Visually, The Last of Us: Part II is just stunning. The visuals were never the most important thing for me, but in case of this game, we cannot begin anywhere else. There were periods during the viewing of the trailer of the upcoming Sony’s smash hit when I was unable to pick up my jaw from the floor.
Naughty Dog seems to be pushing the limits of current gen’s graphics capabilities. The outcome, in fact, was so impressive that, for the first time since a long time ago, warning lights went off inside my head when viewing the trailer. Isn’t this just another eyewash, just like the infamous Killzone 2 trailer from 2005? I don’t suppose Sony is going to repeat such a daft move. At times, however, what we were seeing seemed almost too good to be true.
And I don’t even mean the level of the characters’ details, the density of vegetation overgrowing the ruins of the civilization or the realistic lighting. These elements, of course, look amazing, but the gap between The Last of Us: Part II, Horizon or God of War is not that big. The thing that really makes me apprehensive is the one thing that seems to be really distinguishing Naughty Dog’s game – the attention to the tiniest details, which is apparent at every step.
Down to the smallest iris
The best example is the eyes. Most games use separate models for the eyes, which permits realistic eye movement (and, if the textures of the face fail to load, lets us see the creepy eyeball man). But Naughty Dog took it a step further, devoting months of work of their animation designers just to develop the most realistic eyes possible. The outcome? Like in real life, the eyes are reacting to lighting conditions by changing the size of the pupil; take a deeper look at them, and you will notice the game world is reflecting in them, too.
See the part when Ellie hides underneath the truck, aiming her gun at the woman. At one point, the protagonist cocks the hammer of the handgun. A trifle, isn’t it? Well, it turns out that the animation that lasts less than a second is much more telling than it seems.
We’ve asked the devs about that during E3 in Los Angeles. Apparently, that wasn’t just a fancy and simple animation, but an entire, independent system at works. If during the game you will be aiming down the sights of your weapon for longer, Ellie will prepare to take the shot. This doesn’t just concern handguns, but all types of weapons. If you get caught by surprise, you won’t be able to take the shot as quickly as when you’re prepared to fight. A small thing, but it might make you want to be more careful.
Most such details could go by unnoticed when you’re focused on fights or dialogues that are crucial for the plot. But they make the gameworld feel even more real and genuine. These details alter our perception of the entire game in a really significant way. That’s mostly good… but not always.
Joel, where art thou?
Naughty Dog has been pretty smart about keeping the presence of the protagonist of the first game in the sequel a secret. While we have seen him in the first trailer, the appearance was so odd that it soon generated a theory, according to which the conversation between the two characters only took place in Ellie’s imagination. The announcements of the developers saying that the sequel will be a story of hate and vengeance seem to speak in favor of the theory. After all, whom could Ellie hate more than the killers of her foster father?
That was the last time we’ve seen Joel. We have heard a mention of him in the E3 demo when the young fella tells Ellie that her “old man really laid into him,” which seems to give some hope. Joel might appear in the sequel, but the scene might have been just a retrospect.
Joel’s death would certainly be a strong opening, setting up an appropriately grim tone for the rest of the game, although loosing such a well-written character would certainly be one of the saddest deaths in videogames. Naughty Dog is of course well aware of the theories circulating among the fans, and they probably get a kick out of purposefully avoiding a clear-cut answer, feeding suggestions supporting both possibilities from time to time. I seriously doubt that we should learn any specifics about his fate before the game’s released.
Straight white male no more
But let’s talk about the scene for a moment. Depending on the audiences’ political outlook, it may either be considered a provocation, or a bold and welcome step forward for the entire industry. I, for one, hoping that the futile discussions about sexual preferences of digital characters in mature games are becoming a thing of the past, consider this just a regular and quite affable cutscene, which is, by the way, a natural evolution of Ellie’s story from the first game.
AND WHERE ARE THE INFECTED?
The Infected were a vital part of the plot in the original. No trace of them in the new materials, though… Almost. The trailer from October 30th ends with a snapshot of the infected attacking the protagonist. One of the things revealed by the devs, though, was the fact that in the second iteration of the series, the aggressive Seraphite cultists will be our primary enemies.
Personal ideologies aside, there’s no doubt about one thing – the trailer includes the most realistic videogame kiss ever. Even if that wasn’t gameplay, but rather a prerendered cutscene, Naughty Dog has upped the game again, pushing the realism even beyond the achievements of computer-animated movies.
The facial animations, the nuanced twitches of tiny muscles, the eye movement – including the reflections of the environment we’ve already mentioned, and which you can spot pretty easily… it all looks so good, that tricking someone into believing it’s an actual movie with live actors couldn’t be too hard. Have we gotten past the uncanny valley yet?
THE UNCANNY VALLEY
In 1970, Masahiro Mori, a Japanese inventor and robot constructionist, carried out a survey. According to it, people’s emotional positive response to seeing a robot increased along with the robot’s growing resemblance to humans, but only up until a certain point. Past that moment – when the resemblance was too big – the subjects would rather experience anxiety, and even fear (the response was even more intense if the robot wasn’t moving). Such machines are considered humans by our brains, which, however, also note the small discrepancies. This creates a dissonance.
It’s expected that if video games become even more realistic in the future, the same effect could be experienced when playing.
Realism of graphics vs realism of the game
On the 14th of June, Naughty Dog celebrated the fifth anniversary of the release of the original The Last of Us. Since the release, over 17 million copies of the game were sold for PS3 and PS4. The game also boasts one of the best scores in history – the Metascore of both editions on Metacritic is 95%.
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as free dinner. As the fidelity of the graphics increases, there grows an ever greater gap between a realistic depiction of the world and the arbitrary nature of some gameplay-imposed elements. This is an issue that loads of games had to face over the past few years. It’s particularly apparent in the cases of the most realistic productions, which additionally deal with serious themes – and The Last of Us: Part II is exactly such a game. The ludo-narrative dissonance will be much more of a problem here than in, say, Tomb Raider, where Lara Croft undergoes a rather quick transition from a scared girl we see in cutscenes, into a machine for slaughtering people that we control during gameplay.
In The Last of Us 2 the savage brutality with which Ellie fights is, of course, consistent with Naughty Dog’s vision of the animalistic, post-apocalyptic society. It’s her resilience that is the real issue. During the few-minutes-long gameplay, the girl gets hit with a machete, shot from a pistol and a bow, punched in the face and hit with a massive fire axe – and she keeps on going. On one hand, we got used to it – if a single strike could kill the protagonist, finishing such a game would be a nightmare. On the other, with such visual fidelity, we also expect realism in other aspects. The cartoonish characters in Overwatch can survive being hit with a missile, but a character that looks as if it was alive should also act like that was the case. Otherwise, we have a real immersion breaker on our hands.
This is something I noticed when watching the gameplay demo, although the effect wasn’t admittedly that conspicuous. However, there were many opinions surfacing around the web, in which people stated that it was a big deal for them – and I can totally understand that. Especially since there’s a lot of combat in the game and there are all sorts of things that could happen in each individual playthrough, so things could get much worse than in the trailer. The ludo-narrative dissonance hasn’t been a great issue so far, but as we transition into evermore advanced technologies of rendering the game reality, it could potentially become a real problem. By raising the bar so high, Naughty Dog could generate challenges previously unseen by the industry.
The first of us
Despite all the hazards the game faces, I was thrilled to see such attention to detail as that exhibited by Naughty Dog. I love the fact that the creators of Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy – which are still among the best-looking games – didn’t just stop there and still wanted to push things further by creating an even prettier game and paying even more attention to the smallest of details. You probably won’t notice all of them individually, but together, they create an amazing whole, which is more than a sum of its parts – and is certainly more impressive than just enhancing the resolution or slapping more particle effects on the game.
Of course, the gameplay and the story are going to be the two most important elements that will ultimately decide whether the game’s a masterpiece or not, but considering the experience that the team known for Uncharted and Crash Bandicoot have, I am pretty sure these things will be ok. Meanwhile, we can just enjoy this fine piece of gameplay, which at the same time signifies another video game graphics’ milestone coming. For which we, oddly enough, didn’t have to wait until the next generation.
Michael Grygorcewicz | Gamepressure.com