Still Playing: Tomb Raider Definitive Edition – or more accurately, last year’s Lara remastered

Tomb Raider Definitive Edition is out now on PS4 and Xbox One. You can find our review of the 2013 ‘original’ here.

Definitive’s a horrible word. It’s a blustery, ugly claim, I think, with a certain arrogance to it that proclaims some impossible, absolute authority. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it used in a game’s title, and I like it even less in this context: it’s a tacit admission that the original release of Tomb Raider was somehow compromised. Thanks for paying up, suckers. Here’s the real deal. And by real deal we mean all the DLC – alternate costumes you’ll never wear, maps and toys for the multiplayer you’ll never play, and a single new tomb to raid – and an overhauled version of a game you’ve already played. £40, please.

It looks great, at least, and within minutes it’s clear that those wags who proclaimed this first look at the next generation of HD remake as an overpriced port of a PC version which can be bought online for a fiver were somewhat wide of the mark. Yes, you can play Tomb Raider at 1080p and a rock-solid 60fps on PC for a relative pittance, but this is more than a previous-gen game in a higher resolution. And on PS4, at least, Definitive Edition manages to outperform PC, AMD’s needlessly fancy TressFX hair tech proving to be much less of a performance killer here. TressFX is silly, really. It’s tech for tech’s sake, a bouncier ponytail adding little to a game that you play with eyes fixed either on the terrain or an aiming reticule.

There are plenty of visual enhancements elsewhere, too. Our protagonist’s latest facial overhaul may be yet more evidence that Crystal Dynamics can’t quite settle on how they want Lara Croft to look, but she’s never been rendered with such clarity. One of the reasons TressFX looks so weird in the PC version is that it drops a hairdo of frightening detail atop the face of a dead-eyed porcelain doll. It looks less out of place here, framing a face that’s a good deal more detailed and emotive than before. Sub-surface scattering makes for more realistic skin, too, which puts the original game’s fantastic lighting to even better use. Yamatai’s foliage is now dynamic, swaying on the breeze and reacting to contact. Less striking is an overhauled particle system whose potential effect has been greatly diminished by the tiresome abundance of particle showers that riddled the PS4 and Xbox One launch line-ups.

Lara’s never looked better on PS4. The Definitive Edition’s visual updates and improvements surpass the PC version.

Mechanically, though, this is the same game, except for voice-controlled weapon switching, pausing and map display which, on PS4 at least, frequently respond to chatter from Croft, her crewmates and their aggressors. Clearly Crystal Dynamics was already happy enough with Tomb Raider’s gameplay systems, and it’s easy to see why. That floaty, sticky jump whose distance automatically extends if you mistime your takeoff; the satisfying thwack of a climbing axe meeting a rock face; one of gaming’s greatest ever bows – this is a rock-solid set of mechanics that didn’t need to be changed, and haven’t been.

This is my third journey across Yamatai, though, and the appeal of how those mechanics are put to use is on the wane to such an extent that it can’t be remedied by fancy hair, dynamic foliage or higher native resolution. This is a profoundly linear game, and it becomes even more so on repeat playthroughs, when you’ve already learned that the rewards for exploration – pointless trinkets, XP for skills you don’t really need, salvaged and improved gear you don’t use because the bow is so powerful – aren’t incentive enough to force you off the critical path. The storyline doesn’t stand up to repeat viewings, either, and skipping cutscenes with a double tap of the DualShock 4′s touchpad quickly becomes instinctive.

The pacing’s still great, though, and while few of the ideas here are the developer’s own, this remains an enjoyable blend of stress-free 3D platforming and slightly more panicked combat, the latter’s rhythm punctuated by the satisfying thwip of an arrow let loose from an upgraded bow, straight into an enemy’s head. But it’s all just a little too straightforward – literally so. Every section begins with the camera positioned just so to ensure you always know exactly where to go. As finely paced as the gear-gating is, it’s similarly obvious: loops of rope tell you it’s zipline time, while barbed wire barricades mean it’s time to switch to your shotgun.

Lara’s linear adventuring becomes all the more straightforward if you’ve already played through the original game on 360 or PS3 – you already know that all of the upgrades and rewards can be ignored.

The same applies to the tombs – the single-room, single-solution physics puzzles that were little more than a distraction on first play and which I’m pretty much ignoring entirely now. They’re perhaps the most blatantly telegraphed thing in a game that goes out of its way to point you in the right direction, a three-hit combo of sound effect, text pop-up and, hilariously, signage etched into the scenery that means these tombs are Hidden in name only.

I’m still cantering on through things happily enough, but despite the visual improvements this is too obviously a game of the PS3 and 360 era. There, Tomb Raider represented a commendable technical achievement powering a sort of compendium of the preceding five years of game design conventions: a greatest hits package, an appropriate swansong for a dying generation. Here, visual standards have moved on but mechanics have remained firmly rooted to the spot, and that’s not really enough.

It’s impossible not to think of a sequel, really, that does for Tomb Raider’s systems what this remaster does for its protagonist’s looks. A game that’s less of a rollercoaster, that works in meaningful rewards for exploration, that takes its name to heart and makes raiding tombs the focus of the game instead of a sideshow. A game, in other words, for those for whom the original is Tomb Raider’s real definitive edition.

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