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This time last year, we were re-introduced to one of the most influential women in gaming. The 2013 rendition of Tomb Raider showed an all-new Lara Croft, who starts the game as a vulnerable young lady and emerges at the end as the experienced, clear-headed explorer we all know and love. Now, it's been relaunched as Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, for PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
A quick recap in case you missed it: Lara is obsessed with finding the lost kingdom of Yamatai, a mysterious island in the Dragon's Triangle, off the coast of Japan. Lara has formed theories about the kingdom, which was once ruled by the Sun Queen, Himiko. Her research has convinced the Nishimura family - possible descendents of the Yamatai people - to fund an expedition to discover the kingdom, and so a crew has set out on board the Endurance, bound for the Dragon's Triangle.
Somewhat predictably, as the Endurance enters the waters of the Dragon's Triangle, a violent storm springs up and smashes the ship, leaving survivors scattered along the coastline. Inevitably, Lara is separated from the group, captured by a strange man, and forced to make her escape.
...and that's where her adventure really begins, as the deserted island is quickly discovered to be anything but deserted. Lara faces off against wild animals, a strange cult, supernatural demons and her own clumsiness in her efforts to survive and escape the island she's been warned: No One Leaves.
A lot has been said about Lara's transition, and it really is significantly more character development than we've seen from the franchise to date. At the start of the game, Lara is clumsy, awkward, and even sits down several times for a bit of a self-pep talk. Her emotions shine through - a crucial early scene has her killing a deer, then kneeling before the carcass, mumbling her apologies and thanks.
Fast-forward a few hours and she's running around, all guns blazing, lofting grenades at snipers and mowing down bad guys. Tomb Raider has been accused of speeding through this evolution, of rushing the experience or featuring the deer scene only to score a few early points.
I disagree. Tomb Raider was, for me, an intense experience. Through the time I spent hunched over the controls, investigating every landmark I could find, scouring the maps for collectables and trinkets, I felt "my" Lara grow as a character. She - and I - set my jaw and leapt off high branches, limbing axe in hand and Lara's self-talk in my ears. "I can do this," she says - and she can.
But that's all the same as it was last year. Let's look at what's new here. Obviously, Lara has been on the receiving end of one heck of a digital makeover, and that includes her accessories. Lara's climbing axe, bow and other weaponry - even her signature relic necklace - now have their own physics and can swing freely as she moves. It's the sort of thing you don't even realise was "wrong" until you see how much more "right" it can be.
Her face model now has five times the density of last year's release, and her body has more polygons than ever before, giving her some more human-like dimensions. She doesn't look much like last year's Lara, but she does look more like Camilla Luddington, the UK actress who did the voice acting and motion capture for the role - so it makes sense!
Lara's skin now features sub-surface scattering - it's made up of two layers. Underneath, she's actually quite shiny - but on top, there's an additional surface that diffuses the reflected light. The end result? Even when she's coated in blood and dirt, Miss Croft still looks luminous.
Lara has always stepped awfully close to the uncanny valley, and this new Definitive Edition makeover has taken her even closer. The character is stunning, the art is top-notch, the animations are difficult to fault, but the combination somehow feels further from reality than if the studio had put less effort into the details.
Take Lara's hair, for instance. Our heroine can survive being dropped onto spikes, falling off of ledges, being savaged by wolves and - of course - being shot at by ruthless bad guys. And she does it all with perfect hair.
...this time around, her locks are even more luscious - while it was already present on PC, Crystal Dynamics has now added TressFX technology to the console versions too, which means each strand is individually animated. Most of the time, this leads to a gorgeous, flowing pony tail... but it's not perfect. When Lara is hanging upside down, suspended by her feet, the hair around her face stays in the same position it would when she was upright.
That one's maybe excusable, but it's a little more unnerving when you see that pony tail poking awkwardly through Lara's shoulder, thanks to some unfortunate clipping issues. These were present in the original game, but they seem even more jarring now that everything has been polished to such a high shine.
The overall environment has also been given a spruce up: Locations have been given more depth and detail. It isn't immediately obvious, but there is *more* to the world - additional skulls in a sacrificial space, more wall paintings, a more decorated shack in a shanty-town. The foliage is more detailed, and the world feels more *alive*.
There are at least 4 times as many more particle effects on screen at any given time - sometimes up to 15 times. These particles are dynamically lit, more objects cast shadows in the world, and textures are now in glorious 4k.
All of the cutscenes have been revamped with the new Lara Croft model, and while the other characters have not received the same makeovers, they are of better quality than they were last year.
If you already played last year's Tomb Raider, it's probably not worth picking this one up again unless you are a die-hard fan. It's a fantastic experience, and replaying it has been great fun, but it's exactly that - replaying something we finished 12 months ago.
...that said, if you somehow missed the Lara Croft bandwagon in 2013 - and you need more games to play on your shiny new PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is perfect.
I like video games and music and cups of tea and noodles and beagles and colour-cycling LEDs.
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