You can’t keep a good adventurer down, and that’s never more appropriate than when talking about Lara Croft. She’s faced gun-toting mercs, vicious dinosaurs and even her own demonic copy – and let’s not dwell on the so-so movies and lacklustre Angel of Darkness that led to her initial fall from grace. The heroine’s had a reimagining and some solid outings since, but almost no one could have predicted the comeback that she would eventually pull off. Crystal Dynamics we salute you, as this latest reboot is the best that the franchise has ever produced.
Who would have thought that seeing Lara Croft get torn down, beaten, shot at, thrown around and blown up could make for such a thrilling experience? It’s a baptism of fire that introduces the world to a much more innocent, everyday girl who goes through hell to come out the other side as a more familiar character. Tomb Raider is a game that takes Lara back to her roots in an origin story that most gamers never even knew they wanted; as it turns out, it’s exactly what the heroine needed to freshen her up and turn her from detached temptress to a far more relatable lead. You’ll end up genuinely wanting things to work out for her, and cheer in satisfaction as she begins to change on a personal level. Character growth is neither sudden nor without cause, and it’s easy to see the driving force that guides her in the first place.
Things don’t get off to the greatest start, as you’re tasked with escaping a dangerous environment via use of abundant quick-time events. Stick with it! Things change rapidly as the world begins to open up, relegating these button-tapping antics to a supporting role. The experience itself is reminiscent of Uncharted (and it’s a similarity that is unmistakable), but to consider this a starry-eyed wannabe would be to ignore the simple fact that much of what it does is actually better than what you’ve seen from Nathan Drake’s series. There are moments where you’ll go toe-to-toe with enemies who jump and slide into battle during frenzied shootouts, but these only rarely feel overdone to the point of frustration. It’s a fine line that developers almost never get right.
Tomb Raider takes many of the things you’ve seen before and tightens them, improves on them. There’s very little here that truly innovates, but then who says every game needs to? In the presence of unaware foes, Lara crouches down to take cover herself; there’s no need to hit a button to trigger a robotic animation and nor does she lack a brain beyond your control. While this may sound like the classic Gears of War ‘pop and stop’ gameplay we’ve all come to know a little too well, encounters are often a case of keeping things stealthy, surveying the land and waiting for the perfect time to strike. You can shoot lanterns, aim headshots, fire off arrows or go around for an up-close and personal kill. Again, there’s little here that’s especially new, but the odds are you just haven’t seen it done in quite the same way before.
Weapons, mods and gear are all drip-fed to you as the story progresses. What begins life as a simple bow can become an efficient death-dealing piece of kit if you so choose. There’s no shortage of weapons and you’ll likely have your favourites without relying on the same one for every situation. Modifications are made from the salvage that Lara finds lying around or hanging in packs around the world. Relics, audio logs and other items are worthy of your collection-hunting prowess too, mostly because they all count towards your experience level, in turn helping you unlock techniques and combat moves such as weapon-specific finishers. Hunting for these collectibles can be a challenging task, but one that’s made easier thanks to Lara’s new Survival Instinct (which makes objects of interest exhibit a golden glow). The effects are temporary and somewhat jarring, so you won’t be leaving it on as you might have done in the Batman: Arkham games.
While Lara herself is relatable, likeable and an evolving character, her supporting cast tends not to fare so well. Most fade into the background and serve as little more than a driving force for Lara, although they do at least provide some drama and even a bit of company on what would otherwise be a very unfriendly and desolate island. Only her mentor Roth is in any way memorable, but that’s okay – this is all about the trials of the main adventurer, so it’s unsurprising that most of them fall flat in comparison. The story itself is easily the most grounded and realistic we’ve seen to date, though you may uncover a supernatural twist or two as you delve into the island’s secrets.
The most divisive aspect of Tomb Raider could well be the relative ease of the tombs themselves, which play out more like optional, single-room puzzles than as fully fledged stages. The way to conquer each stage isn’t always immediately obvious, yet it only takes a bit of trial and error before the penny drops and you make it to the chest that awaits each time. What it is that Lara uncovers is a mystery, rewarding you instead with a considerable chunk of experience leading to even more skill points. Campfires serve as points where you can spend points to upgrade, though most of them can also be used as a means to quick-travel between locations, which you might want to do once you’ve obtained a new piece of equipment that can open certain doors or pull Lara to higher areas. If anything, the island itself could be considered one giant tomb given its hidden items, challenging terrain and crazed inhabitants.
Another aspect of Tomb Raider that we really should bring up is the multiplayer. It’s hard to be too critical of a game that really didn’t need to include this feature at all, and anyone thinking that their purchase hinges on the playability of the online match types should think again – this is a stunning single-player game with an online component shoehorned in. You get four gameplay types, none of which stand out in any meaningful way. As usual you can choose your character, loadout and perks, plus you gain experience the more you play. It’s standard fare for sure, but with just a handful of maps and so few game types, it’s unlikely that anyone will be online for long. Expect a number of maps to become available as DLC, which should appease those who actually find something to love here.
Visually spectacular, affecting and brutal, Tomb Raider pulls no punches in rejuvenating the character. Strictly from a gameplay perspective, this is the culmination of much of what this generation had to offer; the cover system and stealth, the climbing and even the gunplay have been yanked from other titles and tinkered to perfection. The way Lara moves, the way she reacts and interacts with the world are the definition of seamless and as such, this is the closest we’ve ever come to a fantastic Tomb Raider cinematic experience. Early quick-time events aside, this twelve hour adventure suffers so few missteps that it’s a genuine delight to play, even as the lead gets trampled into the seasoned pro we’ve come to know. Everyone take a bow… the first lady of gaming has returned.
This review is based on an Xbox 360 retail copy provided by D+PAD.
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