With the Tomb Raider “Definitive” Edition being released, I figured this was an excellent time to catch up and give my thoughts on the Tomb Raider “Promoted As Totally Good At The Time But Now We’re Kind Of Shitting On It” Edition. Square Enix, if you ever end up going back and changing the name I expect a royalty check. It should be noted that I played Tomb Raider on PC, which most people seem to consider to be about equal with the Definitive Edition anyway, and I played after they released several graphics drivers that did wonders to un-break the game, so results may vary.
Tomb Raider is yet another late addition to my 2013 game catalog that is a full reboot of a classic game series (DmC Devil May Cry was the other). Much like DmC, I have never really played any of the other Tomb Raider games, so we’ll be looking at this with relatively fresh eyes. In terms of initial impression I like the new Lara Croft quite a bit and I appreciate that her appearance and attire has taken great leaps towards “functional and realistic” and away from “Super Sexy Short Shorts”. With that said, I think the celebration of her as less sexualized is a little overblown. Yes, she’s wearing more reasonable clothes and no story elements go out of their way to sexualize her, but her character model is still insanely, almost impossibly attractive. That’s fine, there are plenty of attractive, capable women out there, but let’s not pretend her attractive appearance is a total coincidence here, alright? It’s an odd double standard that isn’t exclusive to video games.
That point aside, Tomb Raider doesn’t make an attempt to sexualize Lara at all. If anything, they almost went too far in the other direction. During one early demo of the game the developers showed a scene with Lara and a captor that bordered on getting a little rapey. They ended up dialing that scene down quite a bit by release, which I actually think is a shame. The double standard is a little frustrating and puzzling. I would celebrate a game that addresses the potential for sexual abuse in a thoughtful way. Instead, they replaced that scene with a sequence where, if you fail, Lara just gets straight up choked to death, which for some reason is better?
Let’s not dwell on that topic though, because there could literally be conferences held on that single issue in this game and games in general. the point is, the new Lara looks a bit more realistic, dresses and acts much more realistically, and it’s all pulled off in a game that looks absolutely amazing. I haven’t seen any screenshots of the Definitive Edition, but if it looks anything like it did on my PC, new console owners upgrading from 360/PS3 will be very pleased with how this game looks.
If you’re like me, when you play a PC game the first thing you do is go to the graphics settings and start screwing around with them. Well people like me are in for a nice surprise with one option being labelled as “Hair Quality”. AMD has implemented a new hair tech called TressFX that basically gives each strand of Lara’s hair it’s own attention in the rendering and physics process. This taxes most graphics cards HEAVILY. It’s a noble first effort, and when it works it looks incredible, but we’re not there yet. Sometimes the hair just flips out as if propelled by some unknown gale force breeze. The non-TressFX hair looks better much of the time, but I’m really interested to see this tech implemented in future games.
Alright, on to the gameplay. This game is super duper incredibly Uncharted-esque. I will note that I’m not suggesting Tomb Raider copied Uncharted. If anything Uncharted took cues from the original Tomb Raider games and everything that followed is just further evolution of the same style. For the uninitiated, that means there are traversal elements, but they are relatively linear compared to something much more open like Assassin’s Creed. There is also a bit of melee combat and quite a bit of armed combat. In both games, I felt like the open combat mechanics are a little weak and I wish there was a bit more emphasis on stealth or traversal. I just don’t think the role of uber killing machine suits Drake or Croft particularly well. They should be avoiding and subverting combat whenever possible, not gladly taking on swaths of trained combatants.
There are other gameplay elements that seemed like a good idea, but needed more commitment. In the beginning Lara is stranded and the game is really about a struggle for survival. Shelter, heat, and food are your top priority, and the game tutorializes you through setting up a fire and hunting wild game. It gives you the impression these things will be important gameplay elements, but they aren’t, AT ALL. I killed the deer the game asked me to at the beginning and then I didn’t kill a single other animal that wasn’t actively trying to rip my throat out. You just don’t need to. Lara never gets hungry, or cold.
The Lara you play as in this iteration differs from the classic Lara because she’s not a willing participant in her adventure. Her ship is wrecked and she finds herself immediately in way over her head. It offers a bit more realism and sympathy for the character when you know she didn’t choose to be a part of this. In retrospect, Nathan Drake chooses to go on these trips that result in him killing hundreds of people. He seems to enjoy it, which is really messed up if you think about it. Lara is far from having a good time, as made clear by the nice little touch of dialog “I hate tombs!” that she proclaims at one point. I don’t blame her either. She takes an absolute BEATING along the way.
The first thing that happens to Lara is she is hung upside down for probably at least a day. When she regains consciousness she shakes herself loose only to fall about 15 feet and impale herself through the side with a stake about the width of a broomstick. From that point forward she gets battered and bruised constantly in her attempt to break the record for number of times surviving a 3-story fall. Her perseverance is incredible and really makes you root for her, but jeez. At some point you want to stop playing just so she doesn’t need to suffer anymore.
Things get really dark too. Lara finds herself in some situations so grim and morbid that even her PTSD is going to have it’s own major case of PTSD. Nobody would ever be able to come back from the things she has seen and done. I love that though. It is clear by the end of the game she is a changed and hardened person, which is much more realistic than the nonchalance expressed by most game protagonists in the same situations.
Tomb Raider is a game that, in the state it’s currently in, was just the right length. It’s the kind of game that I would have enjoyed playing for hours and hours, and probably doing multiple playthroughs, if they had fleshed out the hunting and crafting elements in a meaningful way. As it stands though, the game is short enough to be entertaining and fun from start to finish and long enough to feel like a full experience. It really is an experience too. I feel like Lara and I have been through war together, and I would happily play a sequel, especially if some significant gameplay leaps are made.