As the industry shifted from pixelated, 2D graphics into the third dimension in the mid-90’s, a handful of games stood out among their peers. The original Tomb Raider was one of those games, spawning a raucous fan base for Lara Croft and her exotic adventures. I have spoken with many gamers with many fond memories of the series. Simply mention the name and people start talking. I have friends who are no longer serious gamers and yet they are interested in the new game.
Crystal Dynamics has rebooted the series with the latest Tomb Raider game, giving players a glimpse at what sparked Lara Croft’s career. The young Lara accompanies a TV star archaeologist in search of the lost Japanese city of Yamatai. The vessel they voyaged the waters on was struck by a storm in the Dragon’s Triangle, stranding the crew on an island. Not to spoil the plot or anything, but you guessed right: the island is where the fabled city is, (among other mysterious things). The story quickly goes from “I want to find this lost city” to “how do I get off this cursed island?”
The storytelling and presentation is of a quality comparable really only to the Uncharted series, done at a little I wasn’t really expecting. Lara will solve the mysteries of Yamatai and its connection to the violent storms raging in the area through the course of the game, but that played second fiddle to her character development. If there was one thing I took away from the 14 hours I spent with Lara Croft, it was the development she underwent when confronted with danger and despair. She starts as a capable yet seemingly frail person thrown into a dangerous environment. She doesn’t want to kill, but it’s a “kill or be killed” situation. You do kill a rather large number of people, but the storytelling is so immersive I wasn’t cognizant of the fact until afterward. Lara is a brave, caring, and strong character, both at the beginning and end. But by the end of Tomb Raider, all of those attributes are intensified by means of unforgettable and life-altering experiences.
Lara Croft isn’t the only character in Tomb Raider (obvious antagonists aside), but the other characters fall rather flat when compared to the heroine. Lara Croft is built so strongly by overcoming incredible odds multiple times that it’s simply absurd to try and fit more characters into the background. They serve as an end goal, though, as Lara is continuously saving the group she traveled with. But at one point you are allowed to walk around camp late in the game and talk to the various people. I had no desire to because of their failed development. That’s fine, though, as this game builds itself as The Lara Croft Show.
High-action games have a hard time with pacing. It’s usually tons of action from beginning to end. Tomb Raider balances the adrenaline packed action with shootouts and platforming. There were plenty of moments that had me on the edge of my seat, with Lara repeatedly escaping death by the skin of her teeth. That moment when the plank bridge is cut, forcing you to quickly hit Square to grab on as you are then flung around a cliff to a craggy surface that you latch on to with your pick ax was a breath taking one. Each similar moment was followed by a sigh of relief. Pacing is one of the most important pillars of game design, so the fact that Tomb Raider excels at it puts it above a handful of its peers.
Shooting is another pillar of action games, and the shooting can be awkward compared to other games. It isn’t the worst in its category, but it is probably my main complaint though as I do wish the shooting was tighter. Shooting with the bow felt good, but later in the game when guns become more standard, the shooting takes a nose dive. It’s loose and uncomfortable, making certain spots more painful to get through than they should be. It’s not as tight as AAA first-person shooters, but it’s still better than a handful of other top-notch games. So while it is a complaint, it’s one of those “it’s not great, but I’ve played worse” instances.
On the other hand, platforming is both fun and problem-free. The puzzles aren’t “push x block to position y then jump to position z”. Instead, the puzzles are more environmental. At one point, you have to open windows in a particular order to use the wind to your advantage. There are plenty of situations like this, but there are also optional tombs you will find along the way which have hidden salvage and relics. These hidden tombs tend to offer more of a challenge in the area of platforming and puzzles than whatever point you happen to be in in the game. There was never a point that I had to give up and move on, but there was some thought involved in a few of the later spots.
Tomb Raider utilizes a few different mechanics for upgrades. Salvage is half of the character progression system in place, allowing you to augment weapons with various perks. Salvage is scattered all over the place; on enemy bodies, in crates, and in tombs. You’ll also happen upon weapon pieces which upgrade your weapon after so many pieces are found. I started with a survival bow and by end-game had a competition bow with some delightful upgrades.
Lara also gets overhauled with upgrades as she gains experience during gameplay. The three skill trees offer a constant flow of progression in different departments. Things such as recovering arrows from dead enemies you kill with the bow and climbing faster help pacing by giving you choices intermittently.
Of course Lara also gets “freebie” upgrades (i.e. new skill sets) throughout the game, too. When she gets the pick ax and has to leap from point A to a craggy surface, that “clink” of the pick ax digging into the cliff side is one of the most satisfying sounds in the game to me. A neat little trick mid-game is shooting arrows with ropes and moving objects with them.
Along the path the plot strings you through are hidden objects and challenges (and hidden tombs) that can be skipped if you just want to play through the game. If you miss something, or decide to go back and explore more later on, you can fast travel from certain camp sites back to other areas. During my play through, I actually enjoyed exploring most of the areas to their fullest though. But even after wrapping up the games main story, I went back to past areas and played around. Crystal Dynamics created such a lush and fun environment to romp around in.
Tomb Raider was one of the most thrilling action games I have played in awhile. Everything fits together into this nice and neat, functioning box. The story is dark and well told, giving Lara Croft a strong foundation to continue building on in future games. Even if you didn’t like past Tomb Raider games, the reboot is a must-play for anyone into action games in general.
Note: This review is based on gameplay on the Playstation 3 console. Tomb Raider is also available on the Xbox 360 and PC platforms.