Examining ancient relics is just one small aspect of an archeologist’s job. Sure, in-depth knowledge of deceased civilizations is important, but much less so than mastery of a deadly bow or a knack for a quick recovery after a bloody fight. Excitement defines the actions of an adventurous archeologist, no matter how reluctant you might be to bear arms, and you see this chaotic lifestyle through the eyes of perpetual survivor Lara Croft. Her life is one of bloodshed and misery, strength peppered with pain, and as she overcomes every crushing setback, she learns what kind of person she truly is. Such endeavors are so fantastical that her story of emotional growth is often overshadowed by the wildly unrealistic events, but the overwhelming beauty of the island is so gripping, and the exploration so expertly designed, that you become invested in Lara Croft’s incredible journey.
The Definitive Edition of Tomb Raider is a lot like Lara Croft’s excellent adventure from last year, only with enhanced visuals and extra features. Just about all of the downloadable content from the 2013 release is now located right on the disc. There are a host of new multiplayer maps to gun down your friends (or enemies) in, weapons pulled straight from Hitman: Absolution, and a handful of new characters to play as. Single player hasn’t been ignored, either. One new tomb lets you flex your puzzle-solving muscle, and a variety of outfits give you more stylistic flexibility. Have you ever wanted Lara to dress like a 1930s explorer? Now’s your chance! None of these additions are all that interesting, so if you’ve already played through Tomb Raider on an older console, there’s little incentive to jump in again. Unless, that is, you love voice communication. Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions support commands, so just saying “map” or “pistol” immediately does what you’d expect. It’s not the most novel functionality, but at least it works.
Lara Croft is a junior member of a small crew searching for the remains of a lost kingdom that mysteriously vanished. Her companions encompass typical archetypes that are at once recognizable and forgettable. There’s the scientifically minded man who wears glasses and shirts with geeky puns, the muscled fisherman who defies his impressive physique by repeatedly showing just how sensitive he is, and a stoic mercenary who’s also a long-term mentor to Lara. Their names don’t matter, because with such little development of their personalities, you quickly forget who they were as soon as they’re offscreen. This tired cast is thrust into a story filled with equally tired tropes, so you rarely care about the overarching events.
It’s unfortunate how poor so much of the exposition is, because Lara herself is well defined. She starts out as a strong-headed recent graduate determined to scout unexplored lands in search of this lost civilization, but quickly realizes the terrible predicament she’s in when things go awry. You understand her unwillingness to believe the terrible events that have transpired, and feel as squeamish as she does when she’s forced to kill an attacker. Killing eventually becomes commonplace for Lara, and though it’s hard to accept how quickly she adjusts to this bloody lifestyle, her anxious cries during battle and exhausted collapses afterward make you see the scared person hiding beneath the surface. And when she finally cracks halfway through the adventure, shifting from someone fighting to defend herself to a person clearly on the offensive, you understand that, too, because everyone has a breaking point.
Her shift from wide-eyed adventurer to full-fledged killer makes sense, and that’s precisely why it’s so uncomfortable. We’re forced to put ourselves in her shoes, question how we would respond to attacks on our lives, and wonder if we’d be able to fight when it would be so much easier to surrender. Smart pacing ensures that there is plenty of time to examine what transpired in that last deadly fight. With only a half dozen or so attackers, most battles are over before you get lulled into a rhythm that demands you turn off your moral leanings. So you scavenge for a while, explore the environments, and then face five minutes of chaos and screaming before you’re once again left by yourself. Such deliberate and rare steps into bloodshed make every fight so much more effective and emotionally taxing. As smartly as Tomb Raider handles its rare forays into combat, it does a poor job of showing death. Lara is tortured in such sensational ways that it’s downright gratuitous, as if the game is reveling in her torment.
The overwhelming beauty of the island is so gripping, and the exploration so expertly designed, that you become invested in Lara Croft’s incredible journey.
Lara has no fear of being dangerously close to flames in very cramped places.
Thankfully, you can avoid such glorification if you want. Just don’t die! Though that’s often easier said than done. The early moments of Tomb Raider, and many other sections sprinkled throughout the adventure, are composed of quick-time events in which one mistimed button press leads to an immediate end. Often, these brief sequences are a welcome change of pace. When you’re ambushed on a narrow bridge, or are running away from an avalanche, your heart races, and these sequences end quickly enough so that you don’t get weighed down by your lack of input. However, by cramming so many QTEs in the first 10 minutes, the game makes you wade through tedious encounters before everything opens up. It’s a shame that the early sections are so dry, because the rest of Lara’s trip is full of excitement, but it’s a small price to pay for the graphical brilliance these sections carry with them.
From the opening moments, Tomb Raider showcases its gorgeous visual design. Yes, the Definitive Edition sports better textures, lighting, and a variety of other technical effects than its PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 counterparts, but it’s the art style that makes you want to venture deeper into this haunted island. As Lara picks her way through a claustrophobic cave, or hunts deer in a forest bursting with life, you feel as if you’re a part of this world. Summit a mountain and then look toward the horizon; the delicate light streaming through the clouds creates a sense of romantic wonder that would please any couple on their honeymoon. This is a stunning game that shows how technical expertise can enhance artistic brilliance, and vice versa, as just about every element draws you ever more into Lara’s world. The odd hiccups, such as flames that defy reality, stand out amid the well-realized look that seeps into just about every other element.
And you have plenty of time to admire the view. Lara travels through many different sections of the expansive map, and almost every one is a small-scale open environment. Hidden goodies are sprinkled throughout; some add details to the backstory, and others let you examine ancient treasures. Though none of them have much of a tangible impact, the sheer joy of uncovering their hiding places is endlessly satisfying. Tools that you gain throughout the adventure open up more pieces of the environment, letting you pull down structures with a rope arrow, blast through doors with a shotgun, and overcome other roadblocks as well. This encourages you to revisit sections to ferret out every lost doodad, and I spent hours just trampling through the environment in search of condor nests and flags.
Come on, Lara, stop and smell the trees and worry about surviving later.
There are optional tombs to plunder as well. It’s strange that a game titled Tomb Raider places so little emphasis on, well, raiding, but the bite-size side quests certainly add a nice puzzle-solving element. Tombs hide elaborate mechanical structures that need to be appropriately manipulated in order to make your way through them. You may have to balance a platform with weighted barrels or use the power of wind just right, and there’s a thrilling rush when you figure out what needs to be done. Granted, many of these areas contain only one or two puzzles, so you may spend only five or so minutes in one before you find the treasure at the end. But even though they’re brief, they provide a nice detour that urges you to use your cunning along with your various abilities to discover every secret.
Such deliberate and rare steps into bloodshed make every fight so much more effective and emotionally taxing.
Eventually, you have to pull your attention from burial masks to the armed men attacking you. Lara has a vulnerability that leads to a quick end if you get hit more than a couple of times, so combat is built on smart movement and steely precision in the face of danger. By standing near chest-high barriers, Lara automatically crouches safely out of harm’s way, though don’t expect to stand your ground as your killers swarm toward you. With Molotov cocktails and well-positioned shots, attackers make you pay for standing still, so you must be as fast on your feet as you are with your trigger finger. Roll from one pillar to the next, or climb up to higher ground to relish a brief moment of respite. Enemies pursue you, leaving themselves exposed as they try to mimic your motions, and it’s satisfying to loose an arrow or pick them off with a pistol as they stumble clumsily behind you. There are some silly moments, such as when you merely wait for a dumb guy to stick his head out from cover, but combat is so fast and exciting that such missteps are easy to overlook.
Part of the reason the combat enthralls from beginning to end is how brief fights are. With only a few enemies present in most fights, you can eliminate threats within a few minutes, so you’re back exploring the impressive locales in no time. That makes you appreciate each encounter all the more, and there is enough variety so that every fight feels different. You may approach a camp in the dead of night and have the choice to pick enemies off stealthily or take your chances with a full-out rush, or, in another scenario, you’re hanging upside down in a snare while enemies rush toward you. Other times you’re rolling around in a room with destructible pillars, or plunging through a burning building, and every fight requires a slightly different approach. This variety helps keep the fights exciting. Plus, even though you have a standard assortment of guns, the bow proves to be both more satisfying to use and more challenging. Taking out someone with the bow with one perfectly logged headshot feels so empowering that I deliberately fought without guns so that every fight could be as exciting as possible.
A gun? How gouche.
Unfortunately, while the single-player exploits are both inventive and exciting, when you venture into multiplayer, things lose that glow. Everything here feels fine. Sticking an arrow right through someone’s head is just as satisfying here as it is against an AI opponent, and there are even traps to stop unsuspecting players in their tracks. But it’s all so expected. Whereas the solo quest veered from the norms in interesting ways, such as by offering fully explorable environments and putting such a small emphasis on combat, the multiplayer just recycles much of what has become the standard in competitive arenas. Sure, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with such uninspired battles, but it’s a shame there aren’t more interesting elements to wrestle away your attention from other games out there.
What’s most remarkable about Tomb Raider is how its many elements so perfectly complement each other, so that no matter which activity you’re currently engaged in, you’re fully invested. Even the straightforward platforming, in which Lara’s sticky hands ensure there’s little chance of failure, is thrilling thanks to brief quick-time events that keep your mind focused on even your smallest actions. There are two things that hit me when I first played Tomb Raider last year, and then resurfaced when I played through the Definitive Edition, that cement this as one of my recent favorites. Lara herself is so well crafted that I grew attached to her exploits and was sad to say goodbye when the credits rolled. And the exquisite visual design is so breathtaking that I continually found myself staring at the scenery instead of pushing onward. Tomb Raider is a great reinvention of this enduring franchise that made me eager to see where Lara goes in her future.