We Can Rebuild Her: The Definitive Edition of Tomb Raider

How do you define definitive?

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"It's not just the PC version ported. That wasn't enough. That was a starting point for us. That was us saying, yeah, [on PC] we did Tress FX and we did some up-rezzing of textures, but we didn't really add more than just making it run on PC. So that's the starting point. Let's blow the roof off. Let's take a full year, three dev teams, and do everything we can to really [make this] the final vision of what we want this version of Tomb Raider to be."

Executive producer Scot Amos was setting the stage for me, before offering me a glimpse of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 version of last year's excellent reboot. I still wasn't quite clear what was supposed to set the Definitive Edition apart from earlier versions aside from the expected graphical upgrade. As I listened to Amos expound the virtues of the Definitive Edition, though, it became clear that the things that set it apart from earlier versions are, indeed, mostly cosmetic. It's just that, in Amos' eyes, those graphical upgrades go far beyond what might be expected.

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As I watched an early sequence in Tomb Raider being played, Amos talked about how Lara herself is different in the Definitive Edition. "Not only did we up-rez all the textures, certainly make her smoother, but we rebuilt her head and face from scratch, as the next-gen version of Lara, and it quite literally is our starting point for her. So this was us saying what can we do? What new things can we do that we couldn't have done, for a next-gen-looking Lara, starting with the head, with the face, and on top of that, we had this cool Tress FX technology from the PC, and so we rewrote it and optimized it for next-gen consoles. So now you have beautiful, flowing hair, with the new head, with all the new textures, and it starts to look really good. We even added subsurface scattering so that when the light hits her skin, it goes beneath it and then dissipates so you get that soft glow in the skin, something else PC didn't get. So that's the kind of stuff that [we did], sort of looking at enhancing the entire experience. "

I got a chance to play a few scenes in the Definitive Edition, and I had a great time. But the things I love about Tomb Raider are the things I've always loved about Tomb Raider.

At this point, with talk of features like subsurface scattering, not something I would ever notice, I started to wonder if the upgrades made to Definitive Edition could be meaningful to someone like me, who has already played and enjoyed Tomb Raider, and might be looking for a compelling reason to come back to it. Unfortunately, while it was clear that a significant amount of work went into making the Definitive Edition a release that would take advantage of the graphical power of the new consoles, nothing that followed during the presentation got me excited about this release.

Amos talked, too, about how the island of Yamatai has been upgraded for the new version. All the foliage has been rebuilt, he explained, and now reacts realistically as you move through it. The gear Lara carries with her now has physics on it, the bow jostling on her shoulders as she runs, the climbing axe swinging to and fro on her belt. The particle and lighting systems have been redone, he said, and he showed me how individual drops of rain are dynamically lit by searchlights, flashlights, and other light sources.

Mud and blood now realistically splatter and cake on Lara's skin.
Mud and blood now realistically splatter and cake on Lara's skin.

Of course, all of these are lovely touches, and I came away with the sense that if you haven't yet played Tomb Raider, the Definitive Edition is probably going to be the version for you, not just because of its graphical upgrades, but because it includes all the single-player and multiplayer downloadable content released for earlier versions of the game, as well as the Dark Horse prequel comic, the Brady Games art book, and other extras.

I got a chance to play a few scenes in the Definitive Edition, and I had a great time. But the things I love about Tomb Raider are the things I've always loved about Tomb Raider. The satisfaction of landing a headshot with the bow from long range. The stomach-shaking kick of the shotgun as its forceful blast sends an enemy flying. The expertise with which the breathless action set pieces are choreographed. As significant as the visual upgrades may be, I'm skeptical that they would make my experience of Tomb Raider much richer. But I'm glad that those who haven't played the game yet may get to experience a better-looking version than I did originally. Don't forget to stop and appreciate the subsurface scattering.

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