Crystal Dynamics’ take on Tomb Raider is a blend of Lost and Indiana Jones – and a serious departure in tone and gameplay from the last decade’s entries in the long-running franchise. None of that should be interpreted negatively; while this instalment meets the definition of a stereotypical “gritty reboot”, it also delivers a Lara Croft with more character and depth than ever before. This, in turn, provides the basis for an engaging origins story that chronicles young Lara’s transformation from innocent archaeologist to hardened adventurer. It takes place after a devastating shipwreck maroons Lara and a handful of survivors on an island inhabited by a barbaric cult called “the Solarii”, who become convinced Lara’s best friend, Sam, is the heir and successor of their beloved Sun Queen, who controls the island’s weather.
As Lara, your job is to make sure their plot to kidnap Sam doesn’t go to plan, and that means solving puzzles and killing enemies, all within the structure of a high-octane action-adventure game – think Uncharted with a fashionable infusion of quick-time events and pretty visuals (plus a spunky leading lady). Most appealing to me is the game’s early focus on stealth, with Lara’s iconic dual pistols missing-in-action and replaced with a bow, which can take out enemies without a sound. There’s a strong focus on sneaking behind waist-high walls and using clever tactics to isolate guards and then despatch them. For instance, you can shoot an arrow at a wall behind two guards; while one goes to check it out, you can quickly take out the other with an arrow to the head, and then kill the other once he returns. Neither spots you, so neither have the opportunity to raise the alarm.
After you’ve picked up more destructive weapons, like a shotgun, a machine gun, and even a grenade launcher, the game develops an inclination to force you into violent confrontations. These demand effective use of available cover, the ability to aim quickly, and a good handle of the scramble and roll mechanics. In these combat-oriented segments, Tomb Raider becomes an all-out third-person shooter, perhaps convincing some players that its action-adventure shell was just a convincing façade. For the most part, these confrontations come in bursts, in the form of drawn-out ambushes. This is something of a lazy tactic to extend the length of the game, and it usually feels like it – but it also indulges the more action-oriented players out there, so I can’t complain too much.
In any case, those who prefer adventure games are already well catered to. Countless collectibles are scattered across the island, including relics, documents, and GPS caches, which are of variable merit to the game’s narrative. The collectible documents unlock a lot of the game’s back-story, and even expand the stories of the other survivors, like Alex and Reyes, who are genuinely interesting characters (though not necessarily likeable). Although some, like expedition leader Whitman, are undeveloped caricatures, there’s a noticeable trend of well-written and thoroughly developed characters in the single-player campaign, and the opportunity to hear more about their tribulations makes the documents worth reading. The collectible relics, on the other hand, will be exciting only to history fans: they are genuine historic artefacts, mostly from Japan, which can be viewed in detail.
The adventure aspect of the game is well complemented by the level design, which incorporates zip-lines and craggy rocks into the environment, allowing players to quickly move between distant points and indulge in some rock-climbing. The craggy rocks are implemented particularly well in terms of their integration into the environment; more-so than in any other game, they don’t look out-of-place, but remain easily identifiable. While players can only create zip-lines between certain poles and platforms at first, the viable candidates indicated by white rope, you later gain the ability to create zip-lines to craggy rocks, which combine these two idiosyncratic elements of the game world.
Square Enix have been quite vocal about the action and adventure portions of the game in its promotion, but in doing so, they’ve come to gloss over something I found a little unexpected: a definite fantasy horror vibe, which manifests itself in creepy shacks and alarming amounts of gore. Tomb Raider’s 18 certificate isn’t a surprise to anyone who buys video games – what doesn’t have an 18 certificate these days? – but I took a major double-take when I, as Lara, was forced to swim through a sea of blood in a valley of bodies, and emerged with my clothes, hair, and skin soaked red. The game is brutal. It’s not so evident in combat, which features a fairly standard level of blood spatter, but it’s noticeable again should you ever die: you’re sometimes treated to brief, gory images of your death, like seeing your body slammed against sharp rocks should you fall into the ocean. These horror moments succeed in creating an uneasy and uncomfortable atmosphere that feels appropriate for the main theme of the game: the reluctant and unwilling transformation of Lara, from a girl described as “innocent”, into a strong woman with the capacity to defend herself. The game is filled with Lara’s first times, including her first time killing a man, and her first time killing a deer for food, and each is delivered in a hard-hitting, emotional way.
It’s worth pointing out that like most other triple-A console games on the market today, Tomb Raider suffers from an over-abundance of quick-time events and overly cinematic “gameplay” segments. The convergence of big-budget games and big-budget movies is becoming more and more evident, especially when there are a fair few portions of the game which are packed with impressive visuals and an emotive score, yet demand only a few easy button presses and analogue flicks to complete. This is an after-effect of story taking the front seat, but Tomb Raider’s crimes are redeemed by its vast cache of optional content. If the apparently misleading nature of the game’s title upsets you, you’ll be pleased to know that more than a few tombs are included, but they are absolutely optional and involve veering off the main path. They’re centred around puzzle-solving and are rather satisfying to play through – but it’s likely due to their optional nature that these quiet brain-teasers weren’t vetoed during pre-production, given the intended mainstream audience.
That desire to placate a wide audience is probably responsible for the inclusion of the game’s multiplayer mode, which lacks the charm or polish of the single-player campaign. It’s identifiable only as Tomb Raider by its playable characters, and the majority of the game’s cast are locked until you’ve gained enough levels. It’s third-person shooter madness with typical and uninspired game modes like “team deathmatch”, which predictably plays out in the style of “Survivors vs. Solarii”. It feels more like a quickly built interpretation of Gears of War than anything else. The matchmaking system contains some issues as well, including a propensity to create teams with unbalanced distributions of high- and low-level players, plus teams uneven in size. It’s a good thing multiplayer isn’t a main focus of the game.
The term “reboot” doesn’t apply particularly well to Tomb Raider because it doesn’t go out of its way to retroactively change the franchise’s continuity, but it does bring across one key element of this game: it’s used a major departure from the series’ status quo to return credibility, attention, and respect to it, and that makes for a very promising future. While Tomb Raider is reasonably long (particularly by triple-A standards) and packs a ship-load of additional content, no doubt ready to be expanded through downloadable content, its conclusion begs for a sequel. With a new film on the horizon, there’s hardly a doubt in my mind that we’ll be seeing a lot more of Lara Croft in the near future – and that’s not bad at all.