By Alan Bell
Tomb Raider, the franchise, is a storied one; it’s had highs and lows, controversy, excitement, attention, fandom, disinterest, and pretty much anything else that can be levelled (fairly or unfairly) at a videogame.
What is undeniable, however, is that since the highs of the earliest games in the series, which began in 1996, latter games have disappointed.
After creating the action / exploration / adventure genre, Lara’s crown was stolen from her by a certain Nathan Drake. If the release of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune in late 2007 marked the shift in power, Tomb Raider: Underworld in 2008 underlined it: the Queen was dead, long live the King.
So it was with some interest, but little hope, that fans greeted the announcement that Crystal Dynamics were to reboot the series; this is the same team, after all, that made the less-than-spectacular Tomb Raiders Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld.
This scepticism was further reinforced when the fruits of their endeavour first started to appear; demos that included lots of action, apparently quicktime sequences, and loads of generally un-Lara-like activity seemed to confirm fans’ worst fears: Lara Croft, as they knew her, was dead.
Announced in 2010, this new Tomb Raider is an origin story. It’s about Lara Croft before she had made a name for herself; a young woman very much in the shadow of her father. An aspiring archaeologist, she’s on an expedition to try and find a mythical Japanese island, as part of a team supporting a reality TV star “archaeologist” as he attempts to unravel a mystery that numerous teams before them have tried and failed to resolve. The search leads them into what is effectively a Bermuda triangle-like location, and the predictable happens: shipwreck. It’s a good setup.
After that (and fear not, I won’t ruin the plot for you), more bad things happen. Lara’s world is about to go from trips to the library to leaping chasms; from charts and maps to shotguns and murder. One of the small issues I had with the game is perhaps best detailed here; Lara’s transition from scholar to slaughterer is a brief one.
Initially reluctant, she nevertheless sets about wholesale mass murder of the island’s inhabitants. In comparison to the canon, this is completely acceptable; Lara has always been able to dispatch her foes without hesitation. Here, the disconnect is amplified by two things: one, enemies can often be overheard talking reluctantly about the role they play in proceedings and two, Lara herself has a personality that is markedly different from the aloof monster portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the movies. She just doesn’t seem the type.
It’s no big thing, and it doesn’t affect the score (for reasons I’ll outline in a moment), but it is worth noting for those who look out for such details.
The general gameplay, in case you were concerned by the pre-release marketing material, is not just shooting things and quicktime events. There’s about as much shooting as I remember from earlier instalments, and only a few quicktime events (each of which is brief and well-suited to the situation).
The rest of the game is packed with exploration and environment traversal. There’s also very well realised stealth mechanics, an impressive yet simple to use cover system, and loads of daring jumping into the unknown. It’s brand new and yet… somehow it’s also still Tomb Raider - and that’s no small achievement.
Actions you take (and items you find) earn you XP; levelling lets you spend points improving (or even adding to) your skills. You can also find salvage and weapon components around that let you upgrade your basic weaponry - it’s a nifty, if simple, system, and the kind of light nod to RPG styling that action gamers will happily welcome.
The presentation - always of interest in the genre - is nothing short of breathtaking. Cinematic cameras highlight key moments of action, without ever getting in the way. Movie like it is, but at no point does it forget that the key role of Tomb Raider is to be a game.
One important aspect to note here, however, is that the implementation of the game’s violence is as brutal as it is unforgiving. Crystal Dynamics were clearly hoping to hammer home just how perilous Lara’s grasp on life is throughout her island getaway and they’ve absolutely succeeded at that goal. It’s unrelenting, bloody, often gory, and certainly not a game for the younger members of the family.
The visual finesse is more than matched by the outstanding score, as delivered by composer Jason Graves. The driving soundtrack reinforces every moment of the action, amplifying Lara’s perilous journey through every step of her many and varied adventures. It’s so very, very good - expect to hear it mentioned, often, in conjunction with the word “award”.
Level locations are both incredible, and incredibly varied. One moment you’re chest-deep in some sort of murky cave water, struggling to see around the bend, while the next you’re at the top of a tall tower, with visibility that must extend into the miles in every direction. At no point do you feel like you’re in any way retreading old ground (unless you’re deliberately doing just that; the game allows you to re-explore previous areas) - each area is distinct not only from the last but also, typically, from anything else you’ve played before.
The island the game is set on is a character in and of itself. With its various ruins, dilapidated World War II bunkers, scientific installations, shanty towns, and monasteries, the obvious risk is that it would feel disjointed - it doesn’t, not ever. Instead, the vibe you get is one of exploring the island from Lost; anything is possible here, and it’s important not to make any assumptions. Tomb Raider, the game, is extremely good at pulling the rug out from under your feet - just when you think you’ve got a good grip on what’s going to happen next.
The puzzles and exploration are fun; the world feels simultaneously open, and yet organic and realistic. You can see how things fit, most of the time, and when you can’t, a little bit of observation and lateral thinking will get you to that oh-so-satisfactory “eureka!” moment. That this is true from beginning to end is testament to the team’s commitment; at no point, I suspect, were the words “that’ll do” uttered within the walls of Crystal Dynamics.
Lara herself is remarkable to behold. Her model is incredibly detailed, her animations fluid, and her textures elaborate. You get to see a lot of her, of course, given she’s in the middle of the screen the entire time, and at no point were any visual glitches (or glitches of any kind) apparent. The other characters, too, are well designed and interesting to engage with. There’s even a big Kiwi chap, who speaks of Pania and exudes the kind of casual cool the rest of us can only dream of.
Despite all of that - despite the great levels, the cinematic presentation, the depth of gameplay, and the puzzles - the real star of the show is how connected Lara is to the environment. In other games, you often get the sense that the world is rendered and then the characters are dropped on top of it - not here. Here, Lara is in the world. She reacts to everything; she puts her arms up to fend off the wind, she recoils from flames, she runs her hands along the low ceiling of a cave, she pulls her feet up just so to get through a narrow gap. Smoke and mirrors this may well all be, but you never have reason to doubt it. Lara is real; you feel her pain.
Every jump across a gaping chasm, every blow from a powerful foe - she reacts to it, and by extension, you do too. This is made all the more powerful by the horrible ways in which Lara will meet her demise at your hands; crushed here, shot there, plummeting off a cliff everywhere else - it’s something you’ll seek to avoid not because it will set you back (it doesn’t, particularly) but because you don’t want to experience it.
It’s not perfect, but nothing really is. Instead, Tomb Raider earns its score for daring to go big and then executing on that goal with considerable aplomb in every important area. It looks great, plays well, and is fun from beginning to end. Even more than that, it does all of those things with more skill and finesse than almost any other game before it. It feels dynamic, lets you tweak your experience, and is full of optional exploration for completionists - and those that just can’t get enough of the world.
The few flaws it has, like Lara’s motivation or the bit-part roles the other characters play, just aren’t important at the end of the day. Be in no doubt, it’s an extraordinary game; the kind that only comes along once or twice in a generation. Lara has wrested her crown from Drake’s limp grasp (let’s be honest, Uncharted 3 disappointed) and she is once again the undisputed Queen of the genre.
It’s pretty clear that Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics mean business with Tomb Raider. No one in their right mind would spend the kind of time and money making a game like this as a one-off, and the game’s ending, too, hints at things to come. That’s no bad thing in my book; if the sequels are anything like as good as this, I’m all in.
Note: At the time of writing, Tomb Raider is not yet readily available. As a result, I was unable to test out the multiplayer component, and therefore this review only relates to the singleplayer aspect of the title.
:: Publisher: Square Enix
:: Developer: Crystal Dynamics
:: Format: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
:: Rating: R16