Not being a fan of the Tomb Raider series I didn’t really pay much attention when the new game was announced and it wasn’t until shots of a gritty world featuring a bloody Lara Croft began to filter into my conscience that I was compelled to check it out. My main problem with the “old” Tomb Raider games was that I found Lara’s character to be lacking in depth. It was hard to care whenever something bad happened to her.
The rebooted Lara not only has depth and personality but you do care about her and desperately want to keep her alive. No more flinging the bouncy heroine off cliffs with sadistic glee thinking “It’s ok, her boobs will break her fall.” Gritty doesn’t begin to describe the brutal, horrific world that Crystal Dynamics have thrown Lara into. She is beaten physically and psychologically, and you experience every blow with her.
The game starts out as it means to go on, by throwing you straight into the action. It can’t be denied that Tomb Raider shines when it comes to actual gameplay. There is nothing innovative about the techniques that Crystal Dynamics have utilised but that is something that is becoming more and more difficult to achieve these days. It is after all “what you do with it that counts.”
And they do deliver. Everything is polished and perfected, whether it’s the ability to snap to cover or the upgrade system which is based on XP and finding pieces of salvage. Even as Lara’s weapons became more sophisticated I still found myself resorting to the bow and arrow. Arrows are plentiful (often a bit too conveniently placed!) and if you like stealthy tactics, it’s the best way to approach a group of heavily armed men who will immediately rush you and throw Molotov cocktails when they discover your position. It’s also just a damned cool way to kill people.
The island Lara and her fellow survivors find themselves on could be a character itself, it is so well crafted in its visuals and atmosphere. The game is stunning and the attention to detail is exquisite, whether it’s in Lara’s unconscious decision to put a hand out to steady herself when edging along a narrow ledge, or simply in the way the rain splatters the camera. My personal favourite is the view out over the coast, with the waves lashing against the rocks and the sun lighting up scattered shipwrecks.
The steady drip of water in a sinister looking underground passage or the rush of the wind relentlessly beating at you while Lara precariously balances on swinging crates add to the mood and the music blends seamlessly with the on screen action. Fights are suitably dramatic, pulling you into the urgency of the situation, and the softer scores that accompany quieter moments of exploration are eerie and ominous.
Of course it wouldn’t be Tomb Raider without a few tombs to raid and while these are mostly side quests they do provide some replay value and rewards. I was quite happy to just play through the story however as the sense of necessity can be lost if you spend too long off the beaten track. There are puzzles along the way as well, nothing too taxing but they are fitting for the circumstances in which Lara finds herself, such as lighting fires to allow various objects to fall into each other, perhaps revealing a hidden path.
The story is more about showing how a young vulnerable Lara Croft becomes the fearsome tomb raider as we know her. Her character has one of the best development arcs I’ve seen in a game. More often than not, if you fail a task, you are given a glimpse of the grisly fate that befalls the heroine, be it through a sickening crack as she breaks her neck on a rock or a heart wrenching wail as she is driven through an impaling branch. The knowledge of this brutal demise after everything she has been through already is enough to make you want to keep Lara alive.
The single player campaign more than makes up for the lacklustre multiplayer that accompanies it and I won’t dwell on that part here. This is a brilliantly realised origin story for a character that desperately needed some proper attention and it’s very exciting to go along on that journey with her. We are there right from Lara’s disgust and dismay at her first kill, through to her full-blown Rambo mode that sees her wiping out entire camps of poorly organised bad guys. It’s do or die and we can sympathise and understand her motivations, which is more than can be said for a lot of video game protagonists.
With a reinvigorated fan base Crystal Dynamics can now move forward with a solid origins story and develop the character and her world even further. As one of her foes disclaims in exasperation “Shit, she’s still alive!” Lara replies with a defiantly triumphant “Yes, still alive!” Damn right. I look forward to spending more time with Lara in future games.