Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider reboot accomplishes many things, but among them it establishes one principle, an absolute truth: Legends aren’t born, they’re made. Through trials that will test Lara Croft’s survival instinct, her willpower, her strength, and her courage, this isn’t the iconic heroine you know. She’s human. She’s real. She is pure and innocent and finds out very quickly that the only choice that matters in life is the choice to live. You will see her endure grueling inflictions and torment, and through it all, you will see a survivor emerge.
Tomb Raider tells the reimagined tale of Lara Croft’s origins: the truth behind how she became one of gaming’s most iconic leading ladies. Her first kill is handled with grace and humility by the game’s creators and shows a truly realized twenty-one year old woman in the situation that will define her life. Perhaps a little too presumptuous is how quickly Lara accommodates herself, as one minute she’s weeping over the dead body of her assailant and the next the game proposes you take out a handful of island inhabitants nearby. But this is something quickly forgiven considering the circumstances surrounding Lara’s adventure. It’s kill or be killed, and by the end of the game you’ll have seen the full extent of her character’s growth that breathes refreshing new life into this icon.
The same can’t entirely be said for the supporting cast, which largely fit the bill of stereotypes and genre clichés: the geeky tech support, the spiritual protector, the ambitious and naïve best friend, etc. The only character who steps up to the plate is Conrad Roth, whose own arc largely juxtaposes Lara’s. He serves as both a mentor and father figure to our heroine, offering advice, guidance, and most of all, trust. He is the catalyst that drives Lara to believe in herself and in the things that she must to do rescue her friends from the savage island inhabitants and the strange weather phenomena that has resulted in hundreds of shipwrecks and plane crashes for thousands of years. (If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was a LOST video game – and a better one than the actual LOST game).
Lara’s journey begins shortly after her ship, the Endurance, unwillingly joins other wrecked vessels on a mysterious island rumored to be home of the lost Yamatai civilization, a Japanese kingdom that worshipped the Sun Queen Himiko. The first hour of the game is a stretch of quick-time events and various unfortunate situations that Lara must find her way out of, but only serve to strengthen her resolve when she finally gets to roam around. Make it past this and the island becomes your playground. Not quite to the extent of games like Far Cry 3 or Assassin’s Creed 3, but Tomb Raider gives you enough freedom within each given area to explore and discover all of the hidden novelties in the world, including journal entries from some of the island’s previous inhabitants and Lara’s shipmates, the latter of which give some insight into the characters despite their lack of growth in the story.
Each area offers a dozen or more collectible items to find and various campsites to discover, many of them serving as fast travel locations to allow quick access to and from another map. Campsites will also function as your primary base of operations for leveling and upgrading your weapons. Accomplishing certain tasks in the story, discovering treasure chests, or collecting full sets of items will usually reward you with both XP and salvage. Salvage is used to purchase attachments to your weapons, either improving firing rate, reload speed, accuracy, damage, ammunition, and more. The game rarely feels sparse for salvage, as well, considering there are multitudes of ways to get it, including a very basic albeit sufficient hunting system.
Combat feels extremely tight and precise and offers players a pleasantly varied sense of gameplay. You can progress through most of the game in stealth, using silenced firearms, your bow, or close-range kills with your axe to dispatch enemies quietly, and the stealth doesn’t feel like a gimmick as it did in Uncharted, either. Lara’s animations as she moves close to walls and cover look and feel natural. And speaking of cover: I’m a fairly vocal detractor for cover-based gameplay but Tomb Raider does it better than any other game I’ve seen; in fact, if all cover shooters were to adopt this method, I’d be okay with it. In essence, there is no designated button to stick to cover or pull away from it: instead, Lara will intelligently duck or hide if you’re near appropriate terrain when an enemy is nearby. Because she’s not actually stuck to the wall, you can freely switch between cover without it feeling too rigid. Many environments are also destructible, forcing you to be quick and resourceful about how you approach any combat situation.
The platforming elements in the game are equally responsive and incorporate a number of different tools to provide a fresh experience even near the final stretch of the game. The acquisition of a rope will allow you to shimmy across otherwise unreachable gaps, while your initial axe upgraded will eventually let you scale particularly craggy walls. Even in the final hours you’ll acquire a device that lets you zipline across the ropes you string up, among other, more practical uses. The variety of ways the game seeks to keep things fresh throughout, and the excellent pacing of this so that you never feel frontloaded with all of the goodies but don’t feel particularly bored by the end as well serve to strengthen an already solid action game.
The locations you’ll trek through have Lara climbing massive rickety radio towers (again, are we sure this isn’t LOST?), snowy mountain peaks, a ruined village, ancient Japanese temples, and more. Among these locations are the game’s namesakes: optional tombs that offer adequate rewards for those willing to raid them, usually in the form of a heaping helping of XP, salvage, a weapon part used for upgrade, and a location map. While the tombs themselves aren’t particularly large in scale, and the puzzles within aren’t all that difficult, they are a decent enough diversion and provide just enough fan service to those who expected more of the old. This is, after all, an origin story: she can’t have always been a “tomb raider.”
Perhaps the game’s greatest flaw is in its multiplayer, an unnecessary addition that seems to have been added simply because an apparently vocal group of people wanted it. I’m of the mindset that a game does not need multiplayer – even in this day and age – to be a worthy purchase, and Tomb Raider could have proven that theory if the developers had stuck to their original ideals. Alas, instead we’re given a few rather bland and uninspired modes that honestly do more to insult the game than compliment it.
Visually, the game is stunning. The environments are equal parts breathtaking and harrowing. The camera is always on the right side of cinematic, providing you gorgeous backdrops as Lara scales a wall, or focusing in on the action in an intense shootout. Lara’s animations in particular, as I’ve mentioned earlier, are excellent, and Camilla Ludington turns out a wonderful performance as both the voice and motion capture of Lara herself. She’s appropriately naïve and awestruck when she needs to be, and gives the character enough emotional depth to allow players even a fraction of the understanding of what Lara might be going through. There are many gruesome scenes in the game, to be sure, some of them as a result of an accidental death, but others that are essential to the plot and serve only to show that this legend has gone to hell and back, but she made it.
A few notable glitches occurred, namely in one particular chain link fence that looked wide open from a distance, but it wasn’t until I moved right up next to it that the fence appeared. You may also occasionally find animals spinning around in place. Do not be alarmed. Quick-time events are also increasingly becoming a crutch in gaming, and sometimes Tomb Raider uses them freely. Never more so in one specific location than the initial hour of the game, but some scenes or combat scenarios could have played out much more dramatically if they didn’t boil down to “push [this button]…..NOW.”
Tomb Raider’s greatest strength is indeed in its heritage. It is a powerful ally that maintains a devoted fanbase to this day. Luckily for them and everyone else, the game lives up to that legacy. Lara is treated like a person, perhaps for the first time in her storied career, and is allowed to grow in extraordinary ways. That growth is at the core of this story, which at times may feel predictable but rarely pedantic. Complimented by strong gameplay mechanics despite a large misstep in the online department, and an evocative, fascinating island to explore, Tomb Raider is an emotional and exhilarating look into the birth of a gaming legend.