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July 14, 2014

Xbox One Review – Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition (2014)

by Master Pillow

No, you are not experiencing déjà vu as some regular readers might have noticed that I have already posted my review of the Playstation 4 version of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.  “For the first time in forever,” I have actually purchased and played to completion the exact same game on competing platforms thus, this is my review for the Xbox One’s version of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.  Therefore, portions of this article are lifted directly from my Playstation 4 review.

Just a quick note here: Whenever I read reviews on other websites or blogs which combine their thoughts on a game that has been released on numerous platforms I always wonder if the reviewer has actually played every version that they comment on.  I realize that many of the more famous sites are on deadlines and have to essentially play and review these titles oftentimes long before the game is released but I still remain rather dubious as to whether or not the same reviewer managed to experience the title from start to finish on every platform that they mention.

It’s just a thought but perhaps they need to place a disclaimer somewhere in their reviews detailing if they managed to do so or if they are merely aggregating views and opinions from other writers on the team that have played other versions of the game.  As a final aside please note that all the screenshots in this review are taken from my PS4 playthrough. Regardless, let’s move on to the Xbox One review of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.

Last Winter saw the release of both next generation consoles namely, the Xbox One and Playstation 4.  Gamers worldwide can now argue as to which one is “better” but one thing is for certain and that is that both systems have now entered a relatively “dead” time in the release schedule where new game releases slow to an agonizing trickle.  While many are still working their way through the launch titles others are aching for more games in which to feed their new consoles.  Enter Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition which takes the 2013 reboot release and adds a shiny new coat of graphical sheen to entice software-starving next-gen owners to essentially double-dip.  Is this new version truly “definitive” or does it merely amount to a cheap cash grab?

The 2013 Tomb Raider game marked a massive change in direction for the iconic franchise as developer Crystal Dynamics decided to essentially reboot the series both narratively as well as a near total gameplay revamp.  The resulting game still remains true to the look and feel of the originals but the move to a more Nathan Drake-inspired style of control gave it a huge boost of fresh air.  Many have already pointed out that Nathan Drake and his Uncharted series obviously took inspiration from both Indiana Jones and Lara Croft and now it is Tomb Raider that has decided to ape many of the same features that turned Uncharted into a huge success for developer Naughty Dog.

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition takes a narrative leap back in time to a young Lara Croft long before she became the accomplished world traveler that gamers have come to know.  This Lara Croft is fresh out of University and is just starting out on her journey still having hints of her youthful innocence and verve.  Joining a motley crew of characters that includes a vainglorious senior archeologist as well as Lara’s perky Japanese best friend the group ventures out on a quest to find the long fabled land of Yamatai.  Not long after, the ship they are on is beset by a nasty raging storm that rends the vessel in two and strands the survivors on a mysterious island replete with seemingly homicidal inhabitants.

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Since this is essentially an origin tale, gamers can expect to see Lara endure many hardships that she must overcome and that is exactly what occurs.  As she clears each hurdle the story attempts to show how it slowly affects her personality and there are plenty of moments which directly relate to the more mature Lara seen in previous titles.  As such, the narrative works well enough when it concentrates on building her character but it does also tend to fumble in certain areas, especially when it comes to linking the gameplay to the plot.

In short, the gameplay is very visceral and action-oriented and it never once shies away from the downright gruesome aspects of violence.  Expect to see copious amounts of blood and torn flesh splattered across the screen as various enemies are dispatched in brutal fashion by our heroine.  Lara herself is in no way exempt from receiving copious amounts of physical abuse either as she’s regularly beaten, bruised, shot at and out-right impaled throughout the entire narrative.  In fact, Lara’s rough treatment is so exaggerated that it verges on outright farce as one can’t even begin to count the number of times that she falls from such a height that one fully expects her to turn into a bloody managed paste of broken bones.

In other words, the game has a highly tenuous link between the narrative and the actual gameplay as it just isn’t convincing in the least to see Lara voice extreme stress and emotion after she has just experienced killing first her human being, yet this is suddenly juxtaposed with the fact that the player has just mowed down hundreds of henchmen in callous fashion.  It is as if the game’s scriptwriter and development team were not working hand-in-hand by ironing out these issues and the end result is a totally jarring experience that oftentimes comes close to torpedoing whatever emotional investment a player has with both her character and the game at hand.

Ignoring the awkward narrative disconnect, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is simply a highly enjoyable blast to play as developer Crystal Dynamics has done a bang-up job in pulling the franchise into modern times.  Sure, it does pull inspiration from Uncharted and other recent third-person action adventure titles but the sheer polish and sheen from both the graphics and game mechanics really shows the amount of hard work and sweat that Crystal Dynamics has placed in the title.

Those who remember the original Tomb Raider will inevitably lament at how robotically mechanical she once moved with herky-jerky animation and a completely stiff cadence.  Well, banish those thoughts entirely as this new Lara is simply a joy to watch with pin-point precise controls and an overall fluid animation that gives her life in even the littlest gestures.  This keen attention to detail permeates the entire game and the environmental detail is staggeringly beautiful to behold.  Make no mistake, nearly all this was present in the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 versions but the somewhat jerky framerate and lower resolution certainly did not allow the graphics to shine as brightly.

There are no such limitations here on the Xbox One and though the environments and level designs are the same, the developers have added a ton of next-gen visual effects that really make them come to life including the much publicized TRESS FX tech that essentially makes her hair flow realistically in multiple strands depending on player or wind movement.  Admittedly, TRESS FX also tends to occasionally mess up but when working, the effect makes a big difference considering the way in which hair previously moved in giant clumps as if everyone were wearing a solid Lego Minifigure hairpiece.

The game features a ton of additional particle effects that manifest themselves with the copious amounts of rain, fog and plain dust that floats realistically in many locations.  These effects really come to the fore in levels that feature strong winds which whip particles around like a tornado and the sight of watching Lara’s hair get blasted by gusts and blowing dust will make any gamer immediately reach for the screenshot button to capture the moment.  Obviously, this feature is currently not available for the Xbox One but those enterprising PC owners who have a decent capture card can certainly hook it up to take screenshots of their Xbox One games.  Note to Microsoft: Hurry up and add this feature pronto!

The bump in resolution accentuates the superior texture work but there is one technical area that the Xbox One has serious issues when compared to its Playstation 4 cousin.  It cannot be stated how important it is to the overall experience to have a fluid framerate and the buttery-smooth performance on the PS4 is seriously eye-popping.  The Playstation 4’s version of the game does not have a locked framerate which means that it does occasionally dip and, when it does, it is highly noticeable.  Still, the game only really enters rough FPS waters in areas that have far draw distances or a ton of geometry in it such as a later mini-hub beach location.

In contrast, the Xbox One version has an unlocked framerate that hovers in the low to mid 30 FPS with occasional dips below that when things get hectic.  Although it is a highly unlikely scenario, if someone is running the Xbox One and Playstation 4 versions side-by-side the difference in framerate is seriously unavoidable as anyone will be able to discern that the PS4 is much more fluid than Microsoft’s console.  However, only video game reviewers will probably be in such a situation and the bigger question therefore becomes if the Xbox One version is still playable and the answer is a resounding, “yes.”

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I’m no graphics or hardware expert so for those looking for a more in-depth analysis on the visual differences between the PS4 and Xbox One may I kindly suggest you check out Digital Foundry’s article instead.  Regardless, if all you have is an Xbox One then you are still going to experience a wonderful game albeit with a much lower framerate than gamers who have the PS4 version.  It has to be said that those who played the Xbox 360 version will probably notice that the Xbox One has a higher framerate than that as the 360 incarnation was prone to dropping to the low 20s making it an oftentimes choppy experience.  Yes, I did play the 360 version as well making this three full times I have completed the campaign.

Playing the Xbox One version the only real anecdotal discovery I found was that Lara seems to quickly lose her dirt and grime far more frequently than in the PS4 version.  Maybe I am imagining things this time around but it seemed to me that her character model did not remain as banged up as the one on the PS4 but perhaps it also had to do with the differences between consoles as the game initially asks gamers to set the brightness and contrast settings when the game boots the first time.  For this play through I set the brightness higher than on my PS4 campaign so there is a chance that it made me notice Lara’s lack of “damage” even though there was no real difference between consoles.

Nevertheless, any discussion about the graphical additions to Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition cannot ignore one important issue and that is that developer Crystal Dynamics have decided to almost totally redesign Lara’s face for this release.  This decision has not gone unnoticed and has engendered heated debate from all gamers, some deciding that Lara’s new look is the bee’s knees while others proclaim it to be some sort of horrendous sell-out that panders to the stereotypical male gamer’s views on women.  Regardless, of what side you take there is no doubting that Lara looks markedly different in the Definitive Edition over the original 2013 game.

For the most part, ignoring her now more prominent makeup, her new face does contain a noticeable bump in detail as does her overall skin.  This becomes all the more apparent the more Lara gets banged up as bruises, cuts and dried blood begin to appear all over her body.  It really does make her appear grittier but it also makes one worry about how much plastic surgery she is probably going to need once she finally gets out of this nasty predicament.  One final note about her new face is that it really does have a few awkward angles, a fact that is all the more apparent if a player is prone to taking a ton of screenshots.  It’s hard to describe but from certain viewpoints her face comes across as altogether unnaturally angular making it looks like a bad Photoshop project.

Lara is a nimble lass and, as such, a huge portion of the game is spent platforming, controlling her as she leaps, jumps, shimmies, hooks and slides around each environment in order to access new areas.  This is nothing new for the franchise and Crystal Dynamics have mastered this aspect of the game flawlessly as Lara never feels floaty and actually has weight as if she is being subjected to the actual laws of physics.  Nevertheless, the game isn’t much of a challenge in this regard, especially for fans of the genre as each area features layouts that are more or less recognizable.  The game easily telegraphs where to jump and what to grab and it will make a few players yearn for the old days where the correct path was usually found through trial and error.

Although some of the levels are exceptionally large it is rather tough to get lost and the single-player campaign is actually incredibly linear.  There are a few exceptions such as some later levels where Lara has to fight off waves of bad guys, yet is given the ability to run around a large multi-leveled environment but by and large there’s only one set path and strategy to take.  Each area is filled with hidden objects, items and objectives but for the most part they all don’t affect gameplay and are only there to gain Lara some experience points.

Even though levels have only one real path it doesn’t mean that there aren’t any secret areas but in an oddball turn of events, the actual tomb raiding aspect of the game feels undercooked.  There is one wicked line of dialogue muttered by Lara where she proclaims that she hates scouring tombs for treasure but she does so any ways.  All the included tombs are hidden around the island but unlike earlier game installments, the ones here are incredibly small and totally self-contained by comparison.  Although clearing them adds precious skill and experience points the lack of any discernible challenge is sorely felt.  For a series that is actually named, “Tomb Raider,” this is a serious issue and one hopes that Crystal Dynamics creates some truly grand areas for Lara to explore in the inevitable sequel.

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition isn’t just about running and jumping as a huge element to the gameplay revolves around melee or firearm combat.  With Lara’s fluid animation this area of the game feels incredibly well presented as players slowly find and then upgrade her various weaponry, each of which is best suited for certain situations.  None of these weapons are in any way outlandish thus, we’ve got action gaming mainstays such as the bow and arrow, the shotgun, the assault rifle, the hand pistol and a melee mountain axe that also allows her to climb craggy cliff sides with ease.  Some of these weapons have secondary modes such as the assault rifle that can eventually be upgraded to launch grenades.

Regular gamers will probably not gain enough experience to max all of Lara’s skills or upgrade her weaponry but it clearly is not needed as the game can easily be completed with only average experience gain.  By collecting hidden items and completing objectives these weapons can be upgraded in various ways such as boosting damage or expanding the size of the clip.  As an added plus, Crystal Dynamics have programmed these weapons onto Lara’s character model meaning players can see each one on her body and they also sway depending on her movement.

On higher difficulty levels the combat is noticeable tougher, not because of the AI but rather the simple fact that Lara just can’t absorb as many hits before keeling over for good.  Still, the combat is fun especially when Lara has to fight multiple opponents at the same time as players need to make good use of the environment as having her out in the open will quickly result in her demise.

Like most modern releases, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition does have an included multiplayer mode but this is one of those instances where it quickly becomes apparent that this feels completely superfluous.  It is not as if the multiplayer is broken or unplayable but it really seems as if Crystal Dynamics threw it in there at the last moment merely to tick a checkbox on the back of the packaging.  It’s clear that the developers poured the bulk of the efforts into the game’s single-player campaign and that they hoped that players would be satisfied enough with it to undertake multiple replays.

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is clearly a graphical step up over its original 2013 release especially when matched against the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 incarnations.  However, is the graphical increase alone enough to justify its purchase?  The easy answer depends on each player.  Those who have never played the original will find an excellent third-person action adventure game that will last upwards of 10 hours depending on skill.  The fact that it all looks great and sufficiently next-gen is simply icing on the cake.

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However, those who already finished the game on their Xbox 360s, Playstation 3s or own an amazing PC that could crank out the graphics on ultra-settings will certainly have to think twice as there’s nothing new in this release except the visual polish.  All the puzzles and level designs are exactly the same and though the visuals are markedly better the lack of new content severely hampers the decision to essentially double-dip once again.  The Playstation 4 does achieve an amazing 50+ frames/second that really does make the game feel smooth and accessible but the Xbox One has to get by on a much more modest 30 FPS.  That’s still more than the Xbox 360 or PS3 versions but those who have an ultra-rigged PC are going to get much better FPS than the Xbox One version.

Therefore, gamers who have already finished the 2013 game will have to think long and hard if the added graphical effects and Lara’s new face are enough to double-dip.  I suspect that many might just wait for the first sale or price drop to pick this up.

Since this is the Xbox One the game does ship with some Kinect support with the ability to give voice commands to change weapons.  Although any additions are always welcomed they nonetheless don’t add any real worth to the experience as pressing the D-pad to change weapons is oftentimes preferable to voicing a command especially in the heat of combat.

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is an excellent title for Microsoft’s Xbox One platform and it serves its purpose by providing a good experience for early console adopters.  Many gamers may complain that they don’t want both the Xbox One and PS4 to get too many PC ports essentially turning the consoles into a kind of dump but that’s not exactly a bad idea at the moment considering the relatively barren software library.  As long as developers decide to optimize their games and at least provide a modicum of improvements than the decision to port to next-gen consoles can help alleviate the gaming drought.  Nevertheless, each gamer is going to have to decide for themselves if these improvements are worth their hard-earned dollars.

If you are one of those lucky gamers who managed to get both a PS4 and Xbox One console the question as to which version to purchase is incredibly clear as the PS4 has a huge framerate advantage that simply makes the game more visually enjoyable.  Those who suffer from motion sickness or can’t stand lower framerates will find the PS4 version to be the superior of the two.

While we are in the early days of the next console “war” it is disheartening to see many Xbox One games suffer in comparison to their PS4 counterparts.  No doubt Microsoft will release additional tools for developers to squeeze more power out of the Xbox One but it also is worrisome that these differences are so far not merely minor niggles.  That said the Xbox One version of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition gets the same rating as the PS4 as the game itself is simply stellar with a heightened atmosphere of fun that it so often lacking in modern titles but those who have both systems have no reason to buy it for Microsoft’s new console unless they want to boost their total achievement score.

***1/2 out of ****

Developer: Crystal Dynamics

Publisher: Square Enix

Release US: 01/28/2014

Release EU: 01/31/2014

Release JP: 02/22/2014

© 2014 The Galactic Pillow

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