Pretty Little Fires
Before I get into my review of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, let me be clear on what this review won’t be: an all-encompassing review of Tomb Raider as an overall experience. One month shy of a year ago, I wrote this review of the original version of the game, and not a lot has changed since then in terms of my opinions on it. Well, a little has changed, but I’ll save that for the wrap-up.
Also, one note of clarification: This review is primarily for the PlayStation 4 release of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, but there will be a few times that I’ll also make comments on the Xbox One version (which I also spent time with).
With all of that clear, let’s begin!
There was something about late-era PS3 and Xbox 360 games that I loved from a visual standpoint. There was just this perfect combination of maturity of development tools, experimentation with color and lighting, and that trademark roughness that results when you try to push a piece of hardware just a little too far that comforted me. I’ve always appreciated stunning graphics, solid framerate, and high-resolution textures, but I also have a soft spot for games that look like games instead of polished CG renderings. It’s why I still prefer Project Diva on the PSP instead of the Vita, and why I’ve never minded chunky, scaled sprites.
Tomb Raider was one of those games that stood out in my mind in terms of last-gen games that were graphically impressive. Having played it both on the Xbox 360 and PS3, it was one of many late-era games that were a testament to what those systems could do when coaxed. Do we really need shiny new consoles when the ones we already have could play host to such technical wizardry?
At least, that was what I was thinking going into Definitive Edition. I remembered Tomb Raider fondly—but, as sometimes happens, those nostalgic memories we hold dear don’t always stand up when faced with reality.
In my first moments with Definitive Edition, I was impressed, but not blown away. Sure, it looked nicer, had smoother textures and a better framerate, but was it really that much better? I remember playing through a couple of hours with the PS3 release of Tomb Raider just a few months ago, and it wasn’t that bad! The moment I got to a point in the game where I could compare the two versions directly, however, any thoughts of them being comparable flew out the window.
I still think Crystal Dynamics did a heck of a job on the Xbox 360/PS3 builds of the game, but Definitive Edition blows them out of the water. You might not be able to appreciate just how much better everything looks here, but it’s a jump that is, at times, incredible. This doesn’t feel like it was a previous-generation game cheaply upgraded for next-gen platforms—it feels like a game that was always meant to look like this. The island’s various environments come to life better than before, and little details you never could have appreciated previously wait to be discovered around every corner.
Lara herself also benefits greatly from the generational jump. Her character model is better defined, her textures more lifelike, and the environmental markings of mud or blood or dirt she often carries are more convincing and realistic. One of Lara’s two biggest upgrades, of course, is her hair, which uses a form of the TressFX hair technology that was previously seen in the PC version of Tomb Raider. The effect isn’t necessary, especially given how resource-intensive it is, but it’s much appreciated. Outside of moments where the technology spectacularly fails—when upside down, Lara’s hair can’t decide which way it should be falling—it’s a nice touch, and one that makes Lara feel less like a videogame character model and more like a young girl trying to survive a harrowing adventure.
Then there’s Lara’s new face. For the Definitive Edition, the development team decided to go back and re-render her face, giving her facial features that are both hugely impressive and seemingly more in line with how our protagonist looks during the game’s various CG-rendered cutscenes. The problem? Lara’s new face also lacks some of the character she had previously. It’s almost as if the team wanted to “pretty” her up over how she looked before, either due to their unhappiness with how she turned out or to make her more appealing to male fans. Her new face isn’t bad—and far from a dealbreaker—but I can’t help but wish she better resembled her older self.
On a purely technical level, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition feels more polished in areas both big and small over its previous incarnation. Flames ignite more like real fires do; trees sway in the wind where before they sat static. The framerate has also been greatly increased—at least, depending on which version of the game you go for. There’s a noticeable difference between the PS4 and Xbox One versions, with the former often hitting or hovering near the 60fps mark, while the latter is capped at a maximum of 30fps. This isn’t a make-or-break situation for the Xbox One version, but it makes it nearly impossible to recommend going that route over picking up the game on the PS4 if you’re in a position to choose.
Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is then rounded out by a smattering of other inclusions or additions. All previous DLC (save for the multiplayer character Zac) is included; the multiplayer maps will only excite those who really got into Tomb Raider’s online competitive modes, but I especially liked the additional costume choices available from the start of the game. Normally, I don’t like to use DLC outfits—I have a thing for keeping the character “pure” to what the game intended—but I really appreciated that Lara’s outfits were both tasteful and practical, going against what we so often get from DLC like this. At one point—if only momentarily—I switched Lara out to a warmer set of clothes as she climbed the snowy mountain leading to the radio tower. I figured it was the least I could do for her.
The one other major addition presented here is an expansion of functionality provided by the features of the next-gen systems. Items can be rotated via the DualShock 4’s touchpad or hand gestures on the Xbox One, and voice commands allow you to quickly open your map or change weapons. At best, these feel likes gimmicks; at worst, like with the voice commands, they’re annoyances. Even with the new Kinect model, there were just too many false positives, so I had countless times when I’d said some random word and suddenly, my game paused. These features can be turned off (or not used), so I’ve got nothing against their inclusion—just don’t expect to be wowed by them.
As the journey of Lara Croft from a young, inexperienced girl to a more-sure-of-herself survivor, I still think Tomb Raider stumbles, falling short of the promise it once seemed poised to deliver. And yet, in the year since I first wrote my review, I’ve softened a little. I take back nothing I said previously, but also—on a personal level—I can forgive its transgressions a bit more than before. Crystal Dynamics’ rebooting of the Tomb Raider franchise was pretty darn good, all things considered, and now, in Definitive Edition, we console players can better appreciate the world the team created and the adventures they placed within it for us to find and explore.
Being a full-priced release, this isn’t something that everyone who has played Tomb Raider previously will necessarily want to pick up. For those who were massive fans of the game, or for those who have yet to play it, the graphical, performance, and content improvements in Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition unquestionably make this the “definitive” version of the game—at least, so long as you’re playing on the PlayStation 4.
And, as a final note, let me also say that this next-gen enhancement of Tomb Raider has sold me on the idea of having PS3/Xbox 360 games ported to the new systems—something I wasn’t exactly clamoring for before. I want The Last of Us done this way. I want DmC, and Resident Evil 6, and Saints Row IV. And I want them now.
|Developer: Crystal Dynamics, Nixxes • Publisher: Square Enix • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 01.28.2014|
While not as “definitive” of a package as one might hope for $60, thanks to its markedly improved graphics and performance, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is now the only way I’d want to experience Crystal Dynamics’ rebooting of gaming’s leading lady.
|The Good||Graphical and performance improvements that provide for a much better Tomb Raider.|
|The Bad||Not as extensive of a package as many might hope given the price tag.|
|The Ugly||How quickly Lara commits herself to being a one-woman killing machine.|
|Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is available on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Primary version reviewed was for PS4.|