(Warning: Minor spoilers below.)
In replaying Naughty Dog's "The Last of Us" one year later via its PlayStation 4 remaster, much was the same for me.
I still worship the economy of its writing. When Joel (Troy Baker) and Ellie (Ashley Johnson) just say the other's name, it feels downright revolutionary for gaming how much mood and meaning director Bruce Straley and creative director Neil Druckmann wring from that one syllable. It feels real.
I still mope at Gustavo Santaolalla's score. His minor strings work in perfect concert with the crumbling, untamed ghost towns that link together Joel and Ellie's cross-country odyssey. In those graveyards of fungal plague, there's a sense of place and progression that few other games have achieved.
I still hang on every turn of the story. Knowing the bitter destination just makes the sweet moments between Joel and Ellie that much more fateful. And having now relived her loss in "Left Behind" and her heroism in "The Last of Us" — and all her casually gratuitous cussing along the way — I'm ready to call Ellie my favorite video game character, ever.
I'm still utterly spellbound by this game — just now at 60 frames per second and in 1080p resolution.
I also chose a hard run for "Remastered," which sharpened my appreciation for the game's action. Sure, it's not the eureka moment the storytelling is, but it's brainy and brutal enough to sustain, if not enhance, the tone of survival. Because when I scraped by some of those packs of clickers and bloaters with half a dozen rounds and a brick or two, that's precisely how it felt: I survived.
Maybe that's why I found sanctuary in the game's new photo mode. For every hour of the game proper, I spent about 15 minutes pausing to size up screenshots. Urgently I'd try on filters and frames in hopes of recording whatever chaotic, poignant or weirdly funny moments I could from my journey.
But, for me, there was one real revelation in "The Last of Us: Remastered," and it wasn't any of that.
It was the multiplayer.
I spent a few hours with Factions mode when I reviewed "The Last of Us" on PlayStation 3, and for some reason — maybe online shooter fatigue, maybe my lingering awe at the single-player campaign — I was unmoved.
I wasn't this time. About 50 matches in, I'm almost as awestruck by the mode as I was by Joel and Ellie's story.
Like the writing, the matchmaking feeds off elegance. It's just four vs. four. It's just three different-enough match types. It's just a few bullets in your clip.
Once again, though, Naughty Dog's workmanship makes an addictive lot from so little.
Every match begins with a strategic decision: Do you go hunting, or do you sacrifice some time to stock up on materials at the map's toolboxes so you can craft Molotovs or nail bombs? Choose the former and you'll maybe notch a kill at the risk of finding yourself outgunned later. Choose the latter and you might risk depriving your three teammates of backup — or getting crept upon yourself.
As the title would suggest, teamwork is especially wise in Factions. Not only does the real-time item crafting and healing make watching each others' backs helpful, but most deaths begin with downs from which teammates can revive you — or enemies can execute you. And every life counts.
All three game modes center on death — there's no domination or capture the flag, where lives are a means to an end. Supply Raid is like standard team deathmatch, giving each team 20 all-purpose lives, while Survivors structures the match as a best-of-four where rounds are lost when all four members of a team are killed. Interrogation twists the action in a manner like "Call of Duty's" Kill Confirmed mode by requiring you to hold up downed enemies until you unlock their supply safe, which can only be cracked after several vulnerable minutes of dial-turning.
There are problems in Factions Mode, sure. Hit boxes can be spotty; I've seen a few players gunned down several feet away from a bullet's path. And the ability to tweak match rules, like adding lives to the Supply Raid limit, would be cool.
Also, I'm still not entirely clear on the stakes for the meta game of the multiplayer: Managing a community by collecting blue vials of all-purpose "resources" in your matches, and fending off invaders by meeting quotas for executions and other stats. Good community management gives you one-time perks, like discounts on the armor and ammo upgrades you can buy mid-match — but other than that, I'm not sure why I should worry about all the people in my camp starving to death.
Maybe I'll find out, because I plan on spending several more hours with Factions. And as the 10-million-and-growing PlayStation 4 user base discovers its strategic thrills while waiting for more Sony exclusives, this terrifically unique multiplayer just may make "The Last of Us: Remastered" the game that keeps on giving for Sony.