Back in 1996, a small English development studio called Core Design revolutionised the 3D action landscape and created one of the most enduring gaming characters of all time with the original Tomb Raider. Since then, Lara Croft has a turbulent time, with increasingly erratic sequels and a legacy which extended into the realms of movies, comics and more.
17 years on, and the character has gained some new life via a trio of titles from new developer Crystal Dynamics. With a remake of the first game, plus new chapters in the form of Legend and Anniversary, they brought Lara kicking and screaming onto the latest generation of consoles with a new focus on fluid mechanics, slick gameplay and a well-rounded story arc.
With that trilogy complete and a world full of players who might not even have been born when the first game was released, Crystal Dynamics has smartly crafted a reboot of the franchise in the form of the appropriately titled Tomb Raider.
The story introduces us to the young Ms Croft, working on an expedition to investigate the myths around an ancient civilisation rumoured to be found on a lost island off the coast of Japan. When a freak storm rips the ship in two, she’s forced to fight to survive on an island full of mystery and death.
From the off, Tomb Raider is tonally distinct from everything else the series has ever done. Overtly linear, it draws the player deep into Lara’s plight, with subjective elements and tight camera placement making you feel every moment of violence and terror.
If the previous games could be described as action and adventure titles, thisRaideris a full on survival horror, at least during its opening hour or so. Lara is captured, slung up for evisceration, impaled while trying to escape, clubbed by rocks and has to flee for her life as an entire cave system collapses around her. And that’s before she witnesses scenes of horrific violence and has to find new strength within herself just to save her tattered hide.
This opening hour or so is a triumph of videogame storytelling and design, wrenching the player from one encounter to the next while rarely revealing the strings which control this pitch perfect puppet play. Lara’s transition from mild-mannered student to woman of action is vividly etched in a spray of gore and if it all happens a little quickly that’s more a function of what players want than a failure on the part of the game.
Tomb Raider’s biggest strength is that it constantly surprises. After this unbearably tense run of sequences, the world opens up - giving you more opportunity to play. And later still, when you’ll be sure the end is near, it changes tack once more, giving you extra freedom to explore and a more sinister enemy to tackle.
Though some of the levels are immense (with zero load times between areas btw), it’s the density that truly impresses. Massive spaces are familiar to players but almost every room and crevice here is packed with a collectible and every area beckons with somewhere new to explore. Just getting around is often a source of pleasure, especially as you earn new abilities - like clambering up rock walls, creating your own zip lines or pulling down doors - giving you access to new locations and encouraging backtracking.
Backtracking is a dirty word in some titles but in Tomb Raider it’s strangely entertaining. The controls are so slick and the world so navigable that you’ll want to take a diversion, just to see what’s around the corner. And clever design means each and every pickup is worth something - either in terms of XP or salvage, both of which make the game even more fun to play.
These two resources can be used when you camp at fires, which you’ll unlock as you progress. XP goes towards skills which break down into different sections dealing with offensive and defensive abilities. Some will make you better at finding things in the environment, while others makes you more bad ass in combat. As with everything else in the game, the more you unlock, the more new options will be revealed.
Salvage is used to upgrade weapons and items and can be found in crates and on bodies. You’ll also find specific weapons parts which, when completed, automatically make your shooters more awesome. Some titles implement lazy levelling systems but the level of choice here is impressive, and I managed to unlock almost everything in my playthrough.
And you’ll need every bit of kit you can find because, while exploration is certainly present in Tomb Raider, combat is where you’ll spend the majority of your time during the campaign. From that first bloody face-off to a bullet-battered finale, Lara deads a whole heap of people during her quest for survival. The shooting mechanics are adequate but purposefully a little unsatisfying, gently nudging players in the direction of other options like the brilliantly implemented bow and a range of melee attacks never seen before in the series. Upgrades add vicious counters to the brawls that are deeply satisfying. For the bloodthirsty.
Lara herself, as voiced by Camilla Luddington (who was in True Blood and also played Kate Middleton in that made for TV movie), is a more vocal and vulnerable lass than we’re used to seeing. She shivers in the rain, shies away from fire and favours her wounds with soft cries of pain. Together with some incredible animation and her most realistic dimensions yet, it’s a sterling piece of character design and a solid new direction for the series.
The utterly slick gameplay and impeccable player goading makes Tomb Raider a joy to play but the game is not without its faults. Some stem from the story, which is never as compelling as it might be, leaning on familiar mythological riffs and rarely coalescing into a tangible mission. This is compounded by a weak villain who turns up randomly with little real agency and some supernatural silliness.
Lara’s supporting characters are also a little under-realised, never really given the definition we need to care about them, though at least escort missions are absent. And even Lara herself is inconsistent, forcing us to find first aid on one occasion despite magically healing in every other encounter and becoming randomly worried about engaging large groups of enemies when she’s just face-murdered 1000 of their mates.
One element which might irk some players is the startling familiarity of it all. It’s clear that the Crystal Dynamics chaps have seen Neil Marshall’s The Descent a few times, with several homages throughout and there’s a whiff of TV’s Lost about proceedings. Likewise elements from other properties like Assassin’sCreed, Far Cry 3 and especially Uncharted abound. It pilfers the latter’s focus on massive set pieces which works when they’re somewhat grounded but I quickly lost interest as they become more fanciful and weightless.
But it’s a testament to the quality of the gameplay that these issues rarely feel important while you’re in the midst of another ferocious encounter. And for those who miss the more sedate pace of the older TR titles, the whole map opens up at the end of the game, letting you explore and collect at your leisure, including tracking down hidden tombs which house some more conventional environmental puzzles.
If you need still more, Tomb Raider also includes a multiplayer option with four modes including some round based variants. Next to the majestically designed single player is all feels a little lightweight (a fact not helped by zero unlocks carrying over to multiplayer), recalling Uncharted’s effort with bigger levels and less interesting weapons.
Tomb Raider is a massive game, with a gargantuan amount of content scattered around an impressively realised island and a vital new take on one of gaming’s most revered characters. My playthrough on normal ran around 11 hours with 71 percent completion but there’s plenty more available for trophy whores and I fully intend to return to this island in the near future.
Crystal Dynamics has crafted a revelatory and revisionist reboot in Tomb Raider - taking the rough sketch of the Lara Croft character and embellishing her past to create a unique adventure that doesn’t get bogged down in needless homage. It is, first and foremost, a premium product in its own right, a mature adventure without the need to paint its leading lady as barely clothed sexual archetype. It’s a symbol of the increasingly sophisticated video game world and a damn fine game into the bargain, niggling story issues notwithstanding. Highly recommended.