Not new, but improved.
HIGH Incredible vistas around every corner.
LOW The whole experience feels a little too automated.
WTF The preposterous voice acting of Mathias, the Solarii leader.
Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is a refined version of an already good game, the successful 2013 reboot of the Lara Croft franchise.
Everything exceptional about last year's title remains the same, while touches like improved particle/lighting effects and a completely revamped character model for Lara makes a return trip to Yamatai more tempting. For newcomers, it's a stunner to show off their next generation hardware. Yet like the catacombs and caverns players explore throughout the game, there are still a number of hairline cracks nested in its walls.
For a title designed as an origin for one of gaming's most iconic characters, Tomb Raider's narrative feels thin and uneven. It more often serves to give the player something to do or somewhere to go, rather than showing any character development for Lara Croft or her vapid companions.
Starting with an awkward CG introduction where Lara's research vessel splits apart under the duress of a freak storm, the player watches as Lara washes up on a mysterious island, gets separated from her friends, and kidnapped by a mysterious native. It's an action-packed sequence, and a shame the player is forced to watch it rather than play it, robbing them of the opportunity to 'live' through that experience. Alas, Tomb Raider has no time for subtlety in its narrative delivery. Worse, much exposition is offered unambitiously through flashbacks via video recordings and journal entries Lara finds along her journey.
The rest of the game has our heroine finding and separating from her continually dwindling group of companions over and over again, while fending off the island's violent, zealous cult. Whie she's a precocious young archeologist with something to prove at the beginning, she grows to become a hardened adventurer and killer in incredibly signposted ways.
This process starts when Lara has to kill a deer to avoid starvatio; a do-or-die scenario that's a somewhat-difficult decision for Lara. A similar scene of "growth" occurs the first time Lara kills a man during a struggle for her life.
In both cases, the game presents a brief cinematic where Lara displays a mixture of grief and self-disgust before picking herself up, brushing herself off, and proceeding to murder countless animals and people for the remainder of the adventure. Evidently she gets over emotional trauma (and physical – that's quite a deep puncture wound in her side there) pretty quickly. Although the game maintains Lara's kindness, generosity and courage throughout, Tomb Raider can just as easily be interpreted as the origin story for a cold-blooded killer. I'll skip the analysis of ludo-narrative dissonance at work here.
If Lara's character feels only vaguely defined with a mixture of daddy issues, ambition, and self-doubt, she still manages to be the most fully-realized character amidst a ragtag group of clichés ranging from the 'mentor figure' to the 'obsequious best friend', most of whom thankfully die off one by one as the game progresses.
While the voice work overall is impressive, several characters stand out for their awkward or hammy deliveries. Lara's English accent might waver now and again, but these inconsistencies do not offend nearly as much as the voice actor for the cult leader Mathias. This actor's inexplicably bad and jarring performance sounds like he's a budget voice actor from back in the 1990s when studios still used random people on staff to voice characters. Every time he spoke, I wondered how any director could have been okay with his schlock.
Mechanically speaking, Tomb Raider remains the same exploration platformer with a heavy emphasis on shooting. The player travels from underground caves to luscious jungles and snowcapped peaks, clambering up mountainsides and leaping precarious crevices. Maneuvering around the environment feels fluid, and although the animation could use more refinement, Lara is fairly realistic and dynamic. The island opens up gradually as the player progresses and unlocks more tools, gadgets, and abilities. Eventually players will be firing zip lines, climbing previously unscalable cliff sides, and blowing through piles of rubbish with grenade launchers, revealing an island map that is fully connected in sometimes surprising and clever ways.
In between these acrobatic platforming sections, Lara has to exterminate waves of enemies armed with pickaxes, assault rifles, and eventually shields and dynamite. The duck-and-cover gunplay works well, and the shooting is loose enough to avoid punishing inexperienced players while being precise enough to make confident players feel in control. Weapon choice is slim, but each can be upgraded several times throughout the game. The bow on offer is deeply satisfying and a highlight of the game's combat. The only downside to firefights is the insane accuracy in which enemies target the player with Molotov cocktails and dynamite sticks, a problem that plagues many games of this genre.
Balancing the running and gunning, environmental puzzles act as a third engagement with the game world. Unfortunately, most of the "puzzles" are simply switches or burnable architecture waiting for the player to approach them and press the required button. In fact, these sequences are symptoms of a larger issue at the core of Tomb Raider, something the environmental traversal and gunplay also suffer from: the game feels automated in many ways, reflecting some of the worst aspects of modern design that attempt to cater to the largest market possible. Essentially it's a theme park ride on rails… an interactive spectacle with the illusion of agency. Yet, the selling point of this Definitive Edition is exactly this spectacle. Tomb Raider was a gorgeous game before, and now it's even more beautiful, albeit in non-essential ways.
Despite being based on a game from last year for "old" hardware, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is now one of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One's best games, at least for the moment. Its thin characters and unconvincing narrative aside, the game maintains a sense of inertia, pounding action, and a balance between solid gunplay, distracting puzzles, and satisfying environmental traversal. It's a solid foundation on which to build an even better sequel, one that keeps the sense of a living, connected world while hopefully offering a better cast of characters and a much improved narrative.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 10-15 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time) and 1 hour of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, drug references, intense violence, and strong language. This is definitely a mature game with intense scenes of violence. Lara has over a dozen death animations, each more gruesome than the last. Enemies bleed, burn, and scream from gun shot wounds, arrows, and explosives. Corpses are sometimes strewn about the environment.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Sound is not necessary to enjoy this game, and all the dialogue can be read through subtitles.
In college John fell to poetry, short story writing, and journalism, but ultimately took to writing critical, academic work on video games. He was actually surprised this was an option. For reasons he will never be completely sure of, he ended up in graduate school where he wrote about the discursive mapping of gender onto the terms "hardcore" and "casual" and the power hierarchy of legitimate and illegitimate games that creates. He is a proud feminist.
Currently, John is a PhD student in the Film and Media Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He continues to study gender, race, and sexuality in video games, video game culture, and the video game industry. He also mulls over issues of creative labor, cultural hierarchy, and power, among other random subjects.