It’s been a good many years since Lara Croft’s début in 1996’s Tomb Raider, since then the best selling franchise has elevated her to her status as one of gamings most instantly recognisable stars. Despite the series success the years have been a roller-coaster ride for Lara and after a stream of fairly average adventure’s it was decided that developer Crystal Dynamics would be given the mammoth task of renewing the success the classics once achieved. Rebooting beloved franchises is risky business, as seen with recently launched DMC whose hardcore fans found themselves disheartened by such radical changes however, rest assured Crystal Dynamics have out done themselves improving greatly on the old, creating a game undoubtedly superior in almost every aspect.
Primarily, Lara has changed, she’s no longer the dual wielding gun slinging adventurer navigating all manner of terrain effortlessly, nor can she dispatch beast and man alike with unphased determination. Instead Crystal Dynamics have done something rather different, in the days of Lara’s conception narratives in the video games paled in comparison to what exists now. Back in ’96 Lara didn’t need an origin story, so she never got a very detailed one. Rebooting the tired series seems like the wise choice – with a blank canvas Crystal Dynamics set out to give her a true birth, to explain how Lara became the hero we all know. This new youthful Lara is shaky, unsure of herself, untested and more importantly afraid, every step of the journey is painful. It’s a emotional approach that has you bond closer to Lara than ever before and, in every way validates the reboot it’s spawned.
Events kick off as Lara accompanies a group of documentary film makers and explorers aboard the ship Endurance who’re attempting to discover the location of the lost Kingdom of Yamatai. Time is short as funding runs low. With no successes thus far captain Conrad Roth decides to follow the hunch of a young Lara who believes Yamatai to be concealed some where in the Dragons Triangle – an area of turbulent ocean notorious for it’s raging storms. Predictably the ship goes down and the crew finds themselves marooned on a mysterious island inhabited by wild beasts and savage survivors, it’s here the tragic story begins to unfold. The cast is a good size however with their limited development on screen only a few of the personalities are really memorable. Lara’s development and character stands out as masterful – unsurprising as her survival and transformation is the beating heart of the adventure. For the most part the progression from zero to hero feels natural all except a section whereby Lara takes her first life, visibly sicked Lara recoils in horror only to gun down a whole village with no remorse some ten seconds later.
Graphically the island is astounding portraying itself as a gloomy miserable location from the glow dim of a sacrificial site to the perpetual patter of rainfall through the dense woodlands Yamatai feels alive with misery and suffering. Travelling through shanty towns and jungle, caves and bunkers every step on Yamatai is a slog for Lara ,the odds are stacked against her. Few environments in gaming encapsulate the emotions portrayed as well Tomb Raider, the fact it’s visually stunning and populated by a range of well designed character models only adds to the incredibly atmospheric experience. Lara herself is incredibly designed, with marvellous attention to detail that really sells the world, as she becomes covered in dirt and blood; clothes tear throughout the journey in a realistic fashion.
It’s not just the world that Lara inhabits that has been radically reformed so too has the gameplay, following a Metroid-vania system of periodically acquiring new weapons and equipment allows the for gameplay to change in step with Lara’s growth as a hero. In turn time on the island actually translates convincingly into survival experience, as time passes Lara learns all sorts of skills even things as basic as mountain climbing. As new equipment unlocks new areas become accessible allowing for the collection of more salvage (Tomb Raiders currency) and hidden treasures. Tomb Raiders fast travel system also allows players to journey back to earlier camps to search for previously inaccessible areas whenever the mood takes them – this is purely optional exploration and no back tracking is necessary.
Like equipment weapons are gained slowly throughout the journey. Tomb Raider features rather a small number of weapons – four to be exact: the handgun, shotgun, assault rifle and the bow and arrow. Despite the lack of variety all of the weapons have their own distinct personalities and through finding parts hidden on the island can each be upgraded twice to magically create a better version of the arch-type – watch the WWII shotgun inexplicably grow to an tactical shotgun. New parts unlock new upgrades which include faster fire rates, less recoil, sights, rapid fire etc, all of which can be purchased with collected salvage. The number of choices and shortage of salvage makes deciding what to upgrade rather difficult – even those who search every nook and cranny may find themselves falling short near the end of journey.
On top of the aforementioned weapon upgrade system Lara also has impressive skill set which is reliant on upgrade points earned by levelling up through experience earned in combat and discovery. Upgrade points are shared between three very different skill trees, survival allows for improved gathering of experience and salvage, hunter improves combat capability and brawler improves hand-to- combat prowess. Those who strive to achieve everything should find themselves with ample experience to purchase everything on offer.
Both levelling up and upgrading weapons gives a good sense of growth and choice effectively allowing Lara to mould into the kind of survivor you wish her to be. Additionally the control scheme allows the skills to good use, shooting mechanics are incredibly tight – far easily some of the best seen in a third-person experience. Additionally Lara platforms like a dream, accurately with few frustrating moments. Tomb Raiders only real gameplay sin is the over saturation of quick time events in the early half. Understandably Crystal Dynamics wanted players to sympathise with Lara, but these moments come off as distraction in otherwise well presented scenes, if failed the QTE’s rob tense scenes of their drama – once you know what’s coming its not the same.
If none of this sounds very “Tomb Raider” that’s because it isn’t although the island does feature 6 tombs to raid they’re all basic rudimentary puzzles that will probably take no more than a few minutes to solve and, although they are cited as hidden tombs you’d have great difficulty missing them as large white cave paintings show the way fairly clearly. They’re more collectables also featured in the form of artefacts and hidden journals, artefacts give a hidden glimpse into who may have lived on Yamatai over the years and what they were like. Journals on the other hand give super interesting insights into the life of Lara’s crew-mates and those who were key to the islands past, although completely optional I highly recommend you discover and read them. Further to collectables they’re also challenges that ask for Lara destroy certain objects in each area adding another reason to revisit previous locales.
Sound design is great with a suitably adrenaline pumping soundtrack that perfectly highlights what’s happening on screen, guns explode with a satisfying array of bangs and arrows thud through flesh. Perhaps the most engrossing sound effect however is the howling winds that bellow throughout the canyons visited through Yamatai. Most of the games voice acting is good with the exception of the primary antagonist who has a very cartoon bad guy vibe, Lara’s crew are all adequately casted if under-used
Completely new to the series is addition of a multi-player component, I’m not going to spend much time discussing it as it’s a shallow mode that pales hugely in comparison to the single player experience. Player choose to either fight for the survivors or inhabitants and fight each other in a few game modes, most prominent is the team deathmatch. Tomb Raider loses all of its charm in this mode gone are great controls, amazing set pieces and intriguing story all that’s left is a competent and dull component that I wouldn’t even bother to play.
Tomb Raider is very different to what has come before, and that’s not a bad thing Lara has been given a new lease of life that is in nearly every way different – but better. Those looking for adventure and exploration would do well to play this great title, but those more die-hard fans unwilling to move on may wish to give this new journey with the fragile Lara a miss.