Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is an updated version of last year’s excellent revival of the long-dormant adventure series. Though it doesn’t make the sort of sweeping changes you may expect from its subtitle, it does earn its keep as the best version of Tomb Raider to play…mainly on the strength of its gorgeous visual overhaul on the PS4. Unless you have a high-end PC capable of cranking out each and every setting to the max, you’d be hard pressed to match the Definitive Edition‘s visual prowess. Those who have the still good-looking PS3 or Xbox 360 versions as a point of comparison are liable to be blown away by the update.
However, there’s not much else “definitive” about this new version of Tomb Raider aside from the visual overhaul and smooth performance. It includes all the DLC from the original release, but all that really amounts to are some costumes to mess with during single player and more maps and gear for the (not especially interesting or populous) online multiplayer modes. There’s a digital comic that’s set before the events of the game, but it’s formatted in an awful way that’s pixelated and poorly framed. Some lengthy making-of documentary material hands out the occasional insight, but it’s aggressively edited and feels less like an earnest peak into game development and much more like a marketing material for a game you’ve already purchased.
You can use the Playstation Camera to swap weapons or call the menu with voice commands, and hey, it’s actually responsive enough to make use of! Those sorts of extras are kind of nice but don’t especially improve upon the original, either. Things still occasionally devolve into “run through this burning structure while everything onscreen wrecks around you” kinds of moments, and they still undermine the bleak and haunting mood that’s often pulled off. This is especially true of the game’s opening hour; the Definitive Edition makes no adjustments to Lara’s well-documented and unconvincing transformation from scared and naive archaeology student to bloodthirsty action heroine.
Turns out that’s mostly not a problem; Tomb Raider is good enough that it didn’t really need any major tweaks to remain a superlative action adventure game. The game’s story – wherein Lara and her archaeology pals get capsized on the sun-worshopping cultist shores called Yamatai and must fend off both humans and the elements alike – still has the disctinction of being an involving, overwhelmingly dark adventure on the whole. Some strecthes feel plucked from a survival horror game, littered with bloody corpses and violent ritual. Some swift and brutal quick time events can showcase some grisly death scenes if botched, too. Some are tough to watch – a brutal impalement down some rough rapids stands out – but you can’t say they don’t hammer home the tone in alarmingly effective ways. The writing is a little stiff, but some impressive production values and respectable voice acting sell the story well, Lara especially.
The chemistry of streamlined platforming and cover-based shooting make comparisons to games like Uncharted unavoidable, but the structure of this game is altogether different. You always progress through them the same way, but Yamatai is a series of large-scale environments that invite you to explore outward and stay a while before following a map marker and moving the story forward. The “secret,” optional tombs you can so choose to raid – auspiciously denoted with cave paintings and present in most areas – were my favourite parts, throwing back to the pure platforming and environmental manipulation this series was built upon while temporarily removing enemies from the equation. You can also hunt wildlife and canvas for all manner of collectible macguffins, and all of these activities earn you additional experience points and “salvage,” a nebulous blanket resource that represents useful things you find in crate deposits or off of felled enemies.
The simple crafting system in place lets you inexplicably (but handily!) upgrade your accuracy and damage with all that mysterious salvage you’ve got lying around, while leveling Lara accrues skill points that can passively augment your skillset. The character progression links the side material with the main quest in a satisfying way, it perhaps makes Lara too effective a killing machine too early in the adventure. By the time you reach the creepy Shantytown midway point, she’s effortlessly pounding foes with a shotgun and gutting them with her pickaxe in a manner that softens the challenge and pulls against the story. Things get a bit too easy by the end, but Tomb Raider confidently works its stock cover-based firefights in some key ways that keep things entertaining. Combat is usually against just a few enemies, and they can dish out the hurt just as effectively as you can if you’re too brazen in combat. In other words, they aren’t bullet-sponges who take a full clip to be felled, and neither is Lara. It all adds up to shootouts that feel dangerous without overstaying their welcome, and the impressive technical overhaul certainly only helps the cinematic kind of action it goes for.
It can all sound like a lot in print, but the parity between being able to explore on your own and always having a clear directive to follow works well throughout. In fact, pretty much everything about Tomb Raider checks out. There wasn’t a whole lot of extra material to include for this new edition, though it’s nonetheless the best way to pick this game up. If you did already play it last year and are expecting any sort of substantial add-ons, you can safely pass. If you’re interested in a return tour or want to see it all for the first time, though, consider the Definitive Edition a great way to play a great game.