Game Reviews - Reviews

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition (Square Enix, PS4/Xbox One)


The history of the Tomb Raider franchise should serve as a cautionary tale to aspiring videogame developers. When Lara Croft first romped into the media, gamers went mad for her double pistols, Daisy Duke cut-offs and clipped English accent. She struck the right balance between vulnerability and sexuality, thereby causing critics to herald her as either, depending on your opinion, a benchmark for female empowerment or male voyeurism. While some saw her as an anatomically impossible ogle magnet, others were glad to have a female lead in a videogame at all. Yes, there are Samus and Alyx Vance but after that the list of independent female characters grows shorter than a T-Rex’s arms. One needs to only think of Nintendo’s infamous and short-lived slogan “Willst thou get the girl… or play like one?” used to advertise The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time to appreciate just how uneven a playing field the videogame world once was. Lara, in spite of the queasy sexualisation imposed upon her, held her own against Mario, Sonic and any other rudly-budly male archetype who picked up a submachine gun, and became an icon whose image is still immediately recognisable. Quite the feat, really. One wonders how many people could pick Jill Valentine, for example, out of a line-up.

However, although the original Tomb Raider sequels were, while essentially being expansion packs, were knockabout adventures full of lethal traps, dinosaurs and underground caverns, subsequent releases were increasingly shoddy affairs that took the character nowhere – and very slowly. The isometric puzzler The Guardian Of Light (Square Enix, Multiformat) aside, the series ran out of good ideas. The truly woeful movie adaptations did not help matters, and succeeded only in making the idea of a potholing aristocrat seem just a little silly. In time poor Lara, once associated with inspired level design and vast, explorable environments, was usurped by adventurers cut from similar cloth: Altair and Ezio in Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft, Multi), or Nathan Drake in Uncharted (Sony, PS3). All men, crucially.

Therefore, the announcement of a Tomb Raider reboot, in the hands of Crystal Dynamics who took over the Lara Croft brand from creators Core, was greeted with significant scepticism. How could, people cried, the arthritic franchise compete with a scene overcrowded with triple A releases, multiplayer modes, movie quality graphics et al. Expectations, however, were confounded when the game was released. It remains a masterpiece of imagination and execution, thanks largely to a neat central conceit: a young, wet behind the ears Lara and her friends are stranded on the island Yamatai, a godforsaken hellhole off the coast of Japan. Visually, it’s a cross between Skull Island from King Kong and whatever nefarious isle in which the wee boys in Lord Of The Flies go daft and end up killing each other. There are dense jungles, cragged cliffs and a brutal ocean filled with forgotten ships and bits of ships. There are underground caverns and, yes, tombs, plump for raiding and home to secrets which reveal more about Yamatai’s chequered history. How such an ugly location is rendered as such a thing of beauty is testament to the talents of the programmers.

And then there are the people: headcase cult members who took severe umbrage to Lara stepping on their turf. The threat of danger and death is always close by, and the fact that Lara starts off as a naïve, lost lamb makes her plight a perfectly balanced affair of survival horror. One wrong jump or dodge and you’re garrotted, impaled or disembowelled. There is a sadistic pleasure as the camera lingers just long enough to hear Lara’s death gurgles – and, yes, there is no doubt that the fact that you play as a girl makes the fatalities grislier.

As in many games of this type, Lara gains experience for every metachallenge she completes: collecting items, stealth kills, tombscompleted and so on. This unlocks a progression tree, turning Lara into a sleeker, meaner beast. There is a price for her advancement of learning. As in the recent Batman games (Warner Bros., Multi), she becomes visibly more grizzled and dirty as the adventure reaches its conclusion.

Tomb Raider has been finally released for the next generation consoles, and it’s no mere port – rather, it’s a complete graphic overhaul with improved frame-rate issues, bundled with all of the extra DLC. The game itself is still the excellent, thrilling and at times traumatising jaunt as it was before but it only looks more beautiful. Lighting and shadow effects are gorgeous and the sense of scale is totally immersive as the island itself never ceases to open up new, more treacherous areas. There is, naturally, the question whether or not those who conquered Yamatai first time around will want to fork out for a re-skinned version yet those who are new to the game will find much to enjoy here. Highly recommended. Ross Thompson