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Does The Last of Us Part 1 on PS5 use the TLOU2 engine?

Digital Foundry investigates.

The Last of Us Part 1 remake for PS5 has been rumoured for months, and now it's finally been confirmed with a splashy cinematic trailer. A massive increase in quality is evident, but how has the tech been pushed since the original game - and how does the new remake compare to the series' second entry in 2020? Is this a simple remaster or something more exciting - a TLOU1 remake in the TLOU2 engine?

While the game is set to be released in less than 90 days, all we have to try and answer those questions are a 90-second trailer - mostly of cinematics - along with some high-quality screenshots. Suffice it to say, a full Digital Foundry tech analysis will come later, but there's still enough here to produce some intriguing comparisons.

Right off the bat, there's a massive improvement in visual fidelity and asset quality comparing the PS4 Pro version of the 2014 Last of Us remaster against the PS5 remake footage. The opening shot, which depicts a gameplay area, has been completely redone. The buildings have new geometry and higher grade materials, lighting and shading is much more subtle, and high-quality foliage is now flowing over the buildings in much the same style as The Last of Us Part 2. In broad strokes, the design of the area is very similar, but the technology and art is much improved with substantially revised - if not brand new - assets.

The accompanying video provides the full picture on the recently announced TLOU1 remake.

Almost all of the rest of the trailer is composed of story cinematics, which focus on characters. Character rendering has taken a massive step up from the original game - all the expected improvements are here, including much more realistic skin, detailed self-shadowing, true-to-life clothing, and of course completely remade models. The cinematics have been re-animated to some degree as well. Most of the changes here are on the subtler side but very much appreciated - like more detailed lip-sync and less robotic eye movement. Keep in mind as well that almost all the cinematic sequences in the original title were pre-rendered and used much higher grade models than would have been possible in real-time, while these cutscenes are very likely to be running live on PS5 hardware, so these comparisons actually flatter the earlier release somewhat.

There are striking differences between the new and previous TLOU remaster from the opening moments.

Note that every shot in the PS5 TLOU trailer appears to have an analogue in the original title, suggesting that the cutscenes may be a shot-for-shot recreation of the original work. The camerawork and positioning isn't completely identical, but is very similar - suggesting the team is hewing closely to the original with a focus on improving fidelity.

Perhaps more interesting though is measuring this title up to The Last of Us Part 2, Naughty Dog's 2020 sequel. Right off the bat, it's clear that both games are using similar technology, but we can do better: a sequence in TLOU2 flashes back to a scene shown in the original game, and that sequence also appears in The Last of Us Part 1's trailer, so we can get a direct comparison between Naughty Dog's two latest releases based on the same content.

And this comparison is fascinating, as there's little to distinguish each version. Some of the clutter appears in different places, and the lighting is different at points, but elsewhere they appear near-identical - close enough that you could easily think that both shots were from the same game. It's a similar story with character rendering, where it's impossible to get a 1:1 comparison but the models exhibit similar levels of detail. Based on this admittedly limited footage, it's conceivable that we're looking at a TLOU remake that uses the TLOU2 engine or perhaps an enhanced version of it - with all that implies. And this is no bad thing either, as TLOU2 is still a superb-looking title.

On the left, a flashback image of The Last of Us within TLOU2. On the right, that original scene as it presents in the new game. It's the biggest indication we have that The Last of Us Part 1 has far more in common with TLOU2's engine than the original game's.

Closing out things on the graphics side, Naughty Dog used a somewhat novel approach among big-budget developers towards the end of last-gen, skipping over more advanced temporal upsampling techniques and even eschewing dynamic resolution. The Last of Us Part 2, Uncharted 4 and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy all run at 1080p30 on PS4 and 1440p30 on PS4 Pro, with high-quality TAA but without an upsampling component to produce clearer results. Even on PS5, Naughty Dog's titles have so far landed at 1440p. The Last of Us Part 2 was patched to support 60fps output at 1440p last year, while the Uncharted Legacy of Thieves Collection - a native PS5 title - is also 1440p60 by default, though it does include a 4K30 mode.

From the trailer, it looks like the TLOU remaster may also target 1440p. The noisy, aliased resolve visible in the hair is characteristic of the way these elements render in The Last of Us Part 2 on PS4 Pro and PS5 at 1440p, versus hair in Uncharted 4 at 4K where there's less aliasing and more temporal stability. It's too early to tell for sure, but these and other details do suggest a similar presentation.

Looking closely at aliasing in Joel's hair suggests 1440p rather than the 4K that was an option in Uncharted 4.

Finally, Naughty Dog has promised 'modernised gameplay' and enhancements to combat and exploration - so is there any evidence of that? So far, no. The traversable gameplay areas shown in the trailer look essentially identical in terms of where objects are located and therefore where the player can go. It's a similar story with the quick time events, which feature more camera movement but play out the same time. Presumably these claims will be substantiated as we get closer to launch, but so far it's not clear what has been changed. Expanded environments, better AI, and TLOU2-style movement and stealth mechanics would be on the wishlist, but the current trailer doesn't provide much insight.

Gameplay aside, The Last of Us Part 1 is a superb-looking effort judged by what we've seen so far - a careful reworking of the original vision using modern rendering tech. Side-by-side with the original title, the improvements are obvious - this is a comprehensive visual overhaul. Tech-wise, some question marks remain: is this essentially a remake of the original title with TLOU2 technology, or are there some key improvements? Certainly what we've seen so far generally indicates the former, though a surprise would be welcome. In terms of gameplay we're still largely in the dark, but the promises here are intriguing, if not exactly evident in the footage so far.

Still, even after completing the game a few times on different platforms, I'm still looking forward to the PS5 release. Naughty Dog produces some of the strongest technical work in the industry, and this remake seems like no exception. In common with the so-far-unseen Uncharted remasters, it's also heading to PC and we're really looking forward to seeing the Naughty Dog engine scale beyond the confines of console technology.

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