For years we have known Lara Croft as the gun-wielding, tomb-raiding heroine, but this was not always her pedigree. Crystal Dynamics serves up a gruesome, action-packed origin story that earns its stripes. We find a young Lara shipwrecked, battered, and lost on a mysterious island in, what is known as, the Dragon’s Triangle. Right from the start you feel the ups and downs of walking in Lara’s shoes. You are no longer the veritable human weapon that we are used to in a Tomb Raider game. You don’t even have a weapon for the first ten to fifteen minutes of the game. As someone who started this game not liking the previous Tomb Raider games, I can honestly say I have been converted and this is truly a survivor-action game for the ages. In this review, I want to provide a spoiler-free look at some of the games strengths and weaknesses in different areas.
Lara and her team are searching for a mythical Japanese goddess when her boat is capsized and destroyed. The crew is scattered and Lara is left alone. She must use her wits and resourcefulness to reunite with her crew and escape the island, all the while uncovering the secrets of the island and its inhabitants. That’s basically it as far as complex story, but what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for with engaging gameplay, beautiful visuals, and intelligent controls. The one stand-out story element is the introduction, and crucial role, of Lara’s younger sister, Sam. This makes Lara’s need to survive more personal and emotionally gripping. Previous games focused on Lara’s quest for treasure or secret civilizations, but in this reboot the focus is on Lara’s survival and her desire to save her sister. The over-arching story of the Japanese queen and mysterious cultist rituals is interesting and helps to move the story along rather naturally, but it pales in comparison with story of Lara’s personal growth. From violent wretching over her first kill to jumping off of collapsing temple ruins, you get to watch as Lara gradually becomes the hero we all know and love.
I will state this at the start: If you have played any of the Uncharted games, then you know the gameplay. While that may be true, it is certainly not a bad thing. There is a lot of climbing, jumping, cave-crawling, and they occur almost seamlessly. The game runs smooth and steady, and I only saw one or two minor glitches later in the game. There is a plethora of QTE sequences, just like in Uncharted, but they only add to the cinematic nature of the game. Combat, while not a main focus, is abundant, especially at later points in the adventure, but never feels bogged down. The AI is very smart and enemies will flush you out with explosives and Molotov cocktails, and some will even proceed toward you and force a face to face confrontation. They also will respond immediately if they detect you in the slightest way, but the detection AI is not as sensitive and infuriating as the Assassin’s Creed enemies. It can become quite frustrating when you are surrounded by five to ten enemies with explosives, fire arrows, and automatic weapons while you just have a bow and arrow. That being said, the bow and arrow was one of my favorite weapons and it has a fantastic response time, and nailing that perfect headshot from across the map is also extremely satisfying. While there is more combat in this game than previous titles, don’t count out the tombs that give this game it’s namesake. The tombs take a bit of a backseat, as they are now called Secret Tombs, but the puzzles and side-quest exploring of tombs is just as satisfying.
The one major negative aspect of the gameplay was that sometimes the way you need to proceed is unclear, which leads to numerous gruesome deaths. I’m not kidding. You will die a lot and the screen doesn’t just fade out. You will be impaled by spikes, have your throat ripped out by wolves, and be viciously stabbed through the throat by soldiers, and that isn’t even counting the excrutiatingly painful things that happen in the numerous QTE sequences. There were times when I would be running from a crumbling bridge and forced to make a humanly impossible jump that I landed, but I wasn’t able to make a shorter jump, simply because I was going the wrong way. This is a minor complaint that falls flat when compared to the many ways that this game succeeds. Miraculously, even with a solid thirty to forty hours of gameplay, not including multiplayer, you will actually want to return to the island after you finish the game just to explore and find the rest of the many collectibles hidden around the island.
Surprisingly, this is not the worst way you will die.
I already touched on this a little, but I have to reiterate the beauty of the visuals. There were times when I would rotate the camera away from Lara climbing just because I wanted to see the background. The trees, mountains, oceans, and beaches are expertly rendered and the seamless transitions from cutscenes to gameplay make this game seem more like a movie the longer you play it. The biggest aspect of the visuals that wowed me, was actually the smallest. When you watch the cutscenes and QTE sequences, you can see every little bead of sweat, every drop of blood, and every bruised incision. This may go unnoticed by most who play this game, but it got my attention almost instantly. It adds to the idea that Lara Croft is experiencing this level of violence for the first time. As I mentioned before, the deaths aren’t just rag doll physics with a slow fade out. They are full-force, graphic deaths. When you are impaled through the throat, you see Lara desperately gasping and clutching at the spike as she chokes to death. It is gruesome and awful, yet beautifully rendered all the same. This is not a game for the faint of heart. I even jumped out of my chair a little in pain and disgust when I got my head crushed under one of the temple doors. This game is beautiful to look at all the way through, even when the story isn’t necessarily strong.
The controls are relatively simple, but do require some getting used to. For instance, when climbing rock walls, you have to jump to the wall and press a button to grab on. You will not grab on automatically! Your weapons and tools work in the same way as other games in the action genre, but additional controls will appear as you upgrade your gear and skills at base camps. The controls were comfortable and natural without feeling too simple. The learning curve for the controls really reflects Lara’s growth throughout the game, which is just another tiny element that makes this reboot so awe-inspiring.
It's the Tim Burton version of "Brave"
After all the amazing things I had to say about the single-player campaign, I do not have the same thing to say about the multiplayer. The idea of mulitplayer in a Tomb Raider game seemed like an odd choice, but after playing the campaign you get the feeling that exploring that world with multiple people would be interesting. Clear your head of all positive thoughts immediately. The game modes are simple free-for-all battle matches or capture the flag matches. You either play as a survivor or a cultist. Objectives include protecting batteries to make a radio call, getting medicine to heal your people, or maintaining control of a certain area. While the world of Tomb Raider is beautiful, the multiplayer draws your attention away from the gorgeous visuals and interesting gameplay, and instead becomes a simple Halo 3-esque FPS mess. The brilliance of Tomb Raider is lost in these matches and is reduced to a generic competitive shooter. While it may be a fun concept for some, it is nowhere near as substantial as the campaign. I would explore the island and search for the hidden collectibles for weeks before I was ever tempted to touch the multiplayer again.
Overall, Tomb Raider is a successful reboot and pulse-pounding origin story. Lara Croft has never felt more like the quintessential video game heroine than she does here. Some minor glitches and confusing open-world exploring are present, but neither come close to ruining this experience. You will lose yourself in this game and make yourself play through this game in one sitting, or at least two days straight, like I did. Once you immerse yourself in this world and this story, you won’t want to emerger until it’s over.