I have a confession to make: until Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition (ported/updated from 2013’s Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix for PS4, Xbox One, and PC), I had never finished a Tomb Raider game. The main reason for this is that I really REALLY dislike jumping puzzles. Not only was TR: DE fun to play, it’s also the first game on Xbox One that I’ve 100% completed. It’s that good. So what’s the story, and more to the point, what archaeology is there in the game?
The prequel casts eponymous Lara Croft as an advanced graduate student (or perhaps a postdoc) of archaeology who accompanies famed archaeologist Dr. James Whitman on a Pacific adventure as part of a filmed reality television series. They and the crew become shipwrecked on the mythical island of Yamatai off the Japanese coast, and gradually learn the island’s history, largely through carvings, journal entries, and artifacts.
The game’s narrative is simple: escape from Yamatai. Any archaeology is incidental, and the game rewards players who take extra time to explore the island and learn the back-story. Optional “tombs” dot each of the island’s regions, set-pieces for puzzle-solving and achievements. One can complete the game without exploring these optional spaces, but doing so cuts out a third of the fun. The focus of the game is survival, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for archaeology, but Croft is curious and frequently comments on her soundings as she moves from firefight to firefight.
Croft and Whitman are the only two archaeologists who comprise the crew of the ill-fated Endurance, which includes a mechanic, a documentarian filmmaker, a Royal Marine, a seacaptain, a fisherman, and an IT specialist. From the beginning, it’s clear that Croft has done her homework prior to searching for the lost kingdom of Yamatai once ruled by the Sun Queen Himiko. She is earnest, honest, and inquisitive. And like all archaeology grad students and postdocs, she’s a stone-cold killer and world-class athlete.
Compare the uber-archaeologist trope (smart, fit, ass-kicker) with that of archaeologist Dr. James Whitman, oily, weaselly, cowardly, who is on the verge of bankruptcy, which is why he agreed to lead the expedition into the Dragon’s Triangle and be filmed doing it. Here we have a “celebrity” archaeologist-turned-TV-presenter, denim-clad, bespectacled, utility-vest-wearing, man-purse-sporting with Richard Branson-esque locks, and (to me) more than a passing resemblance in the face with archaeologist Dr. James Wright, director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
Whitman’s emotional disposition and unprofessionalism ultimately leads to no good. He is also a perpetrator of Every Dig Sexism. The game sadly nails the gender and age dynamic, something still too common in archaeology, as Croft is at turns either dismissed or emotionally abused by the senior archaeologist.
Unlike the Wii version of Tomb Raider: Anniversary Edition (2007), there is a dearth of archaeological tools in TR: DE. To be fair, the latter is a different kind of game. Whitman isn’t seen using any hardware outside of a handgun, and the same could be said of Croft. She relies on her athleticism and wits to survive, and her powers of observation to locate and interpret the artifacts she finds. To be fair, the expedition’s goal was to locate and identify the kingdom of Yamatai, likely as a survey project that might lead to an actual excavation. Any surveying equipment on board the ship is left to the player’s imagination.
Croft does have a two-way radio, and even better for archaeology, a GPS unit. The player map details locations of “relics” (a generic term for an artifact of interest), and these (and other features) are plotted on a GPS grid. It is possible for both Croft and the player to record the location of finds, albeit without a z-axis.
There are two achievements (points scored for accomplishing things within a game) in TR: DE related to archaeology.
Players earn “Relic Hunter” by discovering 25% of the artifacts in the game. This achievement is upgraded to “Archaeologist” once 75% of artifacts are found. I do like the fact that players move from “nighthawk” status to something more professional. I’m confounded, though, by why there is no supreme achievement for finding 100% of the relics (although “No Stone Unturned” does award 50 points for finding all hidden things, relics or otherwise).
I began playing TR: DE with the assumption that I was going to do a fair bit of looting of cultural heritage, but it’s unclear if I did or not. To explain: most of the looting I did was of the corpses of enemy combatants for ammunition, of animals for “salvage” and experience points, and of salvage crates, which sometimes contained weapons parts. All “relics”, however, were cached in rusted boxes scattered throughout each region. The boxes containing artifacts all looked the same, and were placed on shelves, or in corners, or on ledges, divorced of any archaeological context. Players can note where the boxes were found, but the artifacts’ original contexts are all lost to time.
Opening a box reveals an artifact. Although each artifact does not become part of Croft’s inventory, it does disappear from the box, which remains open. I realize this is part of the game mechanic to help players recognize something of interest, and to remind them that they have already searched a particular location. It is unclear if Croft actually takes anything.
The same can be said of the large, Japanese boxes found at the successful completion of an optional “tomb”‘s puzzle. Croft opens the crate, reaches in, and pockets something, but players never see what the object is or where it goes. The reward is typically a skill point that can be spent on upgrading Croft’s abilities as opposed to an actual relic or money. After collecting the reward, the player is told that the “tomb” has been “raided” even though most of these spaces are not tombs, and no real harm has been done.
In TR: DE all artifacts are classed as “relics”. The use of the term “relic” is the primary definition, namely an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest. There are no sacred body parts to discover. Instead, players find and learn about ancient Japanese furniture, weapons, costumes/clothing, fans, statuary, crockery, and artifacts from both Japanese and American soldiers from World War II.
When discovered, players are treated to a brief explanation in Croft’s voice about the artifact found. Players can manipulate the relics and, on occasion, this manipulation leads to additional object biography. In one instance, a Noh mask actually has a price sticker on it, making it a modern reproduction.
All of the relics are photorealistic and reproduced 1:1 from real-life examples. I found the coins to be extraordinary facsimiles with true coloration, aging, and even variable thickness. The more I discovered, the more I learned, much in the same way as in games in the Assassin’s Creed series (I am thinking specifically at the depth of historical content and extras in Black Flag).
Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition significantly upgraded the graphics from the original Tomb Raider (2013), and the improvement is easy to spot between generations of the same console (i.e., PS3 to PS4 and Xbox 360 to Xbox One). When viewing the game-as-artifact, we look at the update as a change in the game’s history across various platforms, preserved in each title. This type of update or revisiting of a classic happens in film (see George Lucas’s efforts with the original Star Wars trilogy), and is beginning to happen with video games. In the case of Tomb Raider, the enhancements updated the photo-realism without sacrificing the story/gameplay, making an already classic title even better. With future updates pushed down as software upgrades from the cloud, I wonder how the developers/publishers will cache the old versions for posterity.
I did not find any graphical glitches (or “gamifacts”) to record, but was surprised on one occasion when accepting a challenge of lighting flames held by sculptures of the Buddha, that my console immediately shut off and fried my electrical outlet. I was not able to reproduce that, and wonder if this has happened to anyone else.
I found Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition to be an exceedingly fun and rewarding game to play even if archaeology was on the sidelines most of the time. The looting mechanic was better and “healthier” towards cultural heritage than other games I have played. I’d love to see Croft actually do some archaeology at some point, but understand that those activities need to serve the story and not get in the way of amusing gameplay. I think there can be some common ground there, and I am eagerly awaiting Rise of the Tomb Raider, which comes out next month.
Note: All screen-captures were taken by me on my Xbox One. Tomb Raider remains the intellectual property of its creators, and any image used here is done so as “fair use” with the intent to educate.
-Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming