My upsetting disappointment with The Last of Us's visuals, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Ryse: Son of Rome, and the imperfections of current generation graphics / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Definitely not an in-game shot of The Last of Us

I’m upset at myself. When I finally booted up The Last of Us, I did so under unfair circumstances. Since getting a PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in November, I have been spending a lot of my gaming time on the current gen systems. Although the Wii U has comparable power to the Xbox 360 and PS3, I would argue that nothing on either system compares to Super Mario 3D World from an artistic standpoint, and that has been my go-to game lately (well, that and Rayman Legends, another game that is just mind-blowingly gorgeous). I also recently built a computer that is capable of running games like Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite on very high/ultra settings.

I’ve been spoiled by the high end.

Had I played The Last of Us on release, I believe I would have been far more impressed by its visuals. There’s clearly a lot to be impressed by, but much less to someone spoiled by the high end. As it stands, the winner of IGN’s 2013 “Best Overall Graphics – Technology” award has not wowed me (visually). Not really.

In my review of Killzone: Shadow Fall for The Daily Beast, I called it “The best looking video game ever released on a home console.” I stand by that statement. The Last of Us does not look as good as Killzone: Shadow Fall (although its human facial animation is leagues beyond). It’s kind of an unfair comparison to make, but IGN made it, so I’m going to make it, too, and I’m not going to be so favorable.

Disclaimer: I am only an hour into The Last of Us. I haven’t seen much of what the game has to offer, but unless the game suddenly develops a new engine, I’m not expecting my thoughts to change much. [Update: Having finished the game, I stand by everything I said.]

(Although this is going to focus heavily on visual fidelity, I’m not saying that the visuals are the most important part of a game. They’re not. I have a whole lot of other things to say about the game that are more intellectual, and I intend to talk about them later (see bottom note). Like any sane person I understand that graphics are just one part of the package. But I also think that The Last of Us would be an objectively better game if it were running on better hardware.)

The Last of Us has two problems that actively impede it: jagged edges and low-res textures. The entire game positively shimmers with jagged, aliased edges, especially in the more complex scenes. These jags are found all over damn near every game since the dawn of 3D models, but they’re also notably less frequent in the current generation (and on high-end PCs). Once you’ve spent time in a crisp, clean Bioshock Infinite, it really is hard to go back to anything less.

Textures, too. An early pivotal scene shows the Sarah, the protagonist’s daughter, lying in bed. Right in front of the screen is a phone. The textures on that phone are, in a word, awful. That phone plays an important part in that scene, but it’s impossible not to notice just how ugly that image really is. It was part of the critical consensus, that the spectacular visuals were hampered somewhat by low-res textures, but it’s worth repeating. There’s a lot going on, but it’s at the expense of detail. Killzone: Shadow Fall excels here, and honestly it better. The amount and speed of memory available to Guerilla was vastly superior to what Naughty Dog dealt with, but it’s still hard to go back and be immediately impressed.

There’s a reason HD remakes exist: because old technology stops impressing. When I first played them on the PS2, I thought Ico and Shadow of the Colossus looked fantastic. In retrospect, less so. In HD on the PS3, they look better. (Not really relevant, but I never finished either game. I got stuck on the former and a series of crashes during the water snake soured me on the latter. I intend to go back; we’ll see if it ever happens.) With the new generation, I think that the trend is going to continue, and pretty soon both the Xbox One and PS4 will be featuring remakes of Xbox 360 and PS3 games, scaled up for the new generation. The lack of backwards compatibility almost guarantees it (especially on the Xbox, which doesn’t have any obvious response to Sony’s PlayStation Now, which will either be amazing or a total failure.) The trend certainly doesn’t seem to be going away. Just yesterday, Capcom announced yet another HD upgrade to Resident Evil 4 (remember when that was basically the best-looking game out there? I do).

(The current-gen releases of Rayman Legends and Tomb Raider are generally considered ports rather than remakes, which is interesting in and of itself.)

But I’m hoping that even more than texture upgrades and a bump in resolution (The Last of Us rendered natively at 1080p would help fix some of the jagging issues) will be a rise in frame rates. A lot of games last generation have suffered from poor frame rates, and a lot of games this generation will suffer from them, but the leap in power from one to the next means that, if nothing else, these games (which will not look as good as natively developed counterparts) will be rock solid at 30 fps, and possibly even bumped up to 60, just as Flower was when it made the jump.

It’s amazing that the PlayStation 3 has held up this long. Looking at games on the Wii has become hard for me, even the prettiest of the final releases just doesn’t work, and I’d be totally cool with some more HD Remakes on the Wii U (especially at budget prices), but up until the past couple of months I have continued to be impressed by what the then-current generation put out. And even The Last of Us is not without its merits (the lighting in particular is excellent), but I’ve spent too much time with the here and now to look at the immediate past with anything other than a little bit of disappointment. What if The Last of Us was on the PlayStation 4? Imagine how mind blowing it would be. As a piece of software that pulls everything it can from the last generation, a final spectacle and last hoorah from Sony’s third console, it’s definitely worthy of praise. But when 2013 wraps up, it is not at the top of its class.

But let’s rag on the current generation for a little while, specifically Ryse: Son of Rome.

I reviewed Ryse for The Daily Beast, looking at its use of violence in comparison with Dead Rising 3, my favorite of the Xbox One’s launch games (although it has a whole lot of faults of its own), and I thought it was pretty okay. Its role as a technical demonstration of the system’s power rather than a fun game is unfortunate, but I don’t think anyone expected much after the big E3 QTE reveal. But while the game is certainly good looking (especially when it comes to facial animation), it actively works against itself by using pre-rendered cutscenes. At first, the difference seemed minimal. I think I was just impressed by the game to the point where I wanted to believe that the in-game stuff would match the in-engine stuff (the assets are the same),* but as the game wore on, it became clearer and clearer to me that Crytek was held back by the system’s hardware.

*(Fun fact: Nobody would tell me for sure that the game used pre-rendered cutscenes. For reasons I can’t fathom, I asked multiple PR reps to confirm it for me, and none of them ever responded. I was told that the assets were the same and was then completely ignored.

The most obvious technical problem was with reflections. That may sound like a small thing, but it’s a very wet game. In fact, there is an entire section of the game that takes place over a stream, and absolutely none of it is reflected on the water. I remember the options for water reflections in certain PC games for nothing, just the world map, or everything. Ryse chose the middle one. Even if the reflections have been imperfect in the past, this seems like a marked step backwards.

And when everything is compared to those cutscenes?  I mean, come on. The pre-rendered visuals seem to be the goal, the desire, that maybe by 2020 when the Xbox Two comes out, this is what games will look like, but not yet. For a game that is intended to showcase the power of the console, what it’s really doing is showing its limitations.

That’s weird.

(The Last of Us also uses in-engine rather than in-game cutscenes, though on the weaker hardware it’s hard to fault it for that.)

Killzone: Shadow Fall, on the other hand, is in-game from start to finish, and it is consistently gorgeous… except for the human(/Vektan, because why?) faces. Guerilla needs to hire some Naughty Dog animators (or maybe Quantic Dream, although there’s a bit less animation there and more just digital translation; still super impressive), because hello uncanny valley! I don’t know if the decision for the Helghast to wear masks all the way back with the original Killzone had anything to do with the PS2’s poor rendering of realistic human faces, but that wouldn’t really surprise me. It’s certainly a boon to Shadow Fall, because for the most part it’s easy to forget the dead eyes and unnatural movements. It’s only really during story-intensive sequences that this becomes an issue, and the story segments have much more fundamental problems that poorly constructed faces.

While they may trump it visually, neither Ryse nor Killzone could hold a candle to The Last of Us narratively. That’s more of a problem in Ryse since it has less going for it from a gameplay perspective. The basic mechanics of Killzone are a lot of fun. The ability to see enemies through walls (something also featured in The Last of Us) is one of my favorite things ever. More games should do that.

I mention that last bit actually because it goes back to my point about technology. Back when the original Far Cry was released, it proudly touted its 1.2-kilometer draw distance, and it was impressive as hell when I booted that game up. And whenever I’m playing a game and I can actually see an enemy way off in the distance and then snipe them, I’m happy. But technology gets in the way sometimes, and not every room in an area can be rendered simultaneously, so to have something like relies on the ability to render a whole lot of a map simultaneously. It’s what really makes Killzone such a marvel. That draw distance is spectacular, and the seamlessness is beautiful (the zip line which takes advantage of both of those things simultaneously is probably the next-gen-iest thing about that game).

The beginning of a generation is always an exciting time. By the end, the consoles seem like a known quantity. Games still come out that wow people with their technical prowess, but nothing really causes some massive upheaval in expectations. Evolution, not revolution. But in the early to mid stages of a console generation, as developers really get used to working with new hardware? Magical things can happen. The bar is raised again and again and again, and no one really knows when things will slow down. On the Xbox One, Ryse: Son of Rome is the start; on the PS4, it’s Killzone. But that will only last so long. By the end of E3 2014, those games will be old news. Something bigger and more beautiful will come along. To be sure, whatever Naughty Dog has up its sleeve for the new generation is going to blow them both out of the water.