We've entered an age of reboots, my friends. Some faithful to a fault, like Mortal Kombat, which was brilliant save for the hilariously unfair boss fights it held onto; others radically different like DmC, which, for the record, I thought was *INSERT OPINION THAT AGREES WITH YOURS* The new Tomb Raider, even though I've only played a handful of the series' later titles, makes me extremely happy. It hits a bullseye between new ideas and familiarity that will satisfy newcomers and old hands alike, and promises a new generation of gamers will fall in love with gaming's most iconic heroine.
The game is a fresh origin story for Lara Croft. She's a young archaeologist on an expedition to explore islands south of Japan. Her goal: the home of the Yamatai, a lost Japanese kingdom ruled by the mythical Sun Queen Himiko. Her ship is swept up by a storm and crashes on an island that may just house what she's looking for. Unfortunately, it's also home to a cult of other shipwreck survivors who have a nasty practice of killing people who don't join them. The worst part is the cult may not be completely crazy. Strange occurrences and freak weather indicate there could be an ancient, more sinister force at work on the island.
Despite the series previously being compared to Uncharted, this reboot has gained a reputation as the "anti-Far Cry 3," and it's well-earned. Lara begins the game with only a few basic skills, barely knowing her way around a couple weapons. In fact there's no real melee attack for several hours, forcing you to rely on stealth and marksmanship. Though she does have an Arkham-Asylum-esque "Survival Instinct" vision, which highlights enemies and useful objects. Unlike Batman though, she can't see through walls and needs to stay still when she uses it. Her senses are good, not magic. It's also a good work-around for a common problem in "realistic" platformers, where climbable objects might not stand out enough. It also keeps that damn objective marker from being on-screen all the damn time. (Game devs, there is no faster way to kill immersion than having a floating "go here" arrow always on screen. Take notes)
Combat isn't anything revolutionary, but it's well-designed and satisfying. Lara automatically crouches when there are enemies about, and leans against any cover she's near without button presses. Most encounters allow for stealth at the start, but don't screw you over if you get spotted. Still though, you will die pretty quickly if you don't stay in cover. Weapons are pretty standard, with the exception of the bow, which is a tad more complex, but still very intuitive to use. It's especially satisfying pulling off two or three headshots with it before any goons even realize you're around. Enemies have decent variety; some run up with melee weapons, some snipe with arrows, some bombard you with molotov cocktails. If there's one significant gripe with combat, it's that regenerating health is a little too effective, especially since this is supposed to be a "realistic" reboot with a more vulnerable protagonist. Also, the QTEs can get rather frustrating, but they're not so prevalent they hold back the game.
This being Tomb Raider, platforming and puzzles abound as well. Platforming's a bit more involving than most games. Instead of just being pointed where she needs to jump, you may need to press a button to keep your grip on a collapsing piece of cliff, or time a swing of your climbing axe as you jump toward a rock wall. As for puzzles, there's not much to say but they're good. They work your brain and reflexes just enough, and I never had to turn to GameFAQs, even for the hidden tombs' puzzles. The physics are fairly good and make the puzzles intuitive.
You can also level up Lara with experience to gain new skills, and there's a surprisingly robust weapon upgrade system using salvage you find, which more or less acts as currency for upgrades. These include larger magazines, grips to prevent recoil and silencers. (God knows how Lara even moves with that fully upgraded bow, though.)
If you were expecting some kind of survival element, that's hardly present here. There's one sequence very early where Lara hunts for food, but then animals practically disappear. It's a shame, since wolves are actually quite terrifying to encounter and would have really spiced up the game if they showed up occasionally between gunfights. The only point of taking the "bonuses from killing animals" skill is so you can unlock the "bonuses from killing people" skill. It's far from a real flaw with the game, but feels like a missed opportunity.
Combat and big, explosive setpieces can feel very Uncharted-like, but overall, the game manages to carve out its own identity. This is mostly on account of the overall structure. The world is semi-open, but the story progresses linearly. You visit areas in a certain order, but can fast travel to and from "base camps" to backtrack and get any goodies you missed. It's not exactly metroidvania or anything maze-like, since the most you'll have to revisit an area is once, and you're always pointed to the next place to go. The open world also manages to have its cake and eat it too. Usually a ton of collectibles means you can't have a dynamic environment or fancy setpieces, like a collapsing bridge or a burning castle. The game solves this by having a number of "disposable" areas in the world with no collectibles, letting the player have those epic escapes and destructive chase scenes without worrying if they have to reload the game to get a collectible they missed.
The story delivers on the promises of a great reboot. Some older fans would tell me that the original Lara is one of the truly great female game characters, and I would slap them across the face with a copy of Beyond Good and Evil. (The game, not the Nietzsche treatise) Important and influential? Yes. Great as in a well-written character? Not quite. New Lara, however, certainly earns that praise. In most games you either start as a badass, or, usually in horror, are inept at combat to make you "more human." Lara has a very believable character arc from one end of that spectrum to the other. She begins as a frightened, vulnerable rookie survivalist, and, across the 10-12 hour campaign, becomes a determined and capable heroine. At the end, she's very close to her original character, but much more believable as a person. (Classic fans will especially love how she finishes the final boss) This isn't a one-woman show though. The other survivors on her ship are fleshed-out through brief flashbacks and some collectable journal entries. They each have their own personalities, priorities, motivations and relations with each other, and you'll want to see everybody, maybe even the greedy a-hole of the group, get out alive. I don't like to use the term "movie quality" but it is honestly rare to see characterization this good in a game. I guess "really good movie quality" is appropriate enough.
As for the plot, it's a bit on the simple side, but it's very well presented and paced. While it is a good deal darker than previous games, it's never needlessly so, and the characters manage to lighten the mood. There's also still a touch of that Indiana Jones-ish camp to the main concept. It can be scary, but it doesn't try to be taken too seriously. The only minor problem with the plot is that Lara's a bit slow figuring it out. She spends a fair amount of the time trying to rescue one of her friends from the cult, and it becomes pretty obvious about halfway through the game what their intentions are, but it doesn't click with her until the last hour. It doesn't really CHANGE anything, though, so it's just the minor frustration when Lara goes "Gee, what could they POSSIBLY want with the alleged ancestor of the woman who ruled this island with supernatural powers?" (not even a spoiler. you learn that in the first half hour) In the end it's the characters that really make the story great, and you are DEFINITELY going to see this on every "Best Story of 2013" list.
To address the elephant in the room, one that cast an uncomfortable shadow over previews of the game, when I say that Lara is "more vulnerable," I just mean she isn't a cartoon anymore, not that she's frail or anything. "Vulnerable" just means you can get hurt, not that you can't deal with the pain. She starts scared, and even gets upset after she first shoots a person. But once she realizes it's kill or be killed, she starts hauling ass. It's not like she runs into some enemy that she's canonically defeated five times by now, and has some traumatic flashback followed by an emotional breakdown and has to be saved by a bunch of dudes. No, that doesn't happen. In fact, that scenario never even happened before. In anything. Ever. I don't... I don't even know where I got that idea.
Tomb Raider is back with a vengeance, and has regained its status as a must-play for any action/adventure fan. It's been a busy early 2013, but if you have room in your budget, this is worth every penny.
Thanks for reading!
(I apologize for the lack of multiplayer coverage. I don't have a Gold account)