Barren wastelands. Decrepit and abandoned towns. Desolate landscapes ravaged by time and trauma. Recognisable landmarks slowly but surely reclaimed by nature after our demise. Games have consistently embraced the post-apocalyptic setting. It invites excitement, apprehension and a deep curiosity, and plays on the thought-provoking hypothetical, the 'what if?'. And when these post-apocalyptic environments and landscapes are incredibly detailed, they can result in great efficacy and power.
Editor's note: Rob's piece here concludes his series of essays for Eurogamer on the seasons in video games. For more, be sure to check out Video games and the life of summer, starring Witcher 3, Firewatch and Dishonored 2, The power of spring in Horizon Zero Dawn, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and The Last of Us, and Video games and the power of winter, which looks at Skyrim.
After the darkness and dormancy of winter life restarts, almost as if the punishing frosts, snows and winds had never happened. The season of spring starts to take hold, colours reappear, foliage regrows and landscapes transform to offer different looks, feels and opportunities for interaction. This can be truly impactful when it manifests in video games. Where winter revealed the bones of landscapes and their design, spring brings a softer touch, its re-birth and revitalisation draping life and colour back over lands. Spring can empower a landscape to represent and symbolise in its own way. By adding these into games' story arcs and narratives, a whole new side of the landscape can be seen and experienced - one where the land tells stories of recovery, shows an ability to cleanse and has an ability to enhance peace and quiet, all while under the drape of a colourful, full of life landscape, giving the land an entirely new look and atmosphere.
The environments of massive open-world games, particularly in recent years, have been rightly praised for their representation, scale and design accuracy. However, there are some gems at the other end of the spectrum - environments that make you feel cramped, tense and desperate for a break. This is an approach to environment design utilised in our real-world, from gardens to architecture, and is mirrored excellently in some game environments, creating areas that trap us in cramped, claustrophobic conditions.
A little while back, we reported that a minority of PlayStation 4 Pro titles were experiencing performance issues that resulted in some games running at a lower performance level than standard PS4 hardware during stress points. The good news is that almost all the titles we highlighted - Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Mantis Burn Racing and Watch Dogs 2 among them - have received patches that help to set things right. Mantis Burn Racing even got an HDR upgrade in the process. At the end of last week, Naughty Dog released an update for The Last of Us Remastered that similarly sets out to address our concerns. There's some great work in this update, so why isn't everyone happy?
Initially, there was some confusion about what the new code actually delivered. Patch notes for the update are not particularly helpful, citing 'miscellaneous bug fixes' only, when the reality is that this update features a remarkable optimisation push. There's no post about it on Naughty Dog's website either - but a post tucked away on the PlayStation community forums gives us a little more information:
"We introduced bug fixes and optimisations that will ensure a consistent and high level of performance on the PS4 Pro," says Scott Lowe, senior communications manager at Naughty Dog. "Now, when running The Last of Us Remastered on the PS4 Pro on a standard high-definition display, the game will run natively at 1080p and offer high-quality shadows when running at its high-framerate mode."
Some time before The Last Of Us was released in 2013 I received a small, squeezable brick in the post from Sony Computer Entertainment. It was about the size of a deck of cards and textured like a stress toy, and it had "The Last Of Us" printed on one side, with a smiley face on the other. A happy brick.
The brick remains one of the oddest pieces of promotional material I've ever been sent, although with hindsight there are worse emblems for Naughty Dog's serious, desaturated tale of survival in post-civilisation America. John Lanchester, writing about games, noted that "Respectability is a terrible thing for any art form", and with its Oscar-winning composer, its shelf of BAFTAs, and its zombies that are too sophisticated to be called zombies, The Last Of Us comes perilously close. You wouldn't know from its face, but this brick is caught in the middle of a tug-of-war over this respectability, at once a sign of how resistant the game and its grim setting are to celebration and trivialisation, but also, actually, the perfect symbol of The Last Of Us' lean simplicity. The game is cold and hard, compact and brutal.
The Last Of Us was a summing up of sorts. It arrived in June 2013, less than six months before the launch of PS4, a late-generation victory lap for Naughty Dog after the studio had delivered three breathless, brickless Uncharteds. Here, though, was something else, not so much a break from matinee adventuring as a dark inversion - The Last Of Us takes the invincible third-person combat of Nathan Drake's extended power fantasy and turns it into a 15-hour prison-yard murder, the same levering reticule and cover mechanics transmuted into a gasping, sweaty ordeal. It is a game about powerlessness and fear, one that declines to spare us the mundane details of scavenging and survival. It's a game about opening drawers and cupboards, about making bandages with bourbon and rags. It's a game about the irreducible usefulness of bricks.
BEWARE OF THE SPOILER! (It's right there at the very top of the article, so should you not want one of Left Behind's key story beats spoiled for you run, run you fool, and don't look back.)
With Naughty Dog, you often get more than you asked for. When the Sony-affiliated Santa Monica developer set about creating a light-hearted jaunt for the PlayStation 3 with Uncharted, it created a dynamic and impressively filmic brand of interactive action. As the last generation came to an end and it set about a fusion of the survival horror of Resident Evil 4 with the emotional heart of Ico, it flourished a post apocalyptic genre piece with a tale of human warmth: a story about adolescence interrupted, adulthood and parental responsibility, as well as the countless lies we tell each other every day just in order to survive.
Mystery has surrounded Naughty Dog's PlayStation 4 remaster of its survival horror classic, The Last of Us. Announced by error and with a somewhat muted marketing push, it's a remaster where the developer has seemingly been unwilling to actually show us the game in action, a state of affairs that persisted into E3 where it was mysteriously absent from the Sony press booth. Quite why this was the case remains a puzzle - Naughty Dog had nothing untoward to hide. It's a brilliant game.
We'll be approaching it on Digital Foundry via two distinct articles, produced by authors coming to the game from two totally different perspectives. Tomorrow, my colleague Tom Morgan unleashes a full PS3 vs PS4 comparison and tells you about it from the perspective of someone who completed the original - essential reading for any potential double-dippers out there. This article is different: aside from playing through a 20-minute pre-release press demo, I've never played The Last of Us to any great degree. Dim recollections of the demo and editing the tech analysis aside, I've nothing to compare it to - I'll be judging it solely on its merits as a PlayStation 4 game, while at the same time attempting to answer all the major questions players may have.
So let's look at the tentpole enhancements as Naughty Dog has outlined them. Principally, we're looking at 1080p resolution at 60fps in both single and multi-player, a 4x detail increase to texture maps and a 2x resolution boost to shadow maps. Texture streaming is no longer required owing to the PS4's prodigious RAM, and there's longer draw distances, better LOD and improved particle effects. In essence, Naughty Dog has scaled up the original game to full HD and boosted assets to match, while doubling frame-rate. How does that look? Well, we've prepared a 22-minute 60fps gameplay capture here, downscaled from full resolution captures, and we've provided a 1080p60 download that should work just fine on most modern computers - and indeed the PlayStation 3.
If there was one key message to take from last month's E3, it was that 2015 is going to be a proper treat. The roll call of games coming out next year is just dizzying - Halo 5: Guardians! Bloodborne! Xenoblade Chronicles X! - and it's all so exciting that even some of what were set to be this year's biggest games didn't want to be left out, with the likes of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Batman: Arkham Knight slipping back to get involved in the throng.
UPDATE 11/06/14 19:07: This report from GamingBolt.com suggests that the Uncharted 4 trailer is indeed running in real-time - a simply phenomenal achievement. We've studied the video in a little more depth and have concluded that it's definitely running at native 1080p resolution (as opposed to being rendered at a very high resolution, then scaled down - a process known as super-sampling). Small clipping anomalies, a touch of specular aliasing on Nate's shirt as he sits up, along with some shadow aliasing on his forehead also suggest a real-time render. On the face of it, we're still looking at some pretty incredible anti-aliasing here for a real-time technique on a game running at 60fps, particularly when it comes to the perfect, artefact-free rendering of Nate's hair - but the combination of the low contrast setting, slow camera movement, motion blur and depth of field would work well generally in making aliasing much less of an issue.