Tomb Raider Review
Genre: Action Shooter
Tomb Raider manages to apply lessons learned from Batman, Assassin’s Creed, and Far Cry, among others, without cheaply imitating them. It is the best Tomb Raider to date and hopefully we will see more of the new Lara Croft.
It has taken a long time, but Tomb Raider has finally grown up. The series has made a name for itself in the past by flaunting its juvenile male fantasies, and decent gameplay was always marred by main character Lara Croft’s disproportionate appearance and focus on her form over function. She was a female lead in an age where female leads were nearly unheard of (and not simply rare, like today). This year’s Tomb Raider carries on some of the traditions of its predecessors, but is nearly unrecognizable as a Lara Croft game. It also has a standout story, cast, visuals, and gameplay, and is an excellent game both in its own right and especially as a reboot.
This game serves as an origin story and is a complete reboot. Lara is a young archaeologist following in her father’s footsteps on her first expedition. While she works with a crew, Lara is far from the lead. She seems like hardly more than a grad student, a far cry from her reputation in previous games and a bold move by the developers. When the ship they’re on is nearly destroyed in a storm, the crew lands on a bizarre tropical island off the coast of Japan. They soon discover that the massive storms surrounding the island are not natural, and the place is inhabited by a strange cult that is unfortunately in the market for young female sacrifices.
Almost immediately, Lara’s survival becomes more important than any archaeological concerns. She is separated from her friends in an alien and extremely hostile environment with almost no supplies, and you can watch her transformation from a naive, mildly self-righteous scientist to a battered, angry survivor. The first half hour of the game is an exercise in resilience as Lara is assaulted, tied up, stabbed, and thrown down mountain ravines, and somehow manages to walk away with only moderate injuries. Like Batman: Arkham City, Lara’s appearance changes throughout the game. Her clothes are caked with blood after each serious injury she sustains, and each bandage or wrapping she applies stays put after its cutscene. Her skin and hair is grimey. And, to the voice actor’s credit, you can also hear the change in Lara through the critical path. At the beginning she is afraid and uncertain, moving from one objective to another through directions from other survivors. Towards the end of the game she has suffered a great deal – she makes her own decisions, often unilaterally, and is quite angry. Lara is not clean or smooth in this game – she is hanging on by the skin of her teeth. She is also dressed somewhat appropriately, with an actual pair of trousers instead of the booty shorts from previous titles.
The game is set in the third person and defies convention, combining elements from stealth games, shooting, action/adventure, and platforming, with the odd bit of RPG in the form of leveling and upgradeable weapons. Lara uses her axe and bow to climb around the trees, mountains, and ruins of the island, some of them quite gargantuan in scope. She frequently has to face down marauding cultists as she does so, and collects a few weapons to this end as she goes, such as a shotgun and assault rifle. All of these gameplay elements coalesce very well, and the game is challenging from beginning to end. Downed enemies and wild game offer up bits of salvage, which can be used at campsites to add upgrades to weapons. As Lara progresses through the campaign, defeats enemies, and collects items, she gains experience points which can be used to do more damage with weapons, collect more salvage, and other such nifty abilities.
While the first act of the game is rather linear, soon the island opens up and you are free to explore as you please. While the open world doesn’t have quite the richness of other recent games like Far Cry 3, it is chock full of collectibles, from benign GPS geocaches to journal entries and historical relics that shed light on the storyline. Also littered through the game world are, of course, tombs. These are mostly optional and each one features a single environmental puzzle that must be solved with Lara’s weapons and tools. While the game is notable for having puzzles that are actually fun to figure out and not tedious, each of the tombs is very short and something of a missed opportunity, especially with the platforming being as fun as it is. Mercifully, completing these tombs gives you treasure maps, which lets you home in on collectibles without having to resort to hours of tedious searching or the ignominy of a YouTube walkthrough.
The game has multiplayer of course, but it is not quite the tacked-on slog that is unceremoniously dumped into most other games. There are four gametypes, the standard team-based deathmatch, free-for-all, and a couple varieties of capture the flag. Like the main campaign, you can platform around the levels, and there are even ziplines and gondolas. You can also set up traps throughout each map, such as a snare that will put your opponent upside-down or a spike trap to kill them instantly. Earning multiplayer experience lets you level up and accumulate more skins and weapons. While the platforming and traps are a novelty, the multiplayer’s appeal in general wears off once you get to around level 5 or so. It is not bad multiplayer, just nothing particularly standout, particularly in comparison to the stellar single-player campaign.
Tomb Raider picks up where Underworld left off in attempting to transform the franchise into something players would want to experience again. Whereas Underworld couldn’t quite cut the mustard, Tomb Raider has successfully managed to breathe life back into the series, change Lara’s image, and also make one of the better single-player games this year to date.
Tomb Raider was reviewed on Xbox 360.