Title: The Last of Us Part II | Developer: Naughty Dog | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Initial Release: 19th June 2020
[Spoiler-free: This in-depth photo mode review covers no story content]
Naughty Dog's 2013 masterpiece, The Last of Us, remains a monumental entry in the history of video game storytelling to this day and, after years of anticipation, the developer's brave return to that world is finally out in the wild. Whether through journalistic praise, disapproving down votes or emotional reactions to having completed its 20+ hr story, the game has certainly made something of a splash on its way to becoming the fastest selling first-party release on PS4.
Set 5 years after the powerful events of the original, The Last of Us Part II focuses on Ellie as the main protagonist, following her as she embarks on a vengeful quest for retribution with plenty of moral conflict, shifting perspective and hypocrisy along the way. With a generally slow pace, the new game may not push out of the blocks quite as hard as its predecessor, which had players reeling before the opening title sequence had even appeared on screen, but that doesn't mean that it has gone soft. Make no mistake, this is a very mature game that will shock you and provide plenty of food for thought, though that is precisely what fans of the first game will be looking for.
Still ravaged by the deadly Cordyceps parasitic fungal infection, and with the ever present threat from humans and infected alike, the world of crumbling cities and abandoned facilities is as bleak and inhospitable as it was 5 years earlier. As time has passed though, grouping survivors have begun to re-establish a way of life through larger settlements and relatively thriving community that brings a sense of normality to an otherwise traumatic existence. This more grounded feel is something that carries through into the game's approach to character development; some low key and almost mundane introductions mean that the story cleverly humanises its cast in a way that makes them all the more believable, and the events that follow all the more impactful.
Some folks call this thing here a gee-tar
Once into its stride, The Last of Us Part II reveals itself to be a highly polished technical achievement that is worthy of telling any story. Significantly upgraded character models and magnificent animation work add to a sense of presence within the game, while the more fluid combat is even more visceral than before, if perhaps a little too unavoidable. All around you, the larger, richer and even semi-open world constantly invites exploration with outstandingly natural lighting and especially well detailed interiors that tell stories of their own.
With a visually accomplished and thematically engrossing game such as this then, it goes without saying that the opportunity to capture meaningful and impressive images through virtual photography is plentiful. As covered in my initial look at what's in store, the new photo mode may be a clear upgrade on Naughty Dog's previous offering that hasn't been Left Behind in the virtual photography stakes, but does it bring enough creativity to allow users to do the story justice? Let's find out with this in depth-look at exactly what the photo mode can do.
Key Photo Mode Features:
Cinematic depth of field with pleasing bokeh
Adjustable motion blur
Beautifully natural lighting
Controls and Implementation:
The Last of Us Part II's photo mode is a definite step forward for the series, with the Remaster's disjointed feel and menu-confined camera movement now very much a thing of the past. The new options feel much more up to date and have benefited from the thought that has been put into their usability, but there is at least one significant downfall, so let's get that out of the way first.
put some distance between you with the driving genre-defying forwards / backwards inputs of the L2 / R2 triggers
Primary camera control centres around an orbital rotation that is tethered to the playable character at all times. This type of carry over from the third person gameplay camera is certainly not uncommon, but it is always restrictive and, as the art of virtual photography continues to grow and develop, it is becoming ever more important for photo modes to afford users the compositional freedom that they crave. The 360° horizontal and near 180° vertical range does at least give access to plenty of angles via the RS, while the accompanying LS inputs for lateral truck and vertical crane do help to expand the available compositions, the simple fact of the matter though, is that it is not always desirable to point the camera in the direction of the character and the lack of tilt makes ground level shots especially difficult to achieve. It is time to treat the photo mode camera as a feature of its own and not a repurposed tool from the game itself.
Despite the character-centred movement, it is possible to hide the protagonist, along with any allies, enemies or other NPC's via the Filters menu to give a clear and unobstructed view, or to put some distance between you by using the driving genre-defying forwards / backwards inputs of the L2 / R2 triggers. By extending the length of the orbit tether within a defined limit that varies by scene, this option allows the camera to get to some useful distances for wider shots or to make use of narrower fields of view. For those more interested in character portrait work, the reverse is a little more limited as, even at the shortest distance and tightest field of view, the camera never really lets you get right into the details of the otherwise impressive character models.
One tip you may want to try here is adjusting the Camera Distance setting under the game's Motion Sickness accessibility options where decreasing the third person camera distance lets the photo mode camera get slightly closer too.
the UI defines each adjustment on a nominal 0 - 100 scale
Much like the game's industry leading accessibility options, the rest of the photo mode focuses on being easy to understand and use. A completely redesigned, yet totally familiar, tabbed UI has clear inspiration from other first party Sony photo modes and adds some nice touches like visible locks on inactive or disabled settings while the layout manages to create a smooth virtual photography workflow through from image composition and depth of field, to editing, effects, filters and framing. The optional button binding of L3 & R3 for photo mode access now remains active after reloading the game and the majority of settings are also retained when closing the camera, always handy for capturing similarly styled shots.
Choosing not to include any real world camera values, the UI instead defines each adjustment on a nominal 0 - 100 scale. More experienced photographers may miss being able to relate to a real setup, it's difficult to judge exactly what equivalent lens lengths the percentile field of view relates to for example, but it does invite users to focus more on the results while anyone less experienced needs not be put off by complicated jargon.
Given the cinematic pedigree of the developer, and the excellent execution of the game's camera work within story elements, it should come as no surprise that the depth of field implementation is very effective. The straightforward Distance and Intensity options determine the point of focus and the amount of defocus that occurs either side of it in both the foreground and background. Behaving like a widening lens aperture, increasing the intensity generates a shallower depth of field and renders a beautiful circular bokeh on out of focus specular highlights. A lack of any auto-focus options, and manual focus distance steps that are a little too large, do mean that a small amount of camera position compensation is needed to place a sharp focus at times but, as demonstrated in the cinematics, the feature is easily capable of isolating a subject and producing a highly authentic look and feel.
This authenticity is something that is helped further by screen effects such as chromatic aberration, film grain and motion blur. While the former is something I go to lengths to eliminate in real photography, 50 is the "zero" value here by the way, the added film grain is great to replace the overly clean game look with some realistic camera noise that is best applied to low light scenes. Motion blur too, restores a sense of movement to a static image and can make the shot appear more believable to the eye. Essentially a visibility scale for the game's own per pixel motion blur, the option cannot replicate the added movement range at slower shutter speeds but it is great to see this kind of feature making its way into more character focused tools.
Added control over the final look of the image comes in the form of very capable brightness and saturation sliders which combine well with the broadly adjustable vignette and selection of 20 different colour filters to produce some highly stylised results. One feature which should be used with caution though is Sharpness; capable of enhancing fine detail and giving an image some pop when used correctly, if overdone, the result will be nasty looking exaggerated edge halos that detract from the otherwise very natural look of images captured in this photo mode.
a no-nonsense approach with a series of broadcast and theatrical aspect ratio crops
Finally, we come to the logos and frames where I am happy to see a no-nonsense approach from Naughty Dog. Though novel surrounds and pre-made frames are fun to see, they are exactly that, a novelty with little long term use. The decision to provide a series of broadcast and theatrical aspect ratio crops, from standard TV to anamorphic and Panavision cinematic ratios, is one that fits well with the rest of the game's presentation and the borders can be applied in black, white or screen colour which matches the average hue of the live image. It is also possible to remove the colour in favour of a transparent blur as long as none of the game and studio brand logos, which can be placed in any 1 of 9 preset locations, are currently applied. Logos themselves can resized but not rotated and it is worth noting that each one will remain inside the frame crop unless made small enough to fit wholly within the border; either way the logos will never overlap the frame boundary.
One other, perhaps novelty-related feature that hasn't been included here, is the ability to change character poses and facial expressions. While poses can be implemented to great success, as we've seen recently with Death Stranding, there has to be a respect for the context. Altering emotionally significant scenes by giving characters a jovial stance or comedic face would only serve to undermine the game, making this a rightfully absent feature. A case could be made for adjustable look direction though for that added ability to tweak head position and perfect a shot.
more intimate moments will let you work with character models rendered closer to their exceptional best
The Last of Us is a game series that explores a lot of uncomfortable scenarios and questionable actions but also makes you think them over and reflect in a way that few other titles ever manage. This, along with strong character building and excellent acting from the whole cast as the story delivers its devastating developments, can lead to some heavy emotional investment which can be the source of lots of creative inspiration, ready to be expressed through virtual photography.
You will likely find a desire to represent some of the personalities found in the game, and the great character models certainly make it worth while. As with any title, the rendered models do vary from scene to scene, for example, on horseback all looks to be well from the following camera, but spin things around to the front, and Ellie is perhaps not looking her pristine best. The opportunities are there though and more intimate moments will let you work with character models rendered closer to their exceptional best seen in cinematics or the main menu Model Viewer.
the blind but extremely lethal clickers make a return
Another area that the brings the sprites to life, or rather death, is in combat. If thundering gunshots and piercing screams weren't enough to get the adrenaline flowing, disturbingly detailed gore and impressively pooling blood make this a treat for fans of horror themed photography. The infected adversaries, in their various stages of progression as the parasitic fungus gradually takes over their brain and body, make for great subjects too. The raging and highly mobile runners and the blind but extremely lethal clickers make a return but are also joined this time by a handful of new infected types that are just as dangerous.
Beyond the character and story-focused appeal, The Last of Us Part II is also a great technical achievement and one that adds particular attraction to its photo mode with its use of light. In any form, photography is all about light, and this game has some truly magnificent illumination effects on show. With heavy use of pre-calculated indirect lighting to illuminate the world, and beautifully subtle diffuse shadows, there is an exceptionally natural look to the game. More vibrant local illumination and bounce lighting, which casts coloured hues across nearby surfaces, only add to the realism and an utterly stunning lens flare effect is the cherry on this lighting cake. The complex, multi-element flare occurs naturally from a strong light source in a way that, there is no other way to describe it, looks amazing.
vibrant local illumination and bounce lighting, which casts coloured hues across nearby surfaces only add to the realism
Things don't stop there though, reflections throughout the game are also excellent, with very well synchronised cube maps and screen space reflections on water surfaces for example, accompanied by a highly responsive real-time shape reflection is duller surfaces and fully rendered reflections in mirrors. If playing with light is your thing, there's a lot to have fun with here.
There is also the small matter that all of this content can be found within a rich and inviting game world. With populous settlements, dilapidated structures, lush forests and underground spaces to explore, The Last of Us Part II brings more variety to its environments and the freedom to roam is a great chance to soak up the lovingly detailed, and often totally optional, indoor locations. Deserted shops and abandoned possessions tell stories within a story and however you choose to engage with this world, there is something here for you.
The Last of Us Part II may be a game that has unreasonable expectations to live up to, and whether it manages that on the whole will be a matter of personal opinion. In virtual photography terms, as standards have raised and demands increased, this is a photo mode that has managed to bring itself up to date but fails to really break any new ground. Short-sighted camera implementation can limit options and doesn't encourage creativity but a high level of polish permeates many other aspects. It may not break the photo mode mould, but with high quality content and emotional draw, this is an accomplished virtual photography experience.
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Full Feature Set:
Photo Mode Access: L3 & R3
Camera Movement: Orbit (character tethered)
Orbit Horizontal: 360°
Orbit Vertical: <180°
Camera Mode: Custom; Game
Roll: -120 to +120 (± 1)
Field of View: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Depth of Field: On / Off
Distance: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Intensity: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Brightness: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Sharpness: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Saturation: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Chromatic Aberration: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Film Grain: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Motion Blur: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Filter: None + 20 Presets
Intensity: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Hide Character: None; Player; Allies; Enemies; Other; All
Vignette: On / Off
Size: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Intensity: 0 - 100 (± 1)
Frame: None + 6 Presets
Colour: Black; White; Screen Colour
Intensity: 0 - 10 (± 1)
Logo: None; Moth; Part II; Part II Vertical; Paw; Naughty Dog
Position: 9 Presets
Size: 0 - 10 (± 1)