Reviews & Articles

The Last of Us: 50 Changes and Improvements – Part 4

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

Lighting

Most shadows in Uncharted 3 were hard-edge from direct light sources, using a primitive shadow map at distance and a more detailed, though still low resolution, shadow map as you moved closer. These low resolution shadows result in dancing jagged edges (something that affects many games on consoles). The Last of Us uses a similar hard-edge shadow system.

What’s new though is a penumbra-like soft shadow system used with indirect light sources. This latter system increases shadow intensity the closer the object is to the surface and works very well in a world with a lot of ambient light and few direct light sources. It can be most easily seen in the E3 and PAX demos as Joel and Ellie climb the staircase and as Ellie hides behind the air-conditioning unit on the roof (notice how in direct sunlight Joel casts a hard shadow but Ellie’s shadow is soft and as she touches the unit the shadow intensifies).

As in Uncharted, and many AAA games, The Last of Us uses a light baking process in the creation of the textures applied to visible objects, using more precise offline rendering to calculate the lighting and shadows for each texture and then saving new textures with these applied so that they can be used in-game without the need for real-time lighting. It is incredibly effective but only works for fixed light sources. Chapters such as The Citadel and Caravan in Uncharted 3 look absolutely stunning through the use of this technique alone.

God rays and volumetric light are used where there is direct sunlight. It is not clear how much, if at all, they have been improved over Uncharted 3 but they are used to better effect, shining in at distance through windows and doorways to fill rooms and hallways.

Water drops splash onto the screen when swimming and their out of focus appearance and sparkle from light behind them add to the sense of being right there among the action.

HUD

A minimal approach has been taken for the heads-up display. Items such as health, weapon and bullet status are displayed only during combat (and presumably on command using a button press or by aiming).

A health meter replaces the temporary shroud of red around the screen found in Uncharted and blood briefly splatters on screen when shot. Depleted health from gunshots, strikes, chokes and other blows shows briefly in red before disappearing from the meter and damage from a choke and possibly fire continues until you break free. Using a health kit takes around 5 seconds and restores 50% health.

During crafting a simple menu system is used to display inventory and to select components to combine to create items. See also: Craftwork.

The aiming reticule is similar to that used in Uncharted for some weapons but different for others. A small circle is used when aiming the revolver, two wider arcs when aiming the shotgun, representing the accuracy of each weapon. A new, less artificial, aiming arc is used when throwing.

Items that can be picked up from the environment are shown with a subtle glowing outline, reminiscent of those in other games like Red Dead Redemption, with a small caption that briefly describes the item. A small sub-caption tells you the number of bullets if the item is ammunition.

Button prompts appear in the bottom left of screen, such as “PRESS <triangle> TO PICK UP”, “PRESS <triangle> TO INTERACT”, “PRESS <triangle> TO BOOST”, or “<R2>” below an icon of an eye to look at a focus point.

AI

Improvements in AI have been a focus point of development. Many improvements have been demonstrated and discussed so far and as Bruce Straley, Game Director describes it “We’ve stripped down our AI, we’ve torn it apart and reworked and reworked and reworked. We’ll continue to rework it … We’re pushing and pushing and pushing AI, and it’ll continue to evolve until the day we ship to make these characters real.”

What has been revealed is that enemies see you based more on line of sight than x-ray vision, carefully seeking you out if they are aware of your presence. Offensive and defensive positions and manoeuvres play a larger role in path finding and traversal. At one point in the PAX demo an enemy peeks multiple times from beside a doorway before sprinting across to better cover. Jason Gregory, Lead Gameplay Programmer, stated “All of the enemy perception, the way that they analyze the play space, how they decide where they are going to go, is brand new technology.”

It’s not perfect though. You often don’t seem to crouch enough, exposing the top of your head which the hunters don’t notice, likely a choice of aesthetics or function where most objects suitable for cover have a similar height to tie in with the animations, and at one point in the PAX demo they are basically blind to Ellie walking clearly past an open window while they are looking in that direction. While they are clearly aware of entrances and exits and suitable cover they don’t seem to be fully aware of their surrounding space. After entering or exiting a room on the hunt for Joel they look toward walls or off into space at times instead of naturally focusing on the larger space and obvious entrances or cover. For all the advancements made in enemy traversal and vision these obvious flaws break the realism.

You can distract the hunters or draw them to an area by throwing an object to make a noise. The AI engine continually evaluates the location of you, Ellie, the survivors and the objects around. Balance of power is added to this to decide where and what Ellie and the enemy will do. Hunters recognize the weapon you’re holding, retreating if you have more firepower or their numbers are limited and when a hollow click gives away your empty gun the balance of power shifts and they become more aggressive. In the PAX demo we see a lone hunter flee before hiding and being cornered, then roaring while charging with a Molotov cocktail.

Enemy work together, warning each other of your presence, movement and sometimes your exact location and if you have a gun, and they become wary when their buddies go missing after a silent attack. At one point in the PAX demo a hunter sneaks up on you, slams your head onto some furniture, grabs you in a head lock and asks a buddy to shoot while you struggle to break free.

Ellie will silently move through the environment with you, mostly following but occasionally leading or proactively hiding, moving from cover to cover, though at times during combat she doesn’t react or move quite the way you would expect. A 14 year old, even growing up in this environment, should show more urgency and fear and take fewer risks of being seen. Ellie is capable though; she will pick up a brick or bottle or whip out a flick knife, try to flank the enemy, and perform a surprise attack when you’re in a tight spot. She also knows how to use a rifle and other firearms through what appears to be tuition from Joel which seems likely to be told in cutscenes. Ellie also carries a backpack and stores supplies and can offer bullets if they suit your weapon. Throughout the game you will meet a wide variety of different people, both friendly and hostile. It seems likely that Bill and a few other friendly non-player characters may also follow along with or lead Joel and Ellie from time to time.

So far enemy appear to be activated using scripting based on your location in order to create initial tension when discovered and then move in a pre-defined pattern and perform pre-defined actions. Once encountered the AI kicks in and things become unpredictable, making for some intense gameplay. Scripting was patently obvious in the Uncharted series where groups of enemy would simultaneously appear from several locations in a synchronized and sequential fashion. It’s a balance between surprise and fully organic gameplay. Hopefully The Last of Us will include some random exploration by the hunters to add to the replay value.

The insects shown in the hotel demos are too scripted but luckily few players will hang around long enough to see the repetitive flight path. The position of the flocks of birds is better but triggered into view at an unnatural moment. It would feel much more natural to extend the flock and come across them in a random sequence of flight or perhaps triggering their flight earlier as the player approaches the door or window. It’s a minor gripe but we can almost hear the director saying “And, action!” as the cut-board clicks. We’re not expecting each animal to have its own AI but it could be more organic.

Part 5 – Improving On The Uncharted Formula: Audio, Craftwork, Gameplay, Story

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