By Marty Mulrooney
Tomb Raider is an appropriately named reboot for one of the best-selling video game franchises of all time. There’s no need for a suffix – after four previous Tomb Raider games developed by Crystal Dynamics, it seems that the time has come for a fresh start and a reconstructed origin story for the most well-loved and instantly recognisable female video game character in history. The year is 2013 and Lara Croft has finally become relevant again. Hot pants and dual pistols have been replaced by anguish, pain, a bow… and a pickaxe. From the wreckage of the ship Endurance, a survivor is born.
Tomb Raider begins with a gorgeous CGI cutscene showing a young and inexperienced Lara Croft – yet to raid her first tomb – aboard the ship Endurance on a quest to find the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai. Venturing into the dangerous waters of the ominously named Dragon’s Triangle, a violent storm suddenly strikes the ship, ripping it in two and spilling the expedition crew upon the shore of an isolated island. Lara miraculously washes up on a beach relatively unharmed, but before she can rejoin her fellow survivors, she is attacked by a savage man and finds herself hung upside down in a cave littered with human bones and awash with blood.
It’s a cinematic opening that sets the scene wonderfully – this isn’t the Lara Croft fans know and love. Instead, we take control of an extremely vulnerable young woman who nonetheless always has an air of capability – and potential for greatness – about her. The opening section is linear, panicky and brutal. Lara breaks free – awkwardly, impaling herself in the process – and must then explode, jump and eventually crawl her way to the surface, desperately heading towards the light. When she finally emerges from the depths of the earth, bloodied, bruised and beaten, she is greeted by a sheer cliff drop and a graveyard of wrecked sea vessels stretching as far as the eye can see. Only then does the suffix-less title appear: Tomb Raider.
So begins an adventure that will see Lara growing from inexperienced adventurer to hardened survivor – and killer. Thankfully, once the mostly ‘on-rails’ opening is out of the way, Tomb Raider opens up beautifully. After a brutal first kill in self-defence that sees Lara sobbing uncontrollably in horror and disbelief, the player quickly moves on to traverse deceptively expansive levels whilst dispatching numerous bad guys. It’s an initially jarring transition that admittedly could have been handled better, but it’s easier to look past the disparity between storytelling and gameplay when the overall experience is so enjoyable.
Stealth is automatic (Lara crouches when enemies are nearby and she has yet to be discovered) but much like the Uncharted games, balls-to-the-wall combat is a key ingredient here. There are guns that can be upgraded, but the weapon of choice is undoubtedly the silent bow and arrow, which also doubles later as a means of travel with its ability to shoot ropes that Lara can climb. You can even pull certain ‘roped’ structures toward you, an ability which eventually figures into both the puzzles and combat. The enemy AI is fairly smart and picking attackers off one by one requires a certain degree of skill, which keeps combat feeling fresh right up until the game’s action-heavy conclusion. Lara can even use her ‘Survival Instinct’ when she’s standing still to pinpoint enemies, dead bodies and interactive parts of the environment.
The puzzles themselves are mostly physics-based and won’t tax most players. That isn’t to say they’re bad – far from it in fact – but despite being well-designed, they’re always very clearly signposted to keep frustration down to an absolute minimum. It’s a different style of play from the previous Tomb Raider games, more in line with the aforementioned Uncharted games than anything else that has come before in the series. Fire is featured heavily too – as well as looking aesthetically pleasing, it figures nicely into many aspects of the game design. Some players will be disheartened to note that the main narrative doesn’t feature many actual tombs. However, there are several optional side-missions throughout the single player campaign in the form of ‘challenge tombs’ that, despite usually being restricted to one room, are always cleverly thought out and reward the player with valuable XP points.
These XP points are important, because they give a real sense of Lara’s transition from hunted to hunter. Each area features a campfire where Lara can rest. Doing so automatically saves the game, and also lets the player upgrade their weapons along with their abilities. It’s a shame that the story of a young woman reluctantly being forced to kill for survival doesn’t always gel with the on-screen brutality of slaughtering numerous bad guys without a second thought. Yet the gameplay is so finely attuned and focused that by the time you’re stalking through the trees in the dead of night, shooting arrows with perfect precision into the back of unsuspecting enemy’s heads, you’ll be having too much fun to notice or even care. Climbing – another key ingredient – is also kept fresh with the introduction of the pickaxe, which must be manually dug into certain rocky surfaces to ensure Lara doesn’t plummet to her death after a jump.
Lara Croft is a revelation in Tomb Raider. Talented writer Rhianna Pratchett has taken a character that was often valued solely for her looks in past instalments and respectfully transformed her into a three-dimensional, likeable and believable character. Her relationship with gruff father-figure Conrad Roth is one of the finest aspects of the entire game – sadly, the rest of the characters both good and bad are one-dimensional and stereotypical.
Yet Camilla Anne Luddington – who provides both voice acting and motion capture for Lara Croft – gives a career-defining performance that elevates the entire game to heights that would have otherwise been impossible. Even when the storyline descends into silliness or the pacing stumbles, the player always feels an unbreakable connection with Lara. You care about her – she is empowering and fights for what she believes in, but there’s a vulnerability about her too. It’s traits such as these that provide the sudden rushes of adrenaline that make the breathtaking blockbuster set pieces – including a particularly stomach-lurching climb to a communications relay – hit home hard.
The graphics are beautiful and the game engine does a fantastic job of making the levels feel larger than they actually are. What’s more, every level flows perfectly into the next, making the island feel like an expansive real-life location full of history and tragedy. The weather effects – particularly the wind and rain – make it seem as if the elements are always against Lara and there are often animals – including dear, wild boars and wolves – nearby. Hunting is admittedly superficial (killing animals rewards Lara with XP but doesn’t offer any actual survival-based incentives) but the abundant wildlife helps to make the levels feel very much alive.
The voice acting is great (even when the dialogue isn’t) and the musical soundtrack by composer Jason Graves of Dead Space fame, whilst perhaps not the most memorable musical accompaniment of the series, swells on cue and delivers where it counts. There is a multiplayer mode included, but the focus of this review is on the single player experience. Suffice to say, playing online delivers the usual array of levelling up and match options, but is by no means essential and never feels as such either. The multiplayer controls lose much of the fluidity of the single-player gameplay experience and as a result, it’s unlikely that many players will stick with it for long – there are better options available elsewhere.
Tomb Raider has its fair share of problems, but the focus on Lara Croft as a character helps to continually draw you towards the game’s more positive attributes. This is an iconic character with a wealth of history – the joy of this reboot is as much knowing where Lara is headed as witnessing where she first began her journey. The ending features several moments that, with a sly wink and a tip of the hat from Crystal Dynamics, steer Lara towards becoming the hardened duel-wielding adventurer that we all know and love.
Tomb Raider is a flawed game that manages to move past its problems to largely deliver upon the promise of a character-driven epic adventure/inception story. Now that a survivor has been born, the groundwork has been laid for a phenomenal next generation follow-up. In the meantime, Tomb Raider does more than enough to whet the appetite and restore faith in the series. 17 years on, it seems that Lara Croft is still the most important female character in video games. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
9 OUT OF 10