What To Expect When You’re Expecting a Remaster

Posted in Kulturecade by - November 22, 2017
What To Expect When You’re Expecting a Remaster

One thing I’m genuinely curious about when it comes to people’s game collections in this current generation is how many of their PS4 or Xbox One games are remasters or ports. Part of that curiosity comes is because I want to know how many people are liable to bite on any of the reasons remakes are so popular and plentiful — they trust the name more than they would a new product, they want to see their favorites at their full potential, they evoke a feeling of nostalgia, or they simply want to have the best version of a game, whether or not they’ve played it before. My personal reasoning almost always comes predominantly from that last factor, which is why I’ll often wait for a Complete Edition of any game I’m not mad with anticipation over (and later regret it on the chance I really love the game, as I still do with Resident Evil VII), just so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.

This is exactly why I elected to upgrade to the remastered version of The Last of Us on PS4 not long after I got my hands on a console, even though I didn’t necessarily have much intention of playing it again anytime soon. I grabbed a copy of it on a good sale for around $10 or so and sold my PS3 copy of it right away, upgrading to an objectively better version of the game for nothing, which I can only claim due to the fact that the PS4 version has the Left Behind DLC on disc. After finally getting the itch to play the game again, however, I can pretty much say that that DLC is more or less the only real difference in the new version.

If the term “remaster” suggests nothing else besides a graphical update, it would still be tough to see where The Last of Us Remastered has been changed — look at any side by side comparison between the PS3 and PS4 versions (from a reputable source, I should add) and the differences are pretty minute, if they’re there at all. This makes sense, though, when you consider what the term remaster actually means by a strict definition, as well as some important details about The Last of Us in general. Remastering is a much more appropriate word in its more traditional context of audio mastering, where many classic albums and other recordings have been remastered with new technology, which is, at its core, a matter of removing imperfections on the original and highlighting various parts of it so as to improve the overall sense of “quality.” It’s often easier to tell in side by side comparisons what effect a remaster has on a recording, but in both music and games, the biggest factor in what can be accomplished by “remastering” is in the original product, and what improvements can actually be made between then and now.

The Last of Us was the swan song of the PlayStation 3. Aside from being the peak of Naughty Dog’s run and gun engine that had improved in each subsequent Uncharted game, it was arguably the absolute peak of graphical power that the system had to offer. Even in individual aspects of its graphical prowess that other games on the system had gone out of their way to gain recognition for, such as facial expressions (Beyond: Two Souls) or the behavior of light and shadow across a variety of environments (anything in the Crytek engine), The Last of Us is a prime example of most facets of graphical advancements for its time, “its time” being 2013, when it looked like a borderline next-generation game. It was ported to the PS4 13 months after its original release date, after the system had been out for less than a year. Given the nature of consoles and their often tumultuous infancies, it’s almost impressive that the remastered version didn’t introduce problems, rather than offer only minuscule upgrades.

By this point, you might be thinking that I’m upset at the poor quality of The Last of Us Remastered as a port/remaster, but that’s not exactly right. I’m only a little bit miffed at what was essentially a repackage of the same game, but that’s my own fault, because I realized that for some reason or another, I was expecting to be blown away by The Last of Us the same way I was the first time, and I’m not. That’s less the game’s fault, and more the fault of Sony and its packaging. The luster of any kind of “upgraded version” is still gleaming on that sucker just by virtue of a different colored case, and so your expectations are naturally set up for something different than you’ve experienced before.

And to be clear, The Last of Us is still an amazing game, an absolute must-play. Even though that Uncharted engine I mentioned is tough to go back to an older version of once you’ve tried the latest firmware update (the same reason The Nathan Drake Collection can feel various degrees of rusty depending on which of the three you’re playing), all of the other things that made it that way are still firmly intact. The story and dialogue are still the monolith examples of video game writing. The attention to detail with every environment, model, and pickup are poetry in digital motion. And I’d still put its graphical prowess up against the majority of the PS4 library. It’s just that it already was all of these things, and yet even when I came to this realization and said to myself “okay so I’m not seeing anything new here,” I still couldn’t bear to stop playing and start something new. I won’t even skip ahead to the DLC until I finish the story again because I just think that I owe the game that much.

It should be stressed, though, that that tricky word, “remaster” and its cousin, the “remake,” are have very different meanings, and are therefore not as interchangeable as you might end up thinking. If a “remaster” is the removal of imperfections or limitations imposed by the original system, a “remake” involves creating content for the game that makes it appear as though it were originally made for that system. A perfect example of this for future academic textbooks once it is released will be Shadow of the Colossus, which was remastered for the PS3 alongside its brother Ico, and is currently being remade for the PS4, due out next year. Along with the much more helpful numbering conventions of PlayStation systems (rather than calling your third console “One,” Microsoft), we will be able to follow the progression of the original cornerstone of the “games as art” argument on the PS2, to its noticeably cleaner version on the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus Collection for PS3 (a system that had been around a while and could easily be used to do away with some prior limitations), and finally its complete asset overhaul coming to the PS4; Bluepoint Studios, who were originally tasked with the PS3 collection, are in charge of rebuilding the game’s assets from the ground up, while leaving the engine entirely untouched and reskinning the skeleton of the original until it looks like a PlayStation 4 title, and judging by the breathtaking trailer, it’ll be worth its $40 price tag when it comes out next year.

My goal here hasn’t been to argue against remasters — all things considered, they’re actually not a bad way for the big publishers to make money and let new studios develop. It’s also not to remind everyone how amazing The Last of Us is, although that’s partly because I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded of that, or how many PlayStation systems will end up having Shadow of the Colossus on them. I just felt I needed to discuss my experience with this phenomenon of being led into thinking that remasters are anything like new games. If we all understand what a remaster is, which is to say it’s about 10-25% taking advantage of a new platform, while the rest is pure unadulterated port, we’ll all be more informed as to what we’re buying and what to expect behind that charming deep blue or green packaging.

This post was written by
He is a video game staff writer and dreamed of being a video game as a young boy. Then somebody told him that you can't really do that, so he compromised by doing a bunch of stuff related to that, playing video games, reading about video games, writing about video games, working at a video game store, and all those good nerdy things. Aside from video games, he's also a dork of all trades, with an interest in heavy metal music, wrestling, sports, and Magic the Gathering.
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