‘A survivor is born’ – Crystal Dynamics’ tagline in reference to the iconic gaming archaeologist Lara Croft and their telling of her origin story in this latest Tomb Raider game. Perhaps, it also holds just as much relevance to the reinvention of the two-decade old series that rarely broke away from its original formula. Now, a cinematic epic with sprawling maps and intense action sequences; drawing inspiration from places it once inspired itself, Tomb Raider is back with the aim of showing us why merely surviving would be an aspiration that sells itself, considerably short.
Game: Tomb Raider
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Developers Crystal Dynamics takes us all the way back to Lara Croft’s first expedition where the adventurer, accompanied by a camera crew and team, is in search of a mythical archaeological site. It’s not the heroine we all know, however. The quippy, often tongue-in-cheek Lara of old is replaced by her younger self; a more vulnerable, inexperienced (albeit still immensely capable) character that endears and engages, and only later on begins to grow into something more familiar to longtime fans.
The decision to take Lara Croft back in time to her earlier years is a move that’s somewhat synonymous with current media trends. Like the Dark Knight, Bond and Spider-Man, a darker spin on a popular brand has often proved much needed and Tomb Raider is certainly no exception as the game drags the protagonist through proverbial hell, particularly early on. She’ll be shipwrecked on the island, taken by the local cult, tied-up and forced to do inexplicable things in the quest to aid her friends.
It’s no exaggeration to say you’ll be genuinely engrossed in the way the main character evolves during the game, a large part of which is down to how well she’s portrayed by Camilla Luddington’s excellent voicing performance. The supporting cast is also serves their purpose admirably, but never really reaches the same depth and interest. There’s also a slight blip to the pacing of the plot someway in as the action takes center stage – whilst this is far from being a deal breaker, it does cause the game to become a little predictable come the final few hours.
Repetition in locale, seeing as the game bases itself on a single island, might also seem like a potential problem waiting to rear it’s head. Nothing could be farther from the truth, though. The island is lush, detailed and beautifully realised from snowy soaring mountain ranges to the island’s beaches and fire glistened caverns. Thanks to the island’s mystical nature, it’s also quite variable in look, so you’ll never tire of adjusting your angle half way up a ledge to see the background, or soaking in the scenery during cutscenes and cinematic segments.
It’s not just these segments that take the experience to another level. You’ll feel like you’re a main character in a Spielberg production, as the camera seamlessly floats in and out of scenes to gameplay and back again; it’s constantly sweeping around to give the player the most visually pleasing angle it possibly can as you fight and traverse through the island. The direction, score and sound scape is so impeccable in providing the gamer with an immersive, entertaining experience all-round, it’s really very difficult not to wax lyrical about it. It’s this detail to production that carries the game at times and serves as a saving grace to parts of it where story and gameplay falters.
Before I go into the gameplay though, I should probably mention the elephant that’s been honking in the corner of the room for the last five paragraphs – let’s call him, Nathan. Similarities to Naughty Dog’s labour of love are obvious, but it’s certainly not the be all and end all of Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider. Yes, they’ve learned that wooden buildings look ridiculously cool when on fire, gunplay is more fun when you have more control over it and that cinematic action sequences can really tie two areas together to form superlative plot points. However, what they’ve done is take the core gameplay a little further, whilst allowing a little of Lara’s gaming legacy to shine through at the same time.
Essentially, the game has taken a departure from it’s normal puzzling roots and joins a modern bandwagon of regenerating health and combat with cover mechanics. The cover system is one of the best I’ve seen. Whilst being totally automated it’s not hampering or unintuitive. For example, once Lara is near enemies she’ll move into a crouch-like combat form and smoothly sink into cover when you move close to it. This isn’t akin to the awkwardness of Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City’s temperamental auto-cover system. In fact, the biggest compliment you could pay to Tomb Raider in general is that within ten minutes of gameplay, you’ll have forgot that there’s any kind of combat system in place at all. The game allows you to engross yourself in what matters; being Lara Croft. It really does work that well.
They haven’t abandoned the heritage altogether, however. Lara Crofts talent for scaling peaks and navigating impossible routes that inspired so many other games is still here. It’s safe to say it’s never been quite as elating in a Tomb Raider game before this iteration, though. Not once did I miss a jump due to uncertainty, glitchiness or even frustration. Maybe it’s even a little too easy in that respect, as there’s never really any doubt where you need to be thanks to Lara’s adventuring know-how. Pressing a shoulder button highlights important progression objects in your immediate area, so you won’t be spending hours bamboozled in the same location like older games in the series.
The combat itself is particularly satisfying, which is important because with the nice balance of exploration alongside it, the fighting is what much of the game truly entails. Bows, shotguns, pistols and rifles are your arsenal; stealth kills, headshots, and brutal melee finishes are your goals. Doing these things give you boosts in experience points earned, which in turn allow you to upgrade weapons and unlock more fighting and survival skills. It makes treasure hunting and looting more meaningful, whilst making the journey to your next campfire (the game’s save and upgrading checkpoints) something to look forward to.
Early on weaponry is certainly scarce as you’re made to tick survival checklist boxes by hunting and foraging for supplies. Oddly, the hunting is almost completely dismissed a little way into the game. There’s also hidden tombs that each hold a platforming puzzle and a big box of glorious loot to salvage within – you’ll chuckle at the apparent irony of Lara announcing ‘I hate tombs’. It actually works surprisingly well but it’s difficult not to take them as a mere token gesture, simply there to appease old fans who might not be happy that their beloved puzzling has been relegated to small sidequests. The tombs are also far, far too easy to make them anything but a small distraction, despite being a welcome one.
Scripted action sequences tie everything together and are perhaps where similarities to action-gaming counterparts can be drawn the most. Intense skipping over crumbling bridges, escaping fiery infernos, dodging boulders down a cliff face – it’s all here, and pretty regular too. Towards the end, the variety and tense set-pieces wear a little thin as you begin predicting when one is about to occur. You won’t mind though because it’s so expertly done it feels aptly relevant to the situations and not unnecessarily tacked on, certainly not for the most part anyway.
Out of the main game you’ll find Tomb Raider’s competitive multiplayer. I’ll say straight off the bat that it’s largely forgettable. There’s enough to keep you initially entertained such as loadouts, experience points and unlocks but the combat can be jittery and doesn’t capture the same feel as the single player mode. The four typical versus game modes as either a cultist or survivor offer very little asides from a quick, superficial shoot up. Some will find some replay value here, but the multiplayer is essentially the polar-opposite of the main game in regards to content and execution.
Thankfully, there’s a heap of valuable knick-knacks, plot-aiding documents and tasks to complete in single-player, such as burning cult relics or lighting up hidden statues scattered throughout the island. Once the game is completed you’re allowed to venture back and pick up everything you’ve missed, so even after the seemingly quick ten to twelve hours you’ll invest in the main campaign, there’s still a lot of fun to be had exploring old territory. Also, any gamers who do manage to get on board with the multiplayer will, no doubt, be hard pushed to find longevity an issue.
Tomb Raider ultimately succeeds at rebooting the series. It’s a gritty and visceral journey that not only provides an intense origin story but also offers some wonderfully memorable moments. Despite losing it’s way a little someway into the game, you’ll be guided through it with some hugely satisfying combat and stunning production values. Come the ending credits it would be genuinely hard to imagine that anyone who’d reached them would be thinking anything but the solitary words, ‘more please’.