Game of the Year awards are a tricky thing because they happen at the end of the year (please, hold the applause). So when Tomb Raider releases in February, you have to remember it all the way through the next 11 months – past The Last Of Us, past Grand Theft Auto V, past two entire console launches. Now, I don’t think Lara Croft’s return is quite worthy of the ultimate prize but playing through it again in this upscaled ‘Definitive Edition ‘, I realised that it had been sadly overlooked.
This PS4 and One version of last year’s reboot is largely unchanged from a story and mechanical point of view. It’s a third-person shooter in which gaming’s leading lady, redesigned for a new audience, is shipwrecked while on an archaeological expedition to find the ancient island of Yamatai. It’s a brutal and often overwhelming reimagining that takes inspiration from the very best of this generation’s AAA titles.
So let’s start with the new. Developer Crystal Dyanmics has given this version a coat of next-gen paint with higher-resolution textures, a new character model for Lara and a host of other features like voice-operation through Kinect and the PlayStation camera. In terms of visuals, Tomb Raider looked astounding on PS3 and 360 and it remains so in the early days of this generation. It’s clearly a last-generation game – some parts of Lara’s character model clip together (she’ll literally take an arrow to the knee when crouching) but the staggeringly detailed environments still take your breath away. Still, let’s hope that the team can go far, far beyond what’s been done here with the inevitable sequel.
The pacing and action hasn’t lost its luster
Outside of the presentation, Tomb Raider offers the same campaign albeit with the past DLC thrown in for extra measure. Thankfully the game still holds up 11 months on.
Tomb Raider is something of a triumph of ambition and design. It strives to fit the same explosive setpiece moments that the Uncharted series popularised into an adventure that defies the not-so-popular linear path that the genre favours. For the most part, it pulls off this plan seamlessly.
So, yes, there’s a string of dramatic and thrilling shootouts in place. Crystal Dynamics has clearly tried to be inventive with its settings, pitting Lara against enemies in burning buildings, towering waterfalls and ancient ruins. The gunplay here is a fierce beast – strong blows will knock Lara back and the rattling of gunfire and action makes for an audio assault rivalled only by Battlefield. The explosive setpiece moments are tightly sequenced to make you grip your controller and hold your breath. It’s undeniably a master of theatre, no matter how much business that has in video games. No compromises have been made when it comes to violence, especially on Lara’s end. Before the game is through she’ll have made more than her fair share of scars.
Visually, Tomb Raider is a knockout
Truthfully, this starts to grate after a while. While Tomb Raider is never so repulsive in any given moment that you’ll stop playing, the constant punishment that this new Lara endures wears out its welcome sometime around the middle of the campaign. It’s like watching Dead Space’s vicious death sequences without actually doing anything wrong. The line between edgy and downright unpleasant starts to blur. It’s rare – and appreciated – to see a game so unflinching in telling its story, but the dead horse is beaten, impaled, splattered and gouged before too long.
Sadly, that story doesn’t amount to much outside of its visceral nature. A large supporting cast is shipwrecked along with our heroine but they don’t amount to much. Lara grows from mortified survivor to mass murderer a little too quickly and the threat of an ancient cult loses its steam towards the end. You can tell that the developers thought they were on to something with the varied cast but, as with so many other blockbusters, narrative plays second fiddle to action.
The real star of the show here is exploration. You can tell there’s been a conscious creative effort to identify what’s wrong with modern action games and put it right. So while you can indeed run in a straight line all the way up to the finish, you’ll find much more reward in taking your time to discover all the sights and collectibles Tomb Raider has to offer. And believe me, there are a lot of collectibles.
Watching Lara take a beating starts to get a bit too uncomfortable
There are a number of areas that take on a sort of hub world. Each will have their own secondary objectives to find items and hunt animals etc. Take the time to scurry around the environment and you’ll be rewarded with parts to upgrade weapons and experience to improve skills. Sticking to its namesake, there are a host of original puzzles in the form of Optional Tombs. Tomb Raider is at its most inventive in these parts, with challenging brain-ticklers that will push platforming as well as thinking. It’s just a shame they had to be called ‘Optional Tombs’. Try and shove the extra content in our faces a little more, please.
Tomb Raider feels like a game that’s been pulled apart, had each of its sections finely-tuned and then carefully fitted back together. The visuals and art direction are simply stunning, the action is as refined as the genre’s best and the exploration provides much-needed depth. It’s a game that strives to go the extra mile when stacked up against its contemporaries. Sometimes it falls flat, sometimes it stumbles, but mostly it triumphs. The series hasn’t been this good since… uh, well the series hasn’t been this good. Let’s hope we see a lot more of Lara this generation.
That said, at full price the additions here might not be enough for double-dippers. The higher resolution textures are certainly noticeable and the extra DLC is nice, but if you’ve seen this adventure before then we recommend waiting until the price goes down a little.