Listening to Tomb Raider executive producer Scot Amos talk about the latest generation of consoles brings to mind a kid in a candy store. He describes each new technological trick in Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition with barely restrained glee.
"You wouldn't believe the looks on our faces when we got to play with all of this," Amos says as a flock of 2,000 seagulls rise into the air from Tomb Raider's beach. His excitement says all that needs to be said about Crystal Dynamics' priorities, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Say what you want about the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider -- and we've said plenty -- but it's an undeniably beautiful game. It's a credit to the art, the character models, and the extremely detailed environment that Tomb Raider looks as good as it does on the Xbox 360 and the PS3 -- two systems that definitely show their age. The visuals do much to make what would otherwise be an average third-person shooter memorable.
Given how good it looks on older consoles, Crystal Dynamics might have been able to get away with a quick and dirty next-gen port, but of course they're taking it much further than that. In essence, Crystal Dynamics is rebuilding Tomb Raider from the ground up, starting with its protagonist.
Amos ticks off the changes one at a time: completely new mesh; every strand of hair individually simulated; new head and face; clothes and gear that move independently while she runs. And really, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Tomb Raider features new physics, a new lighting system, and "10 to 15 times more particles."
"This is an engine that won't run on current-gen," Amos says. "This is a next-gen engine. Even the multiplayer engine has been rewritten; we put in a whole new backend for it." As a result of Crystal Dynamics' efforts, it's fair to say that Tomb Raider looks as good as any game currently available on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Taken as a whole, the effect is quite impressive. And it will be arriving right in the crucial window when newly-minted Xbox One and PS4 owners will be looking for something to play.
Unfortunately, all of these bells and whistles do come at a price. While the "Definitive Edition" will include all of the DLC released to date -- weapons, multiplayer maps, characters, and The Tomb of the Lost Adventurer, among other things -- it will not have any new gameplay content. No additional sidequests, no epilogue, and no new tombs to explore.
"This is an engine that won't run on current-gen. This is a next-gen engine. Even the multiplayer engine has been rewritten."Scott Amos, Crystal Dynamics
The explanation that Amos offers for omitting new content is a bit strained, but also somewhat telling: "We thought about developing new missions. The best way I can describe it is... in Batman Begins, adding an extra 10 minutes of deleted scenes... would that make it different? We didn't think so. We really loved the story and the feel of it. We didn't want to break it."
Quite frankly, even if Crystal Dynamics had wanted to build new content, they probably wouldn't have had time to do it. Faced with essentially building a next-gen engine from scratch, they've had to bring in not one but two other studios -- long-time partner Nixxes Software and Sleeping Dogs developer United Front Games. Given Amos' repeated comments about the studio's "lack of horsepower" for the project, new content might have been a bridge too far.
But even if they had the resources at their disposal, there's reason to believe Amos when he says that he's perfectly satisfied with what Tomb Raider has to offer. It seems that as far as Crystal Dynamics is concerned, Tomb Raider has been a complete and total success. And for better or worse, that says a lot about what we can expect from future installments.
As for the Definitive Edition, while returning fans can justifiably grouse about spending $60 on a somewhat prettier version of a game they've already finished, they also aren't really the primary audience. While Crystal Dynamics wouldn't mind a few extra sales from fans willing to double dip, they're mostly hoping to ensnare those who never got around to playing Tomb Raider the first time out, and are now looking for something to play on the Xbox One and PS4.
In the end, the point of the exercise is to get Tomb Raider on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 -- period. With their foothold established, Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix cans go ahead with what are clearly big plans for the franchise.
Amos hints as much when talking about their decision to focus on graphics to the exclusion of new content: "We have a very tight package, and that's the one we want. The rest of our energies are devoted to telling future stories."
With that, Crystal Dynamics will soon be closing the book on the first chapter of its Tomb Raider reboot. As ever, there will be plenty of debate as to whether it was successful or not (for what it's worth, it did end up turning a profit), but as the Definitive Edition demonstrates, Crystal Dynamics is quite comfortable with its vision for the series. For that reason, it seems safe to say that we can expect more where that came from... and soon.