and add detail but are unlikely to be seen in an engine this complex in this console generation due to the additional processing required; some games do it extremely well but at the expense of frame rate or other graphical detail.

Skin and other shaders have seen huge improvements in each game since Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, with faces, eyes and teeth now looking much more realistic.

Part 4 – Improving On The Uncharted Formula: Lighting, HUD, AI

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