Another month, another reboot. For movies and games, this is becoming the artistic choice de rigueur. For Lara Croft and her sporadic and inconsistent Tomb Raiding, it seems like this was as good a time as any to jump on the bandwagon. However, Crystal Dynamics, having developed the last three 3D titles, Legend, Anniversary and Underworld, also released the very different, and very well received isometric, co-op based Guardian of Light, displaying a willingness to take Lara in a different direction.
Starting aboard the aptly-named ship Endurance, the game loses no time plunging the player into the action, and wastes precious few moments developing character. All we know is that Lara is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a young archaeology student on the trail of a secret Island housing a even more secretive ancient civilization, and that an inexplicable storm scuttles the ship. A few flashbacks a little later in the game help to counter this and help fill in the blanks, aided by the discovery of a camcorder that documents some time on the ship before the opening disaster. Separated from the rest of the crew, Lara is literally thrown in at the deep end, forced to survive and search for her fellow explorers.
Some of the early camerawork is up close and claustrophobic. In the opening moments there are a couple of real wince-inducing moments – this game can be graphically brutal. Lara is put through the wringer in order to stress how vulnerable and out of her depth she is: this is not the Miss Croft we are use to. She can initially feel a little floaty, controlling more akin to Nathan Drake than the weight of say, an Isaac Clarke or Commander Shepard, and the animations of her movement have her crawling and scurrying, rather than the confident poise of previous games. Make no mistake, this is an origin story.
It starts off, and remains for the most part, a fairly linear affair, with a few rewards for venturing off the beaten path. The most prominent of these is the titular tombs, which in all honestly amount to nothing more than a small puzzle room, lacking the complexity of the multi-room puzzles of the original games. It does however have a wealth of collectibles, but can suffer from the same jarring disconnect that plagued games such as Alan Wake, where any sense of momentary urgency is broken by veering of the path of least resistance to hunt for completion tokens .
Much has been made of the disconnect between the tone of the story and the actual actions of Lara, and by proxy, the player. This narrative dissonance (a term coined by Far Cry 2’s lead designer Clint Hocking) is noticeable, and basically means that the story being told can be vastly different to what the player might actually doing, so much so that the two can become separated, causing a rift between them. This is a problem of many narrative driven games, and one that it is a challenge to eradicate completely, especially as player choice, no matter if that choice is in a massive open world environment or simply the ability to push left instead of right, can easily cause this dissonance.
Crystal Dynamics, to their credit, do a better job that most of addressing this issue, especially in the earlier stages. Yes, by the mid-point, Lara is armed to the teeth and taking out goons left right and centre, but then being helpless, underpowered and finding everything distressing and grim, as Lara should be, would make for a very different game, highly arguably one not as fun.
One of the joys of Tomb Raider is simply playing it. Moving around the environment, especially once Lara has a few toys literally under her belt, is a pleasure. Lara never cracks wise in the manner of Nathan Drake, helping to preserve some semblance of realism. There is actually a moment roughly half way into the game where her demeanour suddenly changes, and she announces herself the hunter as opposed to the hunted; her tone and that of the game as a whole, is decidedly opposite to that of Drake.
Whilst the comparisons to Uncharted are obvious, the game owes more to Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. As one of this generation’s greatest games, this is a comparison not made lightly, and one that is deserved. Like Arkham Asylum, Tomb Raider is faultless in the way it propels the player forward, from one area and encounter to the next, will a steady drip feeding of unlock able equipment (rope arrows, winches, explosives) that encourages repeated exploration of visited areas. These are not as varied as in Arkham Asylum – there is a general brownness to the surroundings – but Crystal dynamics do their best to take Lara through as much variety they can on a mysterious pacific island. There are mountain temples, shanty towns and shipwreck beaches, and all give a clear sense of space and progression. There is also a lack of something like the over-arching puzzle of the Riddler challenges, but the collectibles themselves are interesting and useful. Some of the documents fleshing out the characters are particularly worth hunting out and reading.
Everything discovered, collected and picked up gives XP, which directly feeds back into Lara’s skill tree. She also collects ‘salvage’, a generic term given to anything of use picked up from chests, boxes and corpses both human and animal. Whilst simple, it also becomes extremely convenient, allowing the player to simply focus on playing the game.
It can easily be argued that there are times where the amount of punishment she takes, where the numerous falling platforms and lengthy tumbles become a bit too much. However, this is a video game, and players must be expected to suspend a certain amount of disbelief going in. Technically and structurally, there is very little to fault. By the end of the narrative, which should be pursued in order to maintain momentum and unlock as many toys as possible, the player is left with a sense of power reflected in the actions of Lara. Her transformation from vulnerable young woman to hardened warrior is handled as well as any video game has ever done.
There is a multiplayer mode, and whilst merely adequate in ambition, it is relatively fun. Similar to the Uncharted multiplayer, in that there is emphasis on traversal as well as combat, you have two factions to pick from, the Survivors and the Scavengers. There are four game modes including the standard Team Deathmatch, but also an objective based mode called Rescue, where the Survivors are charged with retrieving medical supplies whilst the Scavengers have to sabotage them. As you level up you unlock weapons and perks and new character models (Lara is level 60), which are mostly cosmetic. It’s all very generic, but a surprising amount of fun. It won’t have legs, so jump on whilst you can (the multiplayer is already gaining a small following in the Midlife gamer community – check out the forums!)
However, it’s the single player where Tomb Raider triumphs. Crystal Dynamics have set a late-generation standard for both action-adventure games and successful reboots, confidently guiding Lara through an adventure that offers great potential for future installments.
MLG Rating: 9/10 Format: Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3 / PC Release Date: 05/03/2013
Disclosure: Craig Hallam purchased a copy of Tomb Raider for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 1 week on an Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.