Although it’s hard to believe, the truth is that almost seventeen years have passed since the world was first introduced to Core Design’s buxom archaeologist, Lara Croft. In that time, we’ve seen countless fictional heroes come and go, with only a small amount ever showing enough grit and likeability to remain popular in the ever-changing entertainment world. Despite those challenging odds, the brown-haired adventurer has retained her crown as gaming’s digital queen, and even transcended mediums by appearing in two spin-off films of unimpressive quality. That’s a lot of success for a character that is known best for her outlandish bra size.
Unfortunately, success is fleeting, especially when it comes to pop culture. Despite Lara’s unforgettable nature and her lengthy run of popularity, her Tomb Raider brand entered into limbo earlier on in this console generation, as it seemed that the medium’s gameplay advancements and newly-introduced hits had surpassed what had become a rather repetitive and somewhat archaic action-adventure design. However, Square Enix once again showed that it is not willing to abandon potential, tasking Crystal Dynamics, the series’ incumbent developer, with reinventing the wheel. A risky process, but one that needed to be undertaken in order to save the fading brand, it has resulted in a much talked-about reboot that looks like it will send Lara’s finances back into the black.
Simply titled Tomb Raider, like its 1996 predecessor, Crystal Dynamics’ latest release essentially takes things back to the beginning. Eschewing the series’ stilted movement controls for something much more organic and modern feeling, it proves that a lot of thought and effort went into its undertaking. Simply put, this isn’t the Lara Croft that many of us grew up with, and that’s a good thing. Then again, I never could get into the series’ previous releases, no matter how hard I tried.
The easiest way to categorize Tomb Raider 2013 is to refer to it as an origin story reboot. Its meaty, ten to fifteen hour-long campaign begins aboard a ship, where a remodelled and much more believable version of Lara Croft is putting her archaeological interests to good use. However, she’s not alone this time, and that’s clear from the get-go, as we’re introduced to an interesting cast of supporting characters, all of whom are working together to create an educational reality show. Their target? The island home of a mythical Asian queen.
From the start, it’s made clear that the team is lost. Instead of being able to put their smarts, athleticism and monetary budget to good use, they’re forced to shoot B-roll footage aboard the ship because they’re unsure of where to go next. The island’s location is unknown, but a general idea exists. Lara, however, feels differently, and forces everyone to abandon course for a different direction – an unfortunate decision that ends up leading to disaster when a ferocious storm engulfs the vessel and eventually destroys it. It’s only by pure luck and effort that those aboard make it out alive, landing on a strange island without necessary supplies.
When it comes to something like this, it’s best to say little about the plot. It’s simply something that one should get to experience for himself, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. All I’ll say is that things go from bad to worse quickly, as it turns out that the seemingly desolate island isn’t as devoid of human life as it seemed to be from the onset. That, and the fact that those who call it home aren’t exactly hospitable folks.
What’s great is that the aforementioned storyline isn’t a slouch by any means. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite; a bonafide hit with great narrative structure and tons of immersive qualities. I always wanted to see what would happen next, as Lara was continually put through Hell in her attempt to survive and escape. Faced with adversity at almost all times, she was forced to take measures into her own hands, which is something that accentuated the experience while decreasing its realism. Most will say that the character switches from an innocent survivor to a professional killer too quickly, but this is a video game after all. Plus, part of it can be credited to the innate survival nature that lies within us all. That’s something which plays heavily into things, as the heroine must quickly learn to hunt in order to eat, while being careful not to let hungry wolves close in.
Expectedly, Lara starts small and builds her way up to larger things when it comes to the gameplay. The first available weapon is a bow, and it’s followed by a pistol, both of which the protagonist learns to use on the fly as players are introduced to their finely-tuned mechanics. Then, as things progress she’s able to scavenge and mod other projectile firing items, including an assault rifle, a compound bow and a shotgun. There are only four inventory spots, which the available weapons fill, but the idea is that each one can be improved through the collection of parts and wreckage. As a result, the available inventory ends up becoming a powerful arsenal.
In keeping with the game’s impressive and immersive storyline, Crystal Dynamics took its time and crafted a high quality combat system that is both easy to learn and fun to utilize. While the aforementioned weapons play a major role in that action, they’re not the only tools that Lara has at her advantage. As players upgrade her skills through an embedded experience point system that caters to three different skill trees, they’ll learn how to blind enemies with sand, and will also be able to debilitate foes with a survival axe. Needless to say, there’s a surprising amount of choice available, and it all combines to create an exhilarating set of combat mechanics.
Expectedly, every tool and weapon that Lara comes across ends up having a secondary (or even tertiary) use later on. Bows end up being able to string rope from one point to another, and can also be used to pull enemies off of ledges. Additionally, shotgun shells must be utilized in order to destroy barricades, and a secondary grenade launcher accessory allows the rifle to aid players’ progression through seemingly impassible locations. It’s impressive stuff.
Further accentuating the experience is an accessible traversal system that allows Lara to climb many different types of surfaces through the use of a simple input scheme. Not only does it allow her to explore the large, open world island with relative ease, it also plays into the campaign in a major way. In actuality, a large portion of this Tomb Raider experience relies on utilizing rails, rope lines and rock faces to get from one point to another. It mimics Uncharted in many ways, but that didn’t bother me because I’m a big fan of Nathan Drake’s adventures.
Being able to climb and move freely throughout environments is not only key to campaign progression; it’s also incredibly important when it comes to completing the secondary tombs that dot the landscape. Within those seven environments, the game’s puzzle system is given a chance to shine. That ends up being both a good and a bad thing, because most of the hidden tombs are only about five minutes long. Some of them include interesting puzzles, but they’re still quite simple, and that’s something that will surely bother longtime fans of the series. Thankfully, I’m much more of an action guy than a puzzle guru, so I was able to easily overlook the game’s lack of lengthy puzzles.
With all of the above being said, I’m sure I don’t need to explain that I loved this new take on Tomb Raider. That is, from a campaign perspective. It’s interesting and immersive, boasting a wealth of gameplay options, not to mention a ton of hidden collectibles to find and region-specific challenges to master. The multiplayer, on the other hand, is a bit of a different story.
Separately developed by Eidos Montreal, the multiplayer offering found within Tomb Raider is dated and rough around the edges. However, after putting several hours into it, I started to enjoy it and became somewhat hooked. Still, even though it has enjoyable elements, the mode is far from great, presenting limited maps and occasionally problematic third-person shooting mechanics, on top of four uninspired but enjoyable game modes.
As far as presentation goes, the multiplayer component is lacking in just about every department. Its gunfire is too loud, making enemies’ locations hard to predict, and it looks old. Thankfully, that isn’t the case with the core campaign, which is vivid, colourful and beautiful to look at. Great art direction and detailed character models allowed the developers to create an occasionally jaw-dropping experience, which truly tests Lara Croft’s resolve. The only downside to be found amidst the stunning scenery and well above-average voice acting is the framerate, which started to stutter a bit as I approached the end of the game. The disc also locked up and skipped once, but I can’t say for sure that it was the result of a glitch. In fact, I’m wondering if the disc I purchased is defective in some way.
If you like great action-adventure games and enjoyed what Uncharted offered, Crystal Dynamics’ brand new Tomb Raider reboot is something that you should definitely look into. It’s a great game, which offers players a rich, polished and unforgettable experience.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
With its 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider brand, Crystal Dynamics has delivered a near masterpiece of the action-adventure variety.