I was feeling light-headed as I played the first hour or so of Tomb Raider. This was not due to blood sugar issues, though have no doubt that I am one unhealthy fellow, rather, I was holding my breath. I had concerns that I feared would become real. Lara Croft has long had a target painted on her back by those who dabble in gender politics, and I fretted that her newest outing would pander to those who saw something untoward in certain female heroines. Then there was Uncharted, seen by some as a modern Tomb Raider, but seen by me as a poor man’s answer to the heyday of the once beloved franchise. Would Tomb Raider just be Uncharted with a lassie?
Now, after pouring countless hours into exploring a long-lost Japanese island, unloading clip after clip, arrow after arrow, into the faces of a never-ending horde of psychopathic, shipwrecked men, I look back at my earlier worries and can’t help but chuckle. Have the issues many had with Lara’s earlier incarnations had an impact? Undoubtedly. Has Uncharted left its mark on this much older franchise? It seems clear to me that it has. Is it any worse off for these things? No, this is the best Tomb Raider game you will play.
Tomb Raider isn’t the first time the series has gone back to look at Lara’s origins, with Tomb Raider Chronicles featuring some of her earlier adventures, but with the latest instalment being a reboot, we are seeing the adventurer for the first time, not as a flashback. No longer is she a once privileged adventurer seeking lost treasures, her background being something of a mystery, instead she’s a young, somewhat naive student of archaeology, travelling through Asia by boat, searching for the lost civilisation of Yamatai.
The word “vulnerable” has been bandied around with wild abandon as one of the things that sets this Lara apart from the earlier games, but this is only really the case when compared to the ridiculously self-assured, career adventurer that she used to be/might still become. Considering her youth and inexperience, she’s far less vulnerable than anyone has a right to be in her situation.
Her expedition went awry, her ship dashed on the rocks, friends captured, and a huge group of maniacs stalk her across a stunning, yet imposing, hidden island. What began as an academic quest rapidly becomes a desperate fight for survival, as Lara attempts to save her companions and escape the deadly confines of this savage wilderness. She’s wracked with guilt, blaming herself for bringing her friends to this place, and she sees it as her responsibility to bring them back safely.
Yamatai serves as a terrible rite of passage for the young Croft, as well as a seemingly self-imposed punishment for putting her comrades in the situation they find themselves in. She gets shot, stabbed, mauled; she falls down slopes and cliffs with nearly ridiculous frequency, usually crashing and injuring herself rather badly; she gets choked, kicked, punched and in one instance there’s a rather severe implication of rape — all in all her journey is a brutal, unpleasant one, and one that is rather foul to bear witness to.
There is something of a disparity between Lara’s apparent inexperience and the skill she has it both surviving and killing, even though the game makes it obvious that she is only killing because she has to, not because she’s some murder-hungry treasure hunter. She begins captured and weak, but with surprising speed she is climbing sheer cliffs, slaughtering armies of men, and fighting wolves with her bare hands. With the extremely serious tone, it’s easy to forget that this is still a Tomb Raider game, and as with the other titles, it requires suspension of disbelief. As Rothe, her Northern mentor tells her, she’s “a Croft”. And apparently that means something rather important.
Her lineage, specifically her father, is only briefly mentioned, but it’s clear that there’s adventurer blood pumping through Lara’s veins. Admittedly, it’s a wee bit silly, but even as she starts to explore and kill with preternatural efficiency, there’s always the sense of struggle and pain. Lara flinches, loses her grip when climbing, injures herself multiple times to the point of passing out, and messes up on more than a few occasions. While it never reaches the heights of realism suggested by the marketing, at the very least the absurdity is somewhat grounded.
As Lara becomes more confident, more experienced through the narrative, her inventory become more effective, as do her abilities. There’s no point in even calling these things roleplaying elements anymore, as crafting, upgrades and levelling up have simply become synonymous with modern video games. Personally, I think Lara’s upgrades would have been more effective if they simply happened via her growth as a character rather than being based on experience points and finding weapon parts, but it sort of ends up happening like that regardless, with experience and “drops” being doled out at a measured pace in time with the game’s narrative.
New tools are also given to Lara at specific points in the game, available for use for the rest of the experience — and damn are they a joy to use. Rope arrows allow her to traverse huge chasms, fire arrows set her foes ablaze while also freeing salvage material (used for upgrading weapons) from rope nets, and by the end of the game she has a veritable military arsenal at her disposal.
Although the exploration — of which there is an absolutely vast amount — is significantly more enjoyable than the combat, the latter is still more than competent, polished even. Enemies react believably, using cover intelligently and never sticking to one spot, and their battle banter is rather excellent. They’ll notice when Lara is reloading, calling on their allies to intensify their attack, but most amusing is their surprise at just how deadly she is. “She’s just one girl!” one maniac will cry, “One girl who is kicking our asses!” responds his chum. It was enough to elicit a grin despite the less than comedic setting.
Weapons, which I had few expectations about, actually work wonderfully. Not only do many of them have important uses outside of combat to facilitate exploration, in combat they offer a great deal of variety, all coming with alternative modes of fire, and have a solid, punchy feel. Of course, nothing beats the bow. The bow is what the combat portion of Tomb Raider is all about, and archers have suddenly become rather cool, again.
It is the aforementioned exploration where the game really peaks, however. While Tomb Raider appears to be a completely linear game, especially with the story constantly driving players forward, there’s a huge island to explore at your convenience. One can fast travel via camps, immediately teleporting to previously visited areas, cleared of enemies, ripe for exploration. As new tools are unlocked, so too are new paths and avenues for hunting down the various relics, journal entries and assorted challenges that give the game a bit more flavour.
They don’t gel particularly well with the fast-paced “you’ve got to save everyone” plot, but sometimes it is a relief to have a break from all that hoopla. The journals offer up more background on some of the characters and the history of the island, which is rather handy since there’s not a huge amount of exposition for the most part, while the relics remind players that Lara is, indeed, an archaeologist. When discovered, she’ll explain a wee bit about where the relic came from and its historical relevance, and these moments mark the rare instances where Lara isn’t bleak and miserable.
Optional tombs — Lara’s a tomb raider, remember? — round off the exploration romp, with each containing treasures and, more importantly, puzzles! The tombs are lovingly crafted, stunning monuments, though the puzzles are a bit more throwaway, their solutions obvious — especially thanks to Lara’s special instinct mode which highlights important objects. That said, they remain satisfying, and make great use of Lara’s ever-increasing inventory.
It makes a lot of sense that Crystal Dynamics wanted to reboot Tomb Raider rather than make their foray into the franchise a direct continuation from the earlier games. Tomb Raider is very much a product of its time, feeling markedly different from its predecessors. Most noticeable was their choice to add a significant amount of directed action, scenes that in the other games, in another age, would have been cutscenes, if they existed at all. This is where we can see the greatest similarity between Tomb Raider and Uncharted.
Things happen to Lara, and she becomes a participant rather than the centre of the action in these instances. When she’s sliding down rapids, tumbling off bridges and fighting wolves in quick-time-events, the action becomes the focus rather than the character, and player control is limited to dealing with the emergency at hand. While these moments will certainly feel, to some, like they are being robbed of control unfairly, I found that it complimented the narrative perfectly.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Lara is a victim in Tomb Raider, but there are certainly specific instances when she is, and she is fighting against the odds, constantly having to react to new threats. The loss of control found in the directed action sequences emphasises this, hammering home the point that she’s struggling to survive and things are out of her control, just as players lose the control they had. Mechanics and story come together perfectly in these intense sequences in a delightfully meta fashion.
PC users should be aware that there are some issues with the game when using an Nvidia card, and the much flouted hair physics has only been optimised for AMD cards, making it something of a hog on the competition’s alternatives. I experienced a few crashes early on, but that was quickly solved by downloading Nvidia inspector, deleting the Tomb Raider profile, and selecting the Hitman Absolution one instead (thanks Ricochetguro!). Minor issues notwithstanding, Tomb Raider is an absolutely gorgeous title, rendering the island of Yamatai both realistically and sumptuously. If it wasn’t such an insane, cursed land, it would be lovely for a hiking holiday.
Nobody could be as surprised as I was by Tomb Raider. It deftly walks the line between action and adventure, offering up plenty to keep fans of both, or either, more than satisfied. It’s also unexpectedly meaty, providing a lot of optional content for those who need to complete everything. Included is a solidly designed multiplayer mode, though I confess that I only played it to test it for this review, not really caring about tacked on extras, even when they are competent. It’s there if you want it, though. It’s loss wouldn’t have much of an impact, however, with Tomb Raider being a phenomenal single-player title. If the end is anything to go on, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Lara in the future, a prospect I couldn’t be happier about.