Lara Croft is back. Crystal Dynamics, best known for developing Legacy of Kain, were tasked with rebooting the venerable Tomb Raider series. Thanks to their efforts, we see a whole new side to the much-loved Lara Croft, and it’s “M” for mature.
Tomb Raider is an “origin story” at a point in time when Lara Croft isn’t the gun-toting, bad-ass explorer who has raided tomb over 10 games, graced the covers of hundreds of magazines, starred in her own film, and has been in the dreams of many a male admirer. Instead our Lara is a young idealist archaeologist on her first expedition, and is forcibly thrust into a life-threatening situation. Lara is unsure of her abilities, she is a victim of her situation and must learn the hard lessons of survival. It’s a story of loss and sacrifice, and of her transformation into everyone’s favourite dual pistol wielding heroine. For all the vulnerabilities that the story goes at great lengths to show, it’s a pity young Lara’s metamorphosis from frightened victim to outright killer is so jarring. She sobs uncontrollably after her first kill but no sooner can you squeeze a hair trigger, and she is taking headshots and sticking her climbing axe through vital organs. Just like that, a flip of a switch.
On its adventure, Tomb Raider treads on Uncharted territory. During quite a few of the cinematic setpieces, you could be forgiven for thinking that Lara was running, jumping, and scrabbling around in Nathan Drake’s playground. Anyone who doesn’t see that either needs their eyes checked or hasn’t played an Uncharted game (Ed: So that’d be all the Xbox 360 die-hards, then?). While some people may say that Tomb Raider aped the climbing and shooting mechanics and the narrative style from Uncharted, others are quick to point out that Tomb Raider was released much before Uncharted and clearly had a big influence on it. Who’s right and who’s wrong? More like “Who cares?” After all, everything is a remix. The more important question to ask is if Crystal Dynamics has married a compelling story with best mechanics from your favourite action-adventure games to create an edge-of-your-seat experience, would you not want to play it?
Like the spectacular setpieces, the environments are marvellous to behold. And they’re rife for exploration from the lush jungles and precarious mountain sides to the cavernous caves and crumbling research stations. There are some truly awe-inspiring vistas in Tomb Raider. Each of the areas you visit is varied in design with some having multiple routes for traversal. Exploring these hub-like areas rewards you with collectibles, XP, and much needed salvage. XP and salvage are the in-game currencies that enable you to improve Lara’s skills and the gear she uses. Lara gains XP from killing her enemies, and reaching certain amounts of XP gifts her a skill point to spend on tiered traits that can bring out her animal instincts, steady her shots, and allow her to play dirty tricks on her enemies. Salvage is needed to upgrade her standard armament. During the course of the game her bow, rifle, shotgun, and pistol can be upgraded to fire better, longer, faster, stronger.
The combat mechanics show Lara as a scrappy fighter, scrambling and tripping towards cover, and striking out at enemies with primal melee attacks. As her skills grow, Lara can master dodge and counter-attack moves to inflict fatal blows that are as gruesome to watch as they are rewarding in XP. Shooting is responsive and bullets find their mark, but there isn’t any “spray and pray” here, so you have to take aim before you can shoot at anything.
Puzzles in Tomb Raider are nowhere near challenging as they might have been in the past. That is such a pity considering their prominence in previous titles dating as far back into the ’90s until the most recent titles, where you had literally and figuratively to jump through many a hoop to get at your treasures and gear. Puzzles, however fiendish and arduous, were the lifeblood of past Tomb Raider games so it’s a little disappointing to find that they are more like an afterthought here. Like Visceral Games did with Dead Space 3, it seems Crystal Dynamics too have taken the Tomb Raider series into a more action-focused territory to broaden its appeal.
Given the lavish attention to the environments and the combat, it’s surprising to see little cracks appear in Tomb Raider’s otherwise blemish-free frontage. Suspension of disbelief takes a few shots to the guts during the erratic changes in weather, where you’d think Lara would catch a cold in her tank top, but she never changes to warmer clothing. Sometimes, her bow disappears when a gun is selected and miraculously reappears when it needs to be used. These might be trivial things to some but at the time of writing this article, I happened upon a serious bug late in the game that would have required me to start from the very beginning. Thankfully, the Internet came to the rescue with another glitch to clip through the troublesome terrain. With a day-one patch already available for Tomb Raider, here’s hoping that Square Enix release a fix for this game-breaking glitch very soon.
Tomb Raider’s single-player campaign is truly memorable. The multiplayer, however, is something that should be forgotten. While multiplayer is being introduced for the first time here, the basics are the same: you can choose your characters and loadouts and purchase upgrades with the XP points earned in matches. “Feats and setbacks” reward the player for certain actions and the XP scoreboard continually ticks over, however good or rubbish they are. There are four different match types that tasks two factions with completing different objectives, for example, “rescue” mode tasks survivors with retrieving and hauling five first aid boxes to a base location while the other faction works to kill 20 survivors. The teams can use the verticality of the levels and traps to hinder the progress of the other team. While this might sound fun in theory, the reality is quite different. The gunplay feels sluggish and close-quarters combat becomes a mess if you don’t nail the one-hit kill. In some of the modes, there wasn’t enough people in the lobby to start a game (four players is the minimum). If there is this little interest now, the lobbies could be a graveyard in the coming months.
The multiplayer in Uncharted, Spec Ops: The Line, and even Aliens: Colonial Marines all grabbed my attention from the start, something I can’t say about Tomb Raider. I didn’t find much excitement in something that feels like an unnecessary addition. Maybe it’s just to make some extra dollars in which case it’s surprising that the game didn’t come with an online pass system, but news is that the first batch of DLC will be released this month and it’ll be in the form of multiplayer maps.
Forgetting the multiplayer, Tomb Raider‘s single-player campaign provides a rollicking action-adventure to challenge the likes of Uncharted. And that is high praise indeed. With her insecurities, Lara Croft comes off a more relatable character. In this outing, Lara get banged up more than the snooze button on a Monday morning. From the explosive action sequences and breathtaking platforming to the stealthy section and scrappy shootouts, this reboot gets almost everything right. This experience is much grittier and possibly the most violent in the series’ history. It is certainly a treasure worth fighting for.
Final Score: 9 survivalist prawns out of 10.
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PC
Age Rating: 12