Despite what Square Enix told their shareholders last year, Crystal Dynamics’s Tomb Raider reboot was far from a failure. It’s a frustratingly unfocused experience built on a skeleton of promising but unripened ideas. And yet, it all still came together into something immensely thrilling—a solid foundation to build continuing adventures for Lady Croft and her dual-wielding ways.
Anyone expecting Crystal Dynamics to put the power of the PlayStation 4 into giving those unfocused ideas more room to grow will very much be left hanging by the Definitive Edition. The same title that was released last March has been left untouched, with the exception of all the DLC being included, and a few snazzy but functionally useless additions, mostly taking advantage of the Dualshock 4’s bag of tricks. You can now use the touchpad for navigation, sound effects come out of the controller’s speaker, and voice commands have been added, because screaming “gun” at the top of your lungs in a place with thin walls could never be misconstrued by anyone, ever. The gimmicks do nothing to hurt or help old hands at this, but for anyone who wasn’t enamored of the adventure the first time, there isn’t nearly enough in the Definitive Edition to bring them back to the table. That is, unless being able to play what’s possibly the most gorgeous game released on a console to date counts as enough.
Without a doubt, Crystal Dynamics’s introduction to the next gen turned what was already a natural beauty into a complete stunner. On PS4, the game runs a consistent 60 fps, at 1080p; there’s fine detail in every square inch the likes of which we’ve never seen on a console. Yamatai’s insane weather shifts affect every object on screen, from frost on metal, to leaves blowing off trees, to debris floating on harsh wind. Lara herself has been redone from the feet up, and she’s standing on the precipice of uncanny valley. Funny enough, so much of Square Enix’s crowing up to the release has been about the new hair physics, and it’s the one iffy element of Lara’s redesign holding her back from entering the valley entirely. Everything else, however, is a dictionary-definition spectacle.
Even ignoring its gussied-up next-gen clothes, though, Tomb Raider’s strengths outshine its weaknesses as an experience, though its flaws outside of the visual realm remain impossible to ignore. This was Crystal Dynamics stubbornly trying to get their running-jumping-climbing rocks groove back from Uncharted, and almost succeeding, though they don’t quite realize how much of that game rides on having Nathan Drake as a protagonist more than copy-pasting much of its physics. Lara herself is interesting for the first time in her long, disappointing career, but the game wants us to buy her as a damsel in constant distress, as Indiana Jones in a tank top, and as a bloodthirsty hunter on a kill-crazy rampage, seemingly unaware how schizophrenic it makes her character seem, and it bleeds into the gameplay.
The game’s best action set piece—the botched fire ritual turning into a massive Gone with the Wind inferno, dovetailing into Lara taunting her enemies with a grenade launcher—surpasses the Uncharted series’s best sequence, the collapsing hotel in Nepal, by a country mile. Meanwhile, Uncharted’s best reasons to have an action set piece—Nathan failing, and exhaustedly apologizing to Elena, or Tenzin’s village being raided—have no counterpart in Tomb Raider greater than a kidnapping, a general sense that everyone on Yamatai has seen Apocalypse Now one too many times, and the Sun Queen auditioning for the Ark of the Covenant role in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Tomb Raider still very much has its thrills and charms, and just from a visceral standpoint, the game’s got a mean streak that a lot of other titles could learn from, but the feeling of the game trying to be everything to all gamers prevent it from reaching true glory—and again, the Definitive Edition does nothing to set that right. What we’re left with is a very good game that stops aggravatingly short of being a great one. Despite what the game says, it’s not enough to have Lara Croft survive. She needs to flourish.