Like it or not, over the years Lara Croft has become something of a joke in the video game industry. Rewind back to 1996 when Lara first exploded on the scene. She was everywhere, topping every ‘female protagonist’ list on the internet and in magazines, and becoming an icon of the industry and a sex symbol to boot. Sadly, with each following outing that Lara embarked upon, she seemed to lose a little bit of what made her special in the first place, that spark that drew us into the first Tomb Raider and made us trudge through the City of Khamoon against vicious enemies and bone crunching puzzles.
So every couple of years since then, Lara has trotted into the spotlight, done her little dance, performed a couple of handstands and shuffled back into the shadows to the chorus of murmurs and sighs of fans worldwide. She simply wasn’t scratching that adventuring itch that we all discovered we had from the first Tomb Raider and with the introduction of Nathan Drake of the Uncharted series in 2007. Our expectations for this type of franchise were much higher than Lara seemed able to meet.
So after performing their first remake with Tomb Raider: Anniversary, Crystal Dynamics decided that it would take something huge to bring their token heroine into the modern day spotlight of gritty, realistic video games. That’s where we find ourselves today, face to face with the bloodstained, beaten and bruised reboot – Tomb Raider.
Forget what you may have learned about Lara’s past from previous games, dismiss any mention of the Himalayas and plane crashes. This is a complete reworking of Lara’s first steps as an adventurer and survivor and, personally, it’s the shot in the arm that the series has needed for a long time.
The game centers around Lara Croft and a ship full of adventurers, archaeologists and historians on the search for the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai. Whilst searching for it, the explorers’ ship is hit by a freak storm and they are washed up on a seemingly deserted island. The game then takes on a new role from the previous incarnations of the series. You are now presented with an action/adventure game brimming with over-the-top action sequences and set piece events that put Lara through the wringer over and over again.
Within the first ten minutes of gameplay, Lara has been shipwrecked, kidnapped by marauders on the island, forced to set herself on fire to free herself, impaled on a metal spike, suffered an unknown amount of internal bruising and blunt force trauma, scrambled out of a collapsing cave with a salivating cannibal in pursuit, and climbed across the remains of a World War II plane as it slowly falls apart around her. All this before your first save point! And, I assure you, the events that I’ve just mentioned are possibly the ‘high points’ of Lara’s day.
On the subject of Save Points, Tomb Raider doesn’t use specific save points but does use Campfires as a way to either learn new skills, spend points (salvage) on weapons and also Fast Travel once that has been unlocked. The first scene with your very first campfire is quite heartbreaking as you have just played through this traumatic experience and Lara seems visibly distraught and trembling. It’s a bold move by Crystal Dynamics which I feel really expresses how alien this all is for young Croft.
Not long after this, Lara discovers a makeshift bow – pandering to 2013’s obsession with that particular weapon – and sets off in search of food. You can hunt basically any animal in the wild for food (a small amount of experience is gained) but you only need to kill once in order to survive. Personally, a more realistic, persistent hunger mechanic would have been appreciated.
Given the additional collection of armaments that you gain as you progress through the game, I personally found the bow to be one of the most useful, quick, and silent of the weapons, and there is something hauntingly tribal about using it in a situation which demands a survival instinct to progress. Moving through the game, you can collect items from storage chests to gain Salvage which, in turn, can be used to upgrade your weapons and give them additional features. For example, your pistol can eventually acquire a silencer or your bow can shoot napalm arrows which will always remind me of that helicopter scene from Rambo 3.
The skills you can learn through the game are set in different categories. The Survivor category earns you skills like additional XP from animal kills whereas the Brawler category gives you the chance to parry and counterattack the enemy. The skills are nicely tiered so that you can’t earn the ‘instakill counter’ move straight away but, as both Lara and you progress through the adventure, she can become an incredibly proficient killer – sorry, survivor!
One of my few disappointments with Tomb Raider would be the over-saturation of enemies. They come across more like rank-and-file goons from any other action game than the desperate castaways that the developers surely intended them to be. The AI is decent enough but sometimes feels disjointed and sporadic. Upon occasion, I found myself hiding behind a wall and watching two enemies constantly changing positions in cover as though they were unsure of where to hide.
Also, the lack of additional character development is a let-down with this otherwise fine title. Sure, Lara gets her clock cleaned quite a few times throughout and you genuinely feel as though she grows from the experience into a hardened adventurer but you either haven’t been properly introduced to some of the other characters enough to care if they’re in peril or you simply don’t care about them enough full stop.
More than once I found myself falling in love with the exploration and adventure and was surprised when an ally character would pop up even though my objective was to meet them at an alternate location. That’s just another thing that’s great about Tomb Raider – the exploration takes you away from the action enough that it starts to feel more like a Tomb Raider game again. There are even Hidden Tombs dotted around the island, waiting with ‘come hither’ entrances like a doorway behind a waterfall or an obscure narrow path in the opposite direction to your waypoint.
But, if I could give you one completely spoiler-free tip, it would be this: don’t get 100% of everything on your first playthrough. Chances are that you’ll march through the game first time and either not notice or miss some of the frankly stunning scenes; you’ll be too concerned with that bad guy trying to shoot you or with which grapple point to reach next. Once the main story ends in Tomb Raider, you have the chance to go back and pick up anything that you may have missed without being hindered by castaways, enemies and forgettable NPCs so take your time, enjoy the atmosphere of climbing that cliff face, and slowly explore that cave instead of running through it. Some of the best bits of Tomb Raider take place after the game has ended so savour it.
With a campaign that will last you well over the 12 hour mark, the inclusion of a multiplayer aspect feels almost superfluous. That being said, the multiplayer in Tomb Raider is neither a terrible experience nor intrusive to the main game. Die-hard solo fans can completely ignore it whereas dabblers in multiplayer games will probably get a kick out of punching arrows into each other.
In conclusion, Tomb Raider is an excellent action title which effortlessly makes you fall in love with the Tomb Raider franchise again. It’s going to be interesting to see where Crystal Dynamics take this franchise from here. I remember speaking with Brian Horton prior to the launch of Tomb Raider who stated “This is a good starting point” (4:55 in that video if you’re wondering) so it’s going to be interesting to see if they continue with this line of rebooted Lara titles and simply abandon the previous run.