You’d be forgiven for reacting to Square Enix’s initial announcement of Tomb Raider back in 2010 with more than a touch of scepticism. While we were told the game would be a reboot of the series’ continuity that would recreate and redefine the origins of the iconic Lara Croft, further details were scarce. Personally, I couldn’t shake the catastrophe of Sonic The Hedgehog ’06 from my mind and the best I hoped for was that they wouldn’t screw it up so badly.
Things all went quiet for a while. But with release date approaching – after several delays along the way – gamers had little choice but to sit up and take notice of the trailers and previews coming out of the Square Enix camp. Gorgeous cinematics, intriguing gameplay mechanics and a new-look Lara Croft; against the odds, momentum seemed to be well and truly on Tomb Raider’s side. Early impressions were positive and anticipation was heightened with a massive national advertising campaign. Come March 5 though, could it really live up to the hype?
A young protege of high-profile archaeologist Dr Whitman, Lara and her fellow Endurance crewmates find themselves shipwrecked on Yamatai, a mysterious island situated in the heart of Japan’s Dragon’s Triangle. By the time the game’s breathtaking opening cinematic is over, one thing is definitely clear: long gone is the self-assured, busty bombshell gamers have known as Lara Croft; in her place, a much more vulnerable, naive young lady.
Indeed, the transformation is so dramatic that at first Lara – voiced exquisitely here by Camilla Luddington – seems an unlikely protagonist. Scared and alone after being separated from the rest of her party, her fear is palpable; especially when it becomes clear that the island is inhabited by an extremely dangerous cult. While some may view it as a weakness, Lara’s initial trepidation makes her appear more relatable and human; definitely to a greater extent than in previous Tomb Raider titles.
Players can experience first-hand the development of her character when she is forced into survivalist mode early on. Kidnapped by a savage and held in a cave, Lara manages to flee her captor and head into a forest, where players are introduced to the franchise’s signature weapon, the crossbow. At this point, gamers are able to get to grips with the game’s intuitive combat system by hunting deer for food and protecting Lara from wolves.
The wolves, though, soon give way to the island’s crazed cultists, and Lara’s strength of character is tested once more after being forced to kill a man for the first time.
With increasingly more grizzly and apparently supernatural events taking place as the game unfolds, Lara begins to question the powers of the island and her own sanity; could it really be home to Himiko, the ancient Sun Queen? The cultists certainly seem to think so, and are intent on making sure the expedition don’t leave Yamatai alive. With the truth becoming more apparent as the game wears on, players witness Lara grow in confidence and resourcefulness; defiantly fighting the savages, intent on finding the rest of her crew and leading the way in getting them off the island in one piece.
While early entries in the original Tomb Raider series focused primarily on puzzle-solving and platforming action, it’s clear the genre has come a long way since then. The universally-acclaimed Uncharted took the Tomb Raider formula and reinvented it; problem-solving increasingly took a back seat to duck-and-cover combat and a more cinematic experience through the use of a number of interactive cutscenes and quick-time events (QTEs). If Uncharted borrowed from the original Tomb Raider, it’s clear that the influence has come full circle here, with the core gameplay of this reboot borrowing heavily from Naughty Dog’s series.
Indeed, seasoned fans of the Uncharted series will notice a lot of similarities here; using QTEs to help Lara escape from a burning building, slide down waterfalls and navigate a series of vertigo-inducing zip lines all feel like they could have been directly lifted from the Naughty Dog creation. The way the camera pans to convey the claustrophobia when Lara is trying to squeeze through tight spaces, the weapon control system, and the dramatic combat sequences featuring waves of attackers also seem to have taken cues from Nathan Drake’s adventures.
So yes, Crystal Dynamics have clearly been influenced by some of Uncharted’s stronger points, but they’ve also introduced a number of their own innovations: including Lara’s ‘survival instinct’, which at the push of a button, allows the player to make more sense of the environment they currently find themselves in; highlighting nearby items and people of interest.
The frequent combat sequences in the game manage to feel fresh throughout, with different scenarios calling for different approaches. Do you pull out Lara’s shotgun and rush the enemy? Snipe them from afar? Hide behind a wall and unload your rifle? Or do you creep up unnoticed and take them out with a stealthy melee kill? The answer may be all or none of the above, with each decision bringing about its own pros and cons.
For example, heavily-armoured cultists must be baited into getting within striking range of Lara, before a QTE window allows the player to counter their assault with perfect timing; while allowing other enemies within such close proximity would be suicidal. The result is an engaging, adrenalin-pumping adventure, with the cinematic story and action synergetically co-existing with one another, always feeling equally balanced.
While there is definitely a sense of reinvention throughout the game, that’s not to say the developers have abandoned the original Tomb Raider format altogether. In the downtime between epic battles with the island’s inhabitants, there’s still plenty of time for exploration and intricate platforming action. Relics, maps, GPS caches and journal entries all lay hidden around Yamatai; each playing a vital role in piecing together the island’s mysterious backstory.
Although Tomb Raider’s action is limited to the confines of Yamatai island, Crystal Dynamics have done a fantastic job at making the game’s environments seem open and varied. Ranging from wooden shanty towns, menacing ancient monasteries and industrial bunkers to forests, beaches and claustrophobic caves, players are able to take in the aesthetic beauty of the game by having to precariously traverse locations on, for example, rope bridges, climbable walls with the aid of a flimsy axe, or via a makeshift sewer.
All of Yamatai’s locations are linked together in a cohesive manner; with safe base camps serving as the start and finish point of many of the game’s challenges.
The puzzles associated with the original series are largely relegated here to optional ‘secret tomb’ side quests, which players can discover by venturing off the beaten path; earning extra XP along the way. Although providing some deal of replay value to the main campaign (which takes around 10-12 hours to complete), the complexity of these challenges has been simplified substantially compared to some of the earlier games, and you can’t help but feel as though they may have been a token addition to appease die-hard TR fans.
One of the main strengths of Tomb Raider, and what sets it apart from similar games, is the ability to develop Lara’s weaponry and attributes in line with the progress of the story and her character development. As you may expect, the bodies of fallen enemies can be looted for ammunition and grenades; however, they may also turn up salvage, which can be accumulated and used to upgrade her weapons in many different ways. Additionally, players gain XP for killing enemies and completing missions, which in turn rewards them with skill points that can be used to enhance Lara’s ‘survivor’, ‘hunter’ and ‘brawler’ attributes.
One mustn’t downplay the importance of the game’s sound design. Composer Jason Graves scores Tomb Raider like an epic piece of cinema, with the background music successfully accentuating the current mood; be it one of fear, triumph, or tension. It also helps to pace Tomb Raider’s storyline, either switching suddenly to lift the tone following the successful completion of a particularly gruelling task, or foretelling an epic battle which is soon to unfold.
Lara’s non-verbal cues all play a vital role in adding to the player’s empathy with her current state of mind. Earlier in the game, her heavy breathing, grunts and cries all contribute to the portrayal of her as a sympathetic character who is well and truly in over her head; while by later in the game, she sounds more confident, hardened by the harrowing situations she has found herself in.
The only area of genuine disappointment is found in Tomb Raider’s largely forgettable multiplayer mode. In comparison to the epic single campaign, the action here just feels a little bland and forced. Perhaps due to the fact it was developed by Eidos Montreal – and not by Crystal Dynamics – the standard fare on offer isn’t anywhere near as immersive as the main story and it feels quite detached. This can be easily forgiven, however, with the single-player campaign offering replayability through the collection of the numerous relics and treasures on offer.
In closing, Tomb Raider boldly set out to reboot the character of one of gaming’s most iconic characters. By stripping Lara Croft of her aristocracy, oversized breasts and larger-than-life persona, Crystal Dynamics have successfully managed to re-establish her as a more empathetic, more human, and ultimately more likeable action hero; packaging this transformation in one hell of a game.
The rebirth of Lara Croft.