The practice of releasing older titles on new hardware has been around for donkey’s years and for good reason. Publishers already have an accurate gauge of the game’s likely demand, building on top of an existing game takes minimal effort compared with making a whole new one, and even some of those who have played on one system have been reasonably happy to spend more money for a sexier go-around.
In the case of Tomb Raider, there are benefits for the consumer too: the lack of backwards compatibility between the current and past console generations would otherwise have them dragging the old hardware out from under the bed to enjoy the game again, and besides – the new-gen version looks great.
The biggest changes are with Lara herself. Her entire model has been rebuilt from scratch, and now contains a greater number of higher-resolution textures, including five times the texture density on her face. The hair effects debuted in the game’s PC version are here – optimised for new-gen consoles – and allow individual hairs to react to their immediate environment.
Lara’s skin looks more realistic than ever too thanks to sub-surface light scatter, and there is some very convincing dynamic modelling of mud, blood, and water – beads of the latter run down her arms, for example. Lara herself actually looks quite different: she’s paler, her face is thinner, and her hair isn't pristine like before.
As with the various fluids in the game, Lara’s gear has also been given its own physics, and this sees her bow jostle as she runs, arrows in her quiver shake, and her radio, pistol, and climbing axe swing as she moves. It’s all very impressive, although the spell is momentarily broken in some situations: the arrows are never in danger of falling out, the front of Lara’s hair always remains on her forehead even when she’s upside-down and her ponytail is dangling below her, and the axe clips through her body or the ground during some cutscenes. However, it would be churlish to complain too much about these things given how well it hangs together the vast majority of the time.
The environment is also richer. Backgrounds that were blurry and static on last-gen are now clearer and move, and the underbrush reacts to characters walking through it. All textures are sharper, and there are more destructible items too. Most noticeable are the more accurate reflections from metal objects like the rusting airplanes, the abundance of particles, and the much-improved light modelling and shadow casting – something particularly obvious when using a torch.
Despite all these upgrades, the PlayStation 4 doesn’t show any sign of stress. The game runs at 60 frames per second at a native 1080p, and framerate drops are very difficult to spot, even during busy combat scenes.
Indeed, calling this the Definitive Version seems fair – it’s the best Tomb Raider has looked, PC version included. The Definitive Edition even adds voice commands for the map and weapons, (typically useless) motion controls for the parts where Lara is sliding downhill, a digital artbook, “The Beginning” comic, and the game’s costume and map pack DLC. It uses the PlayStation 4 controller’s speaker for some audio too, but given that said audio also emanates from the telly, it's a somewhat redundant feature.
That all makes the Definitive Edition a complete no-brainer for those yet to play through Lara’s surprisingly nasty reboot. However, for others, it’s hard to justify the outlay.
The fact is, Tomb Raider on last-gen consoles was already a visually arresting title. Its problems were elsewhere, and thus have carried over to the new-gen. That makes the criticisms we had of the game’s last-gen versions equally relevant here.
The story is still generic in both content and delivery (the flashbacks in particular are pretty lazy), Lara’s sudden transformation from cornered kitty cat into rampaging lioness is still silly, and the puzzles and platforming err on the easy side. Enemies also leave perfect cover positions in favour of standing in the open far too often, the quick-time events are still annoying, and the shaky cam nausea some will experience is perhaps even slightly heightened thanks to the higher fidelity of the world.
However, its charms are all present and accounted for too, including its fantastic soundtrack, the satisfying upgrade and exploration mechanics, the well-implemented cover mechanics, and the sheer triple-A blockbuster spectacle of it all.
Even the multiplayer – which we were unable to cover last time – is surprisingly fun, with nicely distinct loadout options and a strong but not-too-lopsided progression system. Whether it manages to sustain a sizable community is another question, but it’s an enjoyable jaunt that’s only failure is that it simply doesn’t do anything new.
So despite some flaws, there’s absolutely no doubt Tomb Raider is a thrilling release that comes recommended to all. The Definitive Edition is harder to justify for those with the game on last-gen, and it’s a shame it’s not available simply as an upgrade, but like it says on the tin, it's the best version of a great game that bodes well for franchise’s future.