Lara Croft has been an undeniable icon in the video game world since her original debut seventeen years ago, and her evolution – while consistent – has been nothing shy of rocky. In the beginning, we were introduced to this hardened, ruthless grave robber without much of a back-story as she raids tombs for artefacts and kills anyone and anything that stands between her and her desire. Along came Legend, where we were introduced to a different side of Lara – family oriented, compassionate and sometimes emotional – that did not do justice to her original personality. Now, as Crystal Dynamics takes steps to reboot the franchise, we are introduced to what could arguably be Lara’s best form: vulnerable.
Tomb Raider explores the gritty and visceral origin story of a young Lara on her first expedition, shipwrecked and stranded on an island filled with beautiful environments, an interesting history and of course, a malevolent entity. Lara is pushed to her limits and beyond and she has to be willing to do what it takes to survive and save her friends. Within, we experience Lara’s inevitable and breathtaking evolution from a frightened young woman to a hardened survivor. Over the course of the game, we see Lara become something closer to the original form we’d all fallen in love with – but three times improved – and it shines hope on the possibility that the Tomb Raider franchise has been redirected to the path of glory.
The game begins with footage from the original Turning Point trailer, showing the shipwreck of the research vessel – ironically named Endurance – and Lara is eventually washed ashore and the adventure begins. From the beginning, players are thrown into a survive-or-die situation which foreshadows what the rest of the adventure will bring to the proverbial table and it is done in such a beautiful manner, the player cannot help but appreciate the sense of originality, imagination and creativity of these moments. While the beginning of the game is quite cinematic and chock full of quick-time events, it’s done properly and serves a solid purpose of character development. I’d never once thought I’d speak in favour of quick-time events, but they work well and it’s hard to imagine the same scene without it. Quick-time events in the game serve as plot devices, where most of the injury or pain to Lara is expressed, aside from cutscenes. We see what Lara has to go through and through quick-time events, we’re involved in her struggles and hardships and through this involvement, players will feel for Lara whether it be her pain or anxiety and it gives a wonderful sense of immersion.
Once the introduction has completed, the game truly opens up its playground and gives the player a wonderful balance of linearity and open-world elements. While Tomb Raider is not completely open-world as Grand Theft Auto or The Elder Scrolls, it’s just enough to keep the player satisfied with being able to explore every inch of the island without much restriction. Conversely, the game has just enough linearity to keep progression constant, but not enough to hold the player’s hand and forcibly run them through the game. However, while Lara is still collecting her bearings and learning what she has to do and what she is capable of, the player is understandably restricted in terms of what you can and cannot do at that point in time. On the other hand, once Lara garners the necessary skills and equipment, players may return to previously visited areas at any time and continue exploration in the event that something was missed due to the lack of a skill or item.
The narrative is brilliantly presented and very well written – kudos to you, Rhianna Pratchett – and the story is instrumental in setting the scene. It just works, it’s believable and it makes sense. While the main story is the highlight, naturally, there’s an equally deserving-of-the-limelight back and side story that is uncovered through exploration – Lara will find relics predating the Common Era and historical documents that highlight the island’s history. These documents also include journal entries by crew members of the Endurance – which sheds light on the history and stories of Lara’s friends – as well as journals from the island’s inhabitants, which leads to explaining how they arrived, why they’re there and who they are. It offers a deeper understanding into what’s going on and these little details were clearly given proper attention as they all add up and every possible question is answered and more. The only concerning weak point in the narrative is the transition of Lara’s behaviour. Her evolution from a timid adventurer to a ruthless woman seems to happen too fast – after her first human kill, her trauma and anxiety subside too quickly in the moment and in mere seconds, she’s popping off headshots like it’s a hobby. However, Lara’s behaviour afterwards remedies this completely and you’ll soon forgive the pacing. Shortly after, Lara will make comments in the beginning of battle such as, “You don’t need to do this, please,” “Why are you doing this,” and “Keep away, I’m warning you!” It illustrates that Lara is not at all okay with what she’s doing and attempts to avoid conflict, but she realises that she has no choice. Furthermore, once she realises that she has no other option, she tells another ally that “It’s scary how easy it is.” Lara shows understanding and depth, something often overlooked when developing a character.
Combat and general gameplay is quite different than the previous Tomb Raider games, but it is also slightly reminiscent. You will still find yourself traversing the environment, exploring and getting into high-octane shootouts, but it’s done in such a different and beautiful manner that puts the previous games to shame and offers a fresh take on visceral combat. Combat itself is fairly easy to get the hang of and it’s wonderfully entertaining – while it’s some time before Lara gets her hands on a firearm, she acquires a makeshift bow early on and it becomes her trademark weapon for the game. Crystal Dynamics introduced something new, by way of an automatic cover system, which is instrumental in Tomb Raider’s combat. Lara will automatically crouch behind objects when in battle and she’ll keep low when moving. Lara will not magnetise to cover, which allows for easy control of her as well as the situation. Her defensive and offensive manoeuvres are brilliant and realistic, as well as that of the enemy AI. The enemies will react to Lara’s behaviour accordingly – if she hangs around cover for too long, they’ll attempt to flank her or flush her out with Molotov cocktails, grenades and dynamite. Lara’s movements and abilities are by default honed and smooth, but grow increasingly better and more deadly through upgrading.
For the first time in Tomb Raider, some roleplaying elements are introduced where players are able to collect experience points for virtually anything they do – salvaging, collecting artefacts, taking down enemies and simply progressing – and these points can be used to purchase, or ‘master,’ skills for Lara. These skills are not limited to just combat, however – there are three different categories that have a set of skills accordingly, which vary from offensive and defensive combat, exploration and traversal. In addition, Lara is also able to upgrade her arsenal with salvage collected on the island with extended magazines, compensators, attachments and much more. In spite of this, though, it is not taken to an extreme – don’t expect Lara to trudge about with a light machine gun with a laser sight, grenade launcher under-barrel and a hybrid optic sight. It’s all well-constructed to fit the narrative and setting and while Lara’s arsenal will eventually mirror that of a guerrilla warrior, it does not go overboard.
Compared to Tomb Raider Underworld, the graphics of the character models in this game are not up to par, but on its own – as it should be – the visuals are proper brilliant. The environments are undeniably beautifully rendered, realistic and lush, and it is truly a sight for sore eyes. Character models could have used some more polishing, but as it stands, I am not disappointed at all. Players will truly feel immersed within the island with Lara, as the visuals are easily the best I’ve seen in this genre for a long time. Lara’s hair physics are a much needed improvement since the past games and while it’s certainly not as good as the PC’s TressFX physics, it’s indisputably wonderful.
Tomb Raider’s natural heritage shows itself dramatically in the game’s secret tombs which are placed around the island for the player to discover. These are usually self-contained puzzles that lead the way to treasure and they are frequently challenging enough to make you feel properly clever for discovering the solution. While this traditional aspect of Tomb Raider takes an understandable back seat, it’s still a welcomed inclusion as we see Lara’s eyes light up when finding artefacts and her love for all things archaeological shines through, even during the hardships she’s enduring.
Online multiplayer is an aspect that I sometimes truly do not wish to acknowledge. It's the only disappointing feature of the game and while for me personally, I do enjoy it most of the time, I can understand why other people don't. I go back and forth on the subject because while it's fun, it does not meet general expectations in certain aspects. On one hand, if I could have voted, I would have voted to have Tomb Raider released last year as planned without multiplayer. On the other hand, it is an interesting addition to a Tomb Raider game and for Eidos Montreal's first attempt at multiplayer, it's not nearly as bad as it could have been. It can be entertaining at times, but it’s also headache inducing when the player realises that while this type of combat works perfectly within the story, it does not transfer well into online play. Game modes are generic and it seems like every multiplayer component is following the Call of Duty trend, including loadouts and boosts. I feel like a little more innovation on the developer's part and a little less 'screen-peeking' to see what other franchises did with multiplayer, and this component might have been received a bit better by the gaming community.
Ignoring the minor hiccup within this otherwise fabulous experience, Tomb Raider offers nothing shy of originality and innovation for the newly rebooted franchise. While the game clearly takes inspiration from other action-adventure titles, it incorporates them in ways suitable for Lara and it works completely. Tomb Raider was definitely a game worth waiting for and it was a long time coming.
Lara Croft is back and damn it, she is better than ever.