Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition – Impressions 1

The game opens with a striking CG cutscene, introducing our heroine Lara, whose character design is striking from the first, slight in terms of build, beautiful, all the while radiating a strong sense of the resolute – or potential to develop the resolute.  The other characters introduced in these early stages are also quite diverse in terms of appearance and are made further unique by the excellent voice acting. We know next to nothing about these characters, and yet they still come across as somewhat endearing, earnest, and passionate. But beyond character modelling and animation, there are the environments – technically impressive. The water effects are beautiful, the draw distance long, while textures are of a high quality, and weather effects produce a strong air of the atmospheric. Graphically, then, it can be very arresting, despite its relative age. There is a strong sense of place here, and with this technical grace comes enjoyment in exploration. Even from these early stages, I was quite excited to see what other environments might be thrown at me, some technical marvel lying always just around the corner, conveying the magnanimity of this island. In the presence of violence and hostility – felt even in the weather, Lara is small, weak, and frail – until she is not.  

            The game serves as an origin story of sorts for Lara, showing her progression from hesitant pacifist through to empowered warrior. They really play up an initial intellectual aspect to her character; she is not violent, being instead a mere curious archaeologist, in search of an ancient Japanese queen and the mysteries which surround her. Her reluctance to violence makes Lara wonderfully relatable, and her acquisition to power is steady and gradual – it is believable. When Lara kills her first man, she is physically raddled. This humanizes her, and only caused me to like her further. She seems to have intricate relationships with some of her other crew members, particularly Roth – the ship’s captain – who serves as a father figure of sorts for Lara, whose own father is missing from the narrative (though his past is hinted at). They are very close, and he consistently motivates and encourages her; he might be seen as a major impetus for her growth. There is also the curious, friendly Asian camera-man, a cook, and even a rival archaeologist, who has fallen into greed and seems to have lost interest in his craft; money has displaced passion, it seems. He comes across as pompous, but I rather like him, though I am not sure why. Early on, Lara is separated from these people, and her primary objective is to reunite with them and promptly escape the island. Dispelling the mysteries and intrigue of that place serve as a secondary objective – Lara is an archaeologist, overall.

            While I haven’t progressed too far into the game’s narrative, I can at least comment more fully on its gameplay. There is overall a cinematic quality present, with fixed camera angles at certain moments, and impressively deft movement; in many instances, there is a great deal of tension; scripted sections abound, though I must voice a complaint about some of these sections; there is an overreliance on quick-time-events, many of which are failable. True, there is a generous checkpoint system, but failing one of these events really deflates the mood and destroys the tension. Either way, the animation for Lara is spectacular, as she leaps from ledge to ledge, clambers up small walls, or climbs larger structures by using cleverly placed footholds. Largely linear in terms of design, I think precisely it is that linearity which lends to the game its charm; everything seems lovingly crafted, this smaller scope tying in directly with the wonderful graphical fidelity. True, there are some diversions and side paths to explore, which offer the game’s much coveted salvage, usable to upgrade weapons; there is just enough exploration on offer to spice up and diversify the gameplay – those moments without enemies or any other threats are some of the game’s greatest strengths so far; when the platforming and puzzle-solving takes place, the game is at its best.

            Curiously, though, I found the combat on offer here to be quite satisfying. There is a rudimentary stealth system present, and enemies can be silently dispatched with relative ease; there is the expected takedown system present, and the silent bow is the first obtainable weapon. There is also a cover system, seeing Lara protected by waist-high objects. Compared to other games, this mechanic seems kind of clunky, but it does help in remaining undetected. Quickly a hand-gun is introduced, while just a while later a WWII era machine gun enters the fray. All of these weapons are upgradable, and the targeting system is excellent; it is rather straightforward to line up and land head-shots on distant enemies. A particularly enjoyable moment for me so far is related to one of these combat engagements; there were a pair of enemies at a fair distance away from me. They did not know I was there, leaving me a bit of freedom to strategize. I observed they were huddled around a lantern, which I deftly shot. This caused a fire, which in turn decimated the two foes. This may seem basic, but with the impressive animation quality – coupled with the enemies’ screams – it was a very satisfying moment.

            Also, there are some optional explorable tombs sparsely located around the landscape, usually somewhat hidden. The pair I have solved were similarly enjoyable. One saw the manipulation of the frame of an old airplane, lighting fires to alter weight and ultimately raising it in elevation to reach some distant area. It was fairly involved and elaborate, and yet it was very logical and in no ways frustrating. There is a sixth sense ability of sorts which highlights important things in the environment, and this does go a long way in destroying whatever frustration might exist, though it never becomes an over-powered ability. It can be used in navigation, too, placing temporarily a waypoint indicating where Lara should proceed next. It is not intrusive, and the levels are designed in such a way that becoming greatly lost is difficult. A fast travel system is also in place, though I don’t see myself using this very often, unless the map grows to become more sprawling than I anticipated. Again, though: the exploration is fantastic. There is an accessible map, which furthers the difficulty of running astray from the current objective. This map is filled in with icons once the mentioned, special tombs are completed. While I do enjoy shooting for achievements, I am in no ways a completionist. As such, I am determined to use the map as little as possible; if it was overused, the game would become like any other – a mere search for meaningless collectables and hidden objects. That is not what I want from this game; I want to explore, to find what I will organically. It’s all very exciting, and really helps to make the game unique.

            A few more thoughts. When not exploring, scavenging the area for salvage, or completing those optional tombs, there are the primary missions. So far, almost all of these have been spectacular. There is the intrigue present on the island, and no real main antagonist has been introduced as of yet. There is a Russian gang who show a great deal of hostility, though their role in things is never developed. Upon their introduction, Lara resorts to stealth to escape them. They have patrolling guards and bright searchlights, only increasing the tension of the mission. It is fantastic. Another encounter sees Lara climbing in elevation, using a climbing axe given her by her mentor Roth. The animation quality here is again superb and is quite rewarding. There are of course the expected combat encounters, but thus far they have not been overused, serving instead as a reprieve from the exploration sections. There is great diversity on offer here, making the game consistently fresh – after three or so hours in one session, I was never bored. Indeed, I was rather entranced, wishing only to keep playing. But it was late, and I was tired. I paused at a decent moment, with one exciting objective before me: I am intended to scale a large radio tower, to broadcast a distress signal. I am very excited to tackle this obstacle, I am very impressed with the game overall. It is all very polished and refined, and Lara is exceedingly likable as a protagonist. I wonder where she’ll be at journeys at end. 

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