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Hands-On: Tomb Raider's Definitive Edition offers cosmetic improvements... and not much else

By Tamoor Hussain on Monday 6th Jan 2014 at 3:00 PM UTC

From a content perspective, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 version of Tomb Raider is identical to the original 2013 release. Although it won't contain any new single-player or multiplayer content; it will offer the side-tombs initially available to pre-orders and later sold on Xbox Live and PSN, as well as the handful of multiplayer maps made available after launch, on the disc.

But beyond that, you'll have to look really hard to find what justifies the upcoming re-release its "Definitive Edition" moniker. The changes are entirely cosmetic, and many are are so subtle that only the most discerning eyes will notice them without being prompted. Having been given the opportunity to play the new version ourselves, we think you'll probably need a side-by-side comparison to really appreciate the differences here.

The first thing we were shown is Lara's face, which we were told has been pulled apart and rebuilt. For the most part the fresher faced Lara looks the same as the one we spent hours watching slam into rocks, crash through roofs and careen off cliffs on last-gen consoles. But bring the camera in and you'll notice that she's a little more wide-eyed, has better textured skin and her cheeks look fuller. Yes, we're aware of how odd it is to notice that.

In cut-scenes Lara seems more expressive and lifelike, and this distinguishes her quite noticeably from her shipwrecked co-stars. Although every character, and likewise environment, is sharper thanks to being displayed in native 1080p resolution, they haven't been given the same full cosmetic surgery. In the early cinematics with Lara and Sam on the boat to Yamatai, the differences between how the two faces articulate were noticeable.

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Lara has also been given new physics-obedient hair thanks to the TressFX technology patched into the PC version last year. Instead of a few swinging sheets, her hair now has individually defined strands which react to movements and external stimuli more realistically. While running they will spread and sway back and forth, wrapping around her as she shifting directions. Similarly, her hair will be thrown about violently by sudden blasts of wind and crashing raindrops.

In the TressFX enabled PC version, and other console games boasting realistic hair movement it's common to see ponytails and pigtails going all Treehouse of Horror IX's Hell Toupee and lashing out as if they had a minds of their own. Fortunately, Lara's hair behaved itself during our play session.

According to Square Enix the Crystal Dynamics team has included from four to 15 times more particles in the environment to make effects such as mist, dust, and smoke more realistic. Small changes have been made to the environments to create more opportunities to show these off. Areas feature more flaming barrels as light sources, which means embers flickering around in the air, languid clouds of smoke and shadows moving in lockstep with the dancing flames.

Portable torches, roving spotlights and other natural light sources now silhouette individually raindrops which, considering how common torrential rainfall is on Yamatai, is a nice touch that's cool to look at.

"In cut-scenes Lara seems more expressive and lifelike, and this distinguishes her noticeably from her co-stars"

The additional power of the PS4 and Xbox One has also benefited the game's draw distance. Environmental objects such as trees and details in architecture are discernible much further than in the original release. Tomb Raider has some very impressive landscapes and environments, so we found ourselves taking brief breaks from clambering up walls and shimmying along cliffs to stare out into the jungle, or look down into an enemy encampment.

Those are the main visual upgrades, but there's also some incidental tweaks and touch-ups such as clearer linework on letters, notes, books and maps; water that ripples more convincingly as Lara wades through, she'll develop a thin film of glossy sweat on her skin when under stress, and there has been a general upgrades to sharpness of textures. But, as previously mentioned, these are all touches that are easy to miss.

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Tomb Raider for Xbox One and PS4 looks to be a more technically accomplished version of the original that brings it closer to the superior PC version. So in that respect, it might well be the 'definitive version' on consoles, but it won't offer those that already played it anything new. However, the game itself has already garnered much critical acclaim, so for those that didn't experience the original, this is the one to get if you have a new console.

With very little else available in January for new consoles another visit to Yamatai might just be the trick, provided you're willing to pay almost full-price for another ticket.