Late to the Party: Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition
Lara Croft has been an icon in the gaming world since her debut in 1996 as a buxom Tyrannosaur-slaying heroine on the Playstation One. Since then, third person action games have diversified, and this diversity seems to come in twos. Dante and Kratos are slashing and shooting enemies of epic proportions, Sam Fisher and Solid Snake are sneaking around in the rafters, and Nathan Drake..he seems to be missing someone who can complement his travails in the uncharted corners of the globe. The question is, is Lara Croft still up to the task? One year ago today, she proved that age had not dulled her and could stand toe to toe with the PlayStation mascot. Tomb Raider was a reboot of the series in much the same way that Casino Royale eschewed the dependence on gadgets that had bogged down the last Pierce Brosnan Bond films, Lara was a lean, mean bow shooting machine. While the pacing, tone and game mechanics had been changed to reflect modern, and more mature sensibilities, Tomb Raider didn’t attempt to make us forget the series that came before and in addition to a few on the nose easter eggs, provided us with a series of (optional) tombs to get our puzzle solving fix. I played this game, like many of you, when it came out last year, but had no issue with playing it all over again on my shiny new Playstation 4, and this review will address how the extra layer of graphical shine, the addition of a few new gimmicks, and the passage of time has had on my overall impressions of Tomb Raider.
Meet Lara, fresh out of college on her first expedition aboard the HMS Endurance, eager to prove that she is worthy of the venerable Croft name. After a storm destroys the research ship and strands her and the rest of the motley crew on a rainswept beach she is knocked unconscious by an unknown assailant, and soon after we find her bound, hanging upside down in a dimly lit cave, where her only option to escape is to set a corpse hanging alongside her alight, freeing her but, in what now seems reminiscent of the Last of Us even though it came out later, onto a jagged metal bar that pierces her side. But she picks herself up and keeps on trucking, determined to survive.
Those first few moments set the tone for the rest of the story. It is about one woman who is forced to endure and commit horrible acts so that she can become the woman she was always destined to be. Conrad Roth (Heart of Darkness reference?), Lara’s mentor and father figure along with the rest of the shipwrecked and stereotypical character types add an empathetic element to her quest, but only barely, as saving them, mostly in vain, only hardens Lara’s resolve to believe that she must become a bad ass all by herself.
Her evolution from a young girl that is scared and vulnerable to strong and fearless is well paced, but like the transitions from one area to the next that usually happen by our heroine either sliding through rapids, or a rapidly collapsing structure, it also progresses a little too quickly for my liking. Hunting down a deer as a matter of necessity and then seeing Lara apologize for having to take its life was touching, and even more so the attempted rape that Lara is only able to repel by ending another human being’s life. That moment was intense in a way that I thought it could never be, especially after years of being desensitized to a myriad assortment of violent acts that I’ve seen, heard and read about. But from that point on Lara becomes defiant and aggressive towards the primitive tribe of..survivors (the irony is addressed) without any remorse for plunking arrow after arrow into their foreheads, or their patellas. Squeezed between all of this bloodshed and character development is a supernatural thread about the reincarnation of a Japanese storm god named Himiko that is almost a throwaway aside to the core of the narrative, that being Lara’s emotional and physical evolution.
One game journalist called 2013 ‘the year of the bow,’ and this is the game of the bow. Even though you had a full complement of modern, upgradeable bullet firing weapons nothing was remotely as satisfying as pulling back the string of that medieval sniper rifle/multitool and seeing a shaft land with a meaty ‘shunk’ into the cerebellum of an enemy that had, one second earlier been sailing down a wire screaming bloody murder. Does that sound morbid? I admit, it probably is, but chalk that up to the immersive nature of the progressively deep gameplay that is further helped by the almost non-existent HUD and expansive areas that allow unimpeded exploration of a beautifully realized world.
I do take issue with the design of the combat encounters themselves, as the majority of them, except for one chilling exception, begin with you, after collecting some choice artifacts, pulling out your weapon of choice (bow) and crouching down, which is the game, signaling that you will soon be arriving at an area populated by less than friendly individuals and you should now start thinking about how best to dispatch them (bow again). Once said enemies have moved on to a better place, or nowhere at all depending on your beliefs, you then proceed to collect whatever loose ammo and xp they might have on their person and move on. For such a cohesive world, that, and the aforementioned level transitions that turn Lara into an armed bowling ball,take me out of an experience that otherwise is a masterclass in gameplay design.
Another minor quibble I had, which may be explained away by what I’ll say in the next part is the signposting of climbable elements in the environment. Like the more recent Batman games, Lara is following in the footsteps of the Belmonts and Arans in progressively gaining access to new tools as that give her access to previously inaccessible areas. I can imagine that by highlighting where those new gizmos can be put to use you avoid unnecessary frustration on the player’s part to figure out where they can stick their handy dandy new rope arrows, I just wish it was done with a little more subtlety that implied openness.
When the Definitive Version of Tomb Raider was announced one of the biggest selling points were the graphical effects and extra resolution that the Xbox One and Playstation 4 would allow that would let the developers flex their technological muscle and give us a taste as to what may lay in store for the next iteration in the series.
The extra texture resolution applied to the entire game and the addition of sub-surface scattering to give Lara’s skin a more lifelike appearance is definitely noticeable when compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game, as is a doubling of the framerate on PS4. But when comparing the overall appearance of the game to the PC version I played, I wasn’t really that blown away, Lara’s Tress FX enabled hair definitely was, and that was something I couldn’t enable on my mighty computer tower of power. But I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it for as long as remastered or cross generation games of this type are released on current gen consoles, great art design will negate or significantly diminish how impressed I am with physics enabled ice axes bouncing off of your heroine’s backside. I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. Unless the game is fundamentally different, as is the case with large scale multiplayer games like Battlefield 4 or games designed with the current generation as its base like Watch_Dogs.
Tomb Raider is a great reinvention of the character that may have been improved by having a narrative with more time to breathe and let us gradually see Lara’s evolution into the fearless explorer that we knew before. As far as the ‘Definitive Edition’ in the title goes, it gave me another chance to play a slightly smoother and cleaner looking version of the game I thought Nathan Drake should be taking notes from before he sets out on his next overly linear voyage into uncharted territory. Was it necessary to re-release it? No, I don’t think so. Do I feel geekily satisfied at my being able to play in an outfit that befits my Katniss Everdeen like love for murderous archery? Yes, yes indeed.
+ Still the second best action adventure game of 2013
– Not a must play for the new graphics alone