How the mighty have fallen. Back in the late 1990s, you couldn’t move for the amount of Lara Croft mania that was sweeping the globe. Our busty archaeologist had not only conquered the gaming world, but her iconic image adorned the bedroom walls of spotty teenagers everywhere, magazine covers and even secured a spot on U2’s PopMart tour. Indeed, Miss Croft was every ounce a gaming legend, blagging a spot on the mainstream consciousness that only the likes of Mario and Sonic had achieved up until that point – possibly more so, in fact, thanks to her ample sex appeal. Unfortunately, it all went tits up for Lara after the new millennium, as brand fatigue set in and numerous other hiccups (including the monstrosity that was Angel of Darkness) managed to besmirch the Tomb Raider name.
By the time PS3 rolled around, Lara Croft was playing a barely-discernible second fiddle to cheeky chappie Nathan Drake; sure, her games weren’t bad by any stretch, but no longer did Tomb Raider pack the same commercial appeal as it once did. This is where Crystal Dynamics came in, having conceived the idea of a series reboot. This eponymous effort is an origins story of sorts, detailing just how our nimble heroine became the gun-toting, back-flipping badass we know and love, paying homage to both the old games and modern stable mates such as Uncharted in the process. But does Lara Croft ultimately still have a place amongst today’s gaming greats as she once did?
Tomb Raider scrutinizes a 21-year-old Croft as she and her companions find themselves on the hunt for a forgotten city named Yamatai. Unfortunately, their ship ends up on the wrong side of a massive storm, and the treasure-seekers find themselves shipwrecked on a mysterious Island in the Dragon’s Triangle. Although everyone survives, Croft is separated from the group and thus begins exploring the Island. While ostensibly a search and rescue mission with the ultimate goal of escaping the Island, Tomb Raider is more a journey of self-discovery for Croft; a gripping tale of one woman’s quest for survival that will shape her character and push her beyond previously inconceivable limits.
I’m no fan of comparisons, but yes, Tomb Raider is fundamentally quite similar to Uncharted – though that should hardly come as a surprise. However, while the Island shares much of that game’s linear progression, its pseudo open-world template is far more rewarding in the long run. The main quest alone is a meaty 15 hours or so, packed full of diverse set-pieces, intense shootouts and lush locations; but it’s the extrinsic goodies, the loot-filled tombs and multitude of collectibles that encourage you to venture off the beaten track that will have you compelled to dig deeper into Lara’s quest. More on that later, though.
Most of your time will be spent navigating the myriad of cliff faces, pillars, ladders, rooftops and other such obstacles that act as platforming playground for Lara’s impressive acrobatic skills. Croft has never moved so elegantly and precisely, while leaping from pillar to pillar, scaling walls is a cinch. Hitting X makes Lara jump, and as long as you are pointed in the right direction, she’ll catch onto any crevice or handhold. Thankfully, the level design is so that you won’t be left arbitrarily leaping into walls in the vein hope Lara will grab hold; the path forward is decidedly unambiguous, allowing for a smooth and satisfying jaunt between surfaces. That and Lara’s Survival Instinct, activated by hitting L2, highlights points of interest. The game keeps you on your toes too by spreading a few QTEs throughout some of the more perilous platforming too; miss a trick, and you’ll plummet to your death.
Naturally, you’ll have to fight your way across the Island. Wolves, cultists and mercenaries alike all take offense to your presence, so you’ll have your hands full. Fortunately, Miss Croft is more than equipped to deal with any threat; pistols, shotguns, a bow and more will become available to you over the course of the game, allowing you to adapt to any combat situation. Being a big Uncharted player, I felt immensely comfortable capping baddies, and it’s not hard to see that Crystal Dynamics has obviously doffed their cap to Naughty Dog in this area. However, it’s Tomb Raider’s cover system that really impresses, as you won’t have to fiddle around with any buttons. Croft automatically keeps her head down during encounters, and seamlessly sticks to any convenient cover spot without any hassle. It’s a brilliant, unobtrusive system, and it wasn’t long before I was effortlessly knuckling down behind cover while executing some sweet head shots.
Don’t expect a walk in the park, though. Enemies are clever sods, and will employ many tactics to get to Lara. They’ll lob explosives, Molotov cocktails and other such hazards to flush you out of cover, while machete-wielding goons will attempt to flank you in close quarters. As such, I found myself having to hop from cover to cover, picking away at foes while watching my six at all times – it’s intense and ultimately extremely gratifying when you walk away on top. On the flip side, the over reliance on lengthy gun battles sometimes gets a little monotonous towards the end of the game, and I would have preferred a slightly more even balance between the quieter, exploration-based antics and adrenaline-pumping combat. Tomb Raider really shines when you are soaking up the atmospheric vistas and stunning architecture, looking around at every nook and cranny for collectibles. And speaking of collectibles, there are heaps of stuff to offer. Lara can obtain journals, relics, GPS caches, and other trinkets, all of which help flesh out the backstory of the Island, which compels you to spend time in any given area before you press on with the core story. Doing so is easy thanks to the instant travel option, so backtracking is never the laborious task you may perceive it to be.
The optional Tombs are the real highlight though, and really nod back to the old-school games; these are combat-free, cerebral affairs tasking Lara with solving various environmental puzzles to claim a treasure chest of loot. And, while they’re not exactly too taxing, it’s a welcome break that adds to the diversity of the overall largely action-packed package. Meanwhile, weapons and skills can also be upgraded via salvage and EXP, respectively. This allows you to improve Lara’s guns, such as equipping silencers, upping fire power, rate of fire and other such attributes, as well as enhancing her abilities with certain weapons, hunting and other traits. I was able to shape Lara based on my own play style; for example, I often enjoyed a spot of hunting, so I picked a skill that allowed me to garner more EXP from skinning animal carcasses. Plus, being a fan of stealth, I equipped my weapons with a silencer and scope. It’s a great system and pretty flexible in terms of the options available to you, and the new skills tie in nicely with the narrative as Lara grows more confident and competent.
Speaking of narrative, the story isn’t without a few quibbles. The game emphatically trumpets Lara’s vulnerability early on, subjecting her to all manner of physical trauma, culminating her into taking a life for the first time. It’s a defining moment, and a great piece of characterization not seen in most videogames. Somewhat incongruously however, no sooner than she makes her first kill is she flawlessly gunning down an army’s worth of baddies like it was nothing; as such, the trauma induced by her first killing is somewhat stunted. The disparity between ‘cut-scene’ Lara and ‘combat’ Lara is quite apparent. Still, it’s not as if the narrative doesn’t justify the shift; it’s just that it happens a little too sharpish, and not quite as subtle as I personally would have liked. Nonetheless, Lara still remains one of the strongest leads in recent memory, and I continued to be drawn into her story and feel for her predicament until the end.
One thing that’s strikingly apparent from the get-go however is just how gorgeous Tomb Raider looks and plays. As mentioned, Lara’s movements are fluid and realistic, while the environments themselves are a joy to behold, whether it be the superbly-lit cave networks, lush sunsets or the meticulously-crafted forests and ancient ruins. Voice acting is also thankfully solid, with Camilla Luddington delivering a memorable, nuanced performance as Miss Croft, with her crewmates also doing a decent job. Perhaps less memorable is the main antagonist, who is a bit cookie-cutter for my liking in his insane, cultist ramblings, but it doesn’t impact upon the overall narrative. The aforementioned relics and other collectibles further flesh out the story, so much so that the Island becomes a character in itself. The action is only marred by an over-eager camera that occasionally fails to point you in the right direction, as well as some small visual clipping, though they’re inconsequential in the long run.
Outside of the meaty campaign, you also have multiplayer to tuck into. Sadly I wasn’t able to try this out at the time, evidently due to the fact that the game had yet to see a general release. However, we’ll be sure to amend this review once we’ve dissected the online portion of the game. But Tomb Raider is a single-player game at heart, and on the merits of the campaign alone, Crystal Dynamics has delivered a stunning and compelling adventure worthy of the brand name. Lara Croft’s origins story is brutal, stunning and expansive, and successfully reinvents an iconic character without compromising the series’ roots. Move over Nathan Drake, Miss Croft is back in town and wants her action-adventure crown back. Don’t miss it.