Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is a weird beast. It's the kind of game that would normally be cross-generational, with one version on the older console and another on the shiny new black boxes. Unfortunately, Tomb Raider came out early in 2013, while the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One did not launch until the end of the year. So there's this wide gulf between release dates. The Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC versions have been on sale throughout the year, and yet we now have a Game of the Year-style port for newer consoles with a $60 price tag.
The jump from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions to the Definitive Edition is clear. If I had had to choose between a cheaper 360/PS3 copy of Tomb Raider and the Definitive Edition at full price, I'd choose the latter. It's when Definitive is compared to the PC version that things start to get muddy.
If you've already played Tomb Raider, buying the Definitive Edition is a harder call. This game is exactly the same from a content perspective, but with all the extra downloadable content released throughout the year. For Tomb Raider, that means some new costumes and new multiplayer levels, but no extra story content outside of a single, unremarkable tomb at the beginning of the game. If you've played it once already and you're not into multiplayer, there's no extra nuance to Lara's story here.
For those who have no experience with the previous version of the game, this new Tomb Raider owes more to Naughty Dog's Uncharted than the original series. There's not many tombs to raid here; instead most of the action involves cover shooting, stealth kills, quick-time events, and backtracking Metroid-style to use your new gadgets to reach new areas. This is an origin story, so Lara herself isn't the cocksure murderer of the previous games; prior to the game's beginning, she's never taken a life. The story trips up a bit in how quickly she switches from naive college student to badass murder machine, but all told Tomb Raider 2013 leaves us with a new, more human Lara Croft.
So, onto the new additions and their impact on the overall experience. Most of the primary changes are in the graphical department with a brand-new face for Lara, a new lighting engine, a heaping help of physics, and some new tricks to make Lara and the environment look more realistic. I've played the game on PC and in the spirit of comparison, I loaded up Tomb Raider on both platforms and played through both games simultaneously.
If both games weren't side-by-side, you might be hard-pressed to see some of the changes. The PC version of Tomb Raider is no slouch and one of the best-looking games I played last year. I have an AMD video card, so I was able to experience AMD's TressFX technology for "realistic" hair on PC, which is one of the new additions for the Definitive Edition.
Side-by-side, Definitive Edition is an textbook example of some of the changes that you'll be seeing across all next-gen games. Lara's brand-new face has completely rebuilt; whether you like it is subjective, but after a while I learned to prefer new Lara to old Lara. Her new face is far more emotive, but this means greater highs and lower lows. In certain scenes, you can really see what new Lara is feeling, making the reasons for the change readily apparent. But occasionally, part of the new animations froze up on me, leaving new Lara's eyes staring in a direction that didn't fit with the scene; this would completely throw me out of the game until everything righted itself.
Since the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 now sport AMD-branded internals, AMD's TressFX technology has made the leap over to Definitive Edition. On PC I kept TressFX on, but it could be glitchy at times: the hair moved far too much at times, it could disappear completely and leave GI Jane Lara, or it moved in completely the wrong direction. The Definitive Edition's TressFX implementation looks better; it's not as bouncy, which combines with the new lighting engine to make her hair look more realistic. And it never disappeared during my PS4 play-though, so that's a big plus.
There's slight changes to the weapons Lara carries, with new physics models meaning each weapon now reacts to Lara's movement. The bow bounces, the pick axe jostles, and even her arrows move in her quiver. The small stuff keeps adding up.
Crystal Dynamics (or porting teams Nixxes and United Front Games) also added sub-surface scattering and new maps for things like blood, mud, and moisture on Lara. The first complex term means that Lara's skin lets a bit of light through the first layer before it bounces off, making her look less like an action figure. The blood and mud caking on Lara looks great, but again, this is one of those things that is only noticeable side-by-side with the previous version. It helps overall, but it's real subtle.
The real changes are in the world Lara explores. Foliage has seen a big improvement. There's more ambient grass in areas, which does a great job of hiding the obvious paths. Ferns and roots dot areas that didn't have these extra embellishments, making the world feel more real. And in any area with trees, there is no contest between Tomb Raider 2013 and the Definitive Edition. In the DE, trees, bushes, and ferns sway with the breeze. In fact, this leads to a mental 'dead pixel' effect when going back to Tomb Raider 2013; after seeing both together, the old version's forest looks dead and lifeless. This is the one area where I feel like I can't go back. (Kotaku created two wonderful comparison GIFs so you can see the difference: PC on Ultra vs. Xbox One)
Cloth physics have been beefed on the torn flags and tapestries, so they animate more realistically now. Particles have been increased; you'll see more embers in camp fires, better smoke in bigger fires, more dust, and leaves when you run into certain bushes. These are all changes that will continue to be more normal in the jump from current-gen to next-gen. Subtle, small effects that add to the overall picture you're seeing when you play a game.
The lighting engine is a part of that. It's far more realistic than Tomb Raider 2013, even if the PC version retains the edge on sharp shadows. Candles cast softer light and stand out individually, as opposed to the yellow haze clouds in the previous version.
And all of these new improvements aren't hampering the game itself, because the Definitive Version on PlayStation 4 runs at a smooth 1080p. The framerate certainly isn't locked; it's 60 fps for most of the time, dipping below when the action gets heavy and explosiontastic. This is an area where the PC version can be a clear winner. With a stronger gaming PC, you can up the resolution, up the draw distance, and still retain framerates that are 60 fps and above. You'll also get the benefit of tessellation - which smooths out those nasty polygons - on the PC version. That feature isn't present in Definitive Edition, but it's not a big loss for me.
Crystal Dynamics and its porting studios added a number of extra features to the PlayStation 4 version. First up are the DualShock 4 extras. Radio transmissions, UI sounds like activating your Survival Instinct or switching weapons, and environment sounds like stepping on bones come through on the DualShock 4's speaker. It's a neat feature. They also use the DS4's lightbar: It flashes red and amber when you have a torch out, and the straight white brightens like a muzzle flash when you shoot a gun. I could leave this part behind, because my guess is it shortens the battery life of the controller and I barely noticed it anyways.
There's also new voice commands if you have a microphone or the PlayStation Eye camera hooked up. You can say "show map" and "close" to bring up and close the map screen, or say a weapon's name to switch to it. It works, except for the fact that you can pause and unpause the game via voice commands as well. If you're talking or watching anything else while playing Definitive Edition, the game will frequently pause and unpause. I don't even know the command to actually pause the game (no manual for the digital version!), but it happened enough that I eventually just turned off voice commands altogether.
So putting all these changes and improvements to the side, should you buy Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition? If you've already played Tomb Raider 2013, I'd recommend renting this version to see the host of graphical improvements, but it's not worth $60 for a replay. You're still playing the same game when it's all said and done. If you haven't played Tomb Raider already and you have a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, this really is the Definitive Edition of the game, so buy it with confidence. The PC version is still worth a pick-up depending on the price; I'd say $35 is the cut-off point, but you can find it for less at times (Amazon has it for $8.99 right now). Anything above that, and you're better off picking up this new version, which should see its price come down in the future anyways.
Now, as a year ago, I find myself vexed by Tomb Raider. Sometimes, it's exactly the game I want to be -- but just as often, I find myself frustrated by how badly it misses the mark at times.
But first, the most important question for this version: Its technical aspects. On that front, it fares quite well. This isn't the first time Lara Croft has made a cross-generational appearance, and the next-gen version of this Tomb Raider completely destroys the Dreamcast ports of her later PlayStation games and the Xbox 360 edition of Tomb Raider: Legend in terms of feeling, well, next-gen. As Mike suggests, the PC version served as a sort of bridge for this one, providing a better foundation to build on than the previous-gen console releases.
From there, Crystal Dynamics et al. made a ton of new refinements to the game engine, focusing largely on the fine details that bring the game world to life. Mike has enumerated those quite well, but they really do have a staggering impact on the believability of the visuals, especially the characters. Not just Lara; her comrades are equally nuanced and capable of fine expression. I've never witnessed a video game character's face shift visibly from surprised to cunning to avaricious in a single scene before, but Tomb Raider pulls it off.
The tech embellishments do come with their downsides. For instance, the game's much-lauded hair-rendering technology (the latest attempt to solve the mystery of what the heck to do with Lara Croft's ponytail in-game) continues to result in some very silly glitches that pull you right out of the story. It's hard to take an intense cutscene seriously while Lara's ponytail is flopping wildly around her head like a muppet as she stands stock still. And it has a tendency to make her hair perpetually glossy and perfect; no matter how ragged and filthy she becomes, her hair always looks like it's straight out of a Pantene commercial. Sure, it's a nitpicky detail, but isn't that the entire point of the Definitive Edition?
I wish the game were as silky-smooth as Lara's ponytail, but the Xbox One version of the game that I played certainly didn't feel like a significant improvement over the older console versions in terms of framerate. I'm the furthest thing from a resolution or framerate fanatic, but Tomb Raider's loose, chunky camera movement can be pretty nauseating at times -- something that smoother movement would definitely help ameliorate. On the plus side, aside from a single hard lockup (which could have been precipitated by my use of Xbox One's still-in-beta resume game feature), Tomb Raider felt rock-solid; I never noticed any weird glitches (outside of Lara's dancing ponytail), dropped frames, or anything along those lines. Cross-generation ports are usually a complete mess, so that turned out to be a nice surprise.
Disappointingly, though, this "definitive" edition doesn't offer much in terms of content over the existing versions of the game. You can swap Lara into several new costumes right away, which is nice; all of them appear to be more practical gear for adventuring, so the poor girl can at least wear a leather jacket while she's out being shot at in the rain. And there are unlockable galleries. But I didn't spot any new in-game content or even refinements beyond the visuals... though I suppose that's par for the course with this new take on Tomb Raider.
This means that Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition doesn't address my biggest concern with the game, which is that it constantly gives the impression that it's embarrassed to be a video game. While portions of the adventure feel like classic Tomb Raider -- that is, they revolve around climbing and searching and exploration -- those moments tend to be brushed under the rug in favor of big, explosive set pieces. Pure quick-time events clutter the game's first hour but soon vanish in favor of sequences where the world detonates around Lara and she comes out curiously unscathed. Playing these events basically consists of pressing forward, with occasion moments of arbitrary reactive button-pressing that will inevitably result in retries and trial-and-error frustration.
Not surprisingly, I dislike these faux-movie sequences as much here as in every other game that uses them. They don't enrich the experience, they just make the game seem insecure and self-conscious -- like the creators don't trust players to enjoy the game without constantly being made to feel like they're the hero of a blockbuster action movie. But the over-reliance on spectacle tips the game's hand -- when you're dashing miraculously unscathed through your dozenth apocalypse as nameless goons die all around you, you start to notice just how contrived and danger-free it all is. Likewise with the abuse Lara suffers and shrugs off; initially you wince with every cut and scrape she endures, but after about 10 hours of her falling impossible distances onto rocky surfaces without breaking a single bone the supposed danger ceases to be convincing. The game's solution is to raise the brutality it inflicts on her -- now she's trudging through sewage with open wounds! Now a burly dude has her pinned down so he can punch her repeatedly in the face! -- but at a certain point it crosses a line between "wow, she's tough" and "wow, this is pretty much torture porn."
Yet no matter how grating these idiotic semi-interactive cutscenes become, I find it hard to sustain my irritation once the game stops shoving me down exploding (yet curiously harmless) hallways to let me roam around in elaborate caverns and ancient villages, figuring out how to reach seemingly inaccessible areas and solving obscure in-game challenges. That's what I signed up for, and when the game indulges that desire it does it pretty well. I also appreciate that, while Tomb Raider forces a ridiculous amount of combat on me, I don't have to use all the brutal melee kills and horrifying finishing moves the developers seemed so proud of during pre-launch demos. This time around, I poured my skill points into exploration, fighting with precision arrow strikes, ignoring the stab-a-dude-in-the-neck abilities that every action game seems obligated to incorporate. It wouldn't do to have a video game hero without the option of gleefully descending into blood-soaked sociopathy, but that doesn't mean I want to go down that route.
I'm not as smitten with Tomb Raider as Mike, though my frustrations aren't so much about how it interprets (or misinterprets) a classic franchise as the way the developers so timidly marched in lock-step with every contemporary action game cliché lobbed their way. Yet neither is this adventure irredeemable, either. The original Tomb Raider boldly forged its own identity nearly 20 years ago, and enough of that spirit still lurks beneath the rote, generic conventions that have been shoveled on top of this prequel to keep it interesting. I just hope that for the inevitable follow-up, Crystal Dynamics focuses more on creating a fresh and unique Tomb Raider experience rather than a second semester of Lara Croft in: Action Game Bullet Points 101. As for the Definitive Edition, it doesn't offer any real incentive for someone who's already played through the game to revisit Lara's journey... but if you missed it the first time around and don't mind paying full-price, it's one of the strongest titles currently available for Sony and Microsoft's new consoles.