The Tomb Raider series has had quite a colorful history. First developed by Core Design under the guidance of Toby Gard, the original Tomb Raider and its heroine burst into the scene ushering in a new genre of games. As years passed, the gaming landscape changed rapidly and people started to feel that the series was getting a little antiquated. With Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, Core Design attempted to reinvigorate interest in the franchise by wrapping the game in a much darker storyline. This was, unfortunately, met with lots of delays and very critical reviews.
Several years later, Crystal Dynamics took the reigns of the series with the release of Tomb Raider Legend, a game that sought to bring Lara Croft back into the limelight and introduce her to a brand new audience. This reboot proved to be so successful that it was followed up by a remake of the original game and then a sequel titled Tomb Raider Underworld. Like Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness, this too was met with critical reviews.
All that being said, Lara Croft has had a very difficult journey throughout her video gaming career and it felt that the series needed a serious overhaul. With Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics promises to do exactly that… but in an age where Nathan Drake exists, is there any room left for video gaming’s original adventure game heroine?
Once you start Lara’s adventure, you’ll notice that the game doesn’t spend too much time really giving you a ton of backstory and, instead, only shows you how Lara got herself into the trouble she’s in. This is on purpose, given that much of your time as the young heroine will not only allow you to get to know her as a character a lot better, but will also give you context as to why you’re on an abandoned island in the first place and why the characters in the story act the way that they do. It is in this very non-traditional narrative device that I applaud the developers in spending just enough time to set up the events leading to the gameplay and being a bit restrained with their storytelling. This decision gives the whole game a ton of mystery, and that’s one thing that this game has an abundance of.
If you must know, the gist of the story is pretty simple: Lara Croft is part of an expedition to find the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai, which was once ruled by the Sun Queen Himiko. Because of a freak storm her vessel, the Endurance, is shipwrecked and Lara finds herself at the shores of what seems to be a forgotten island. Not long after her arrival, Lara sees her friends in the distance and attempts to try to get their attention, only to be hit on the head by an unknown assailant and taken captive to a remote location. It’s here that you are tasked with Lara’s escape.
While the escape proves to be a success, it’s only a partial one, as Lara’s actions and reactions will remind you that she’s at her most vulnerable; She’s not the incredibly well-endowed multi-millionaire adventurer that most people have come to know and love. She is portrayed here as young, sometimes naive, totally inexperienced, and often too unsure of herself and her capabilities.
But that vulnerability is what makes this Lara Croft such an interesting character to begin with; She’s not at all a superhero of sorts like Nathan Drake or her older depictions. Here, we are simply presented with a human being who’s trapped on an island with unknown dangers, separated from her friends, fighting an unknown enemy, and struggling to survive. Because of this humanistic and realistic approach to depicting Lara Croft, we feel for every single thing that happens to this character and perhaps now, more than ever, we can truly say that her adventure is also our very own. And while it may feel like we’re actually protecting her a lot of the time, there’s an agency to her character that makes us feel connected to her like never before.
Tools Of The Trade
The previous games in the series gave players the ability to explore remote regions and legendary locations and, in many cases, even allowed her to face some mythical foes. The only thing Lara couldn’t do in those games, however, was to fully explore an area without being forced to go on a set path. In Tomb Raider, Lara is given a huge island to explore… where her only limits are your drive to see her adventure through and the amount of traversal that her gear will allow her to do. The latter, a game design device known as gear gating, has existed for a very long time in video games. In fact Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, one of the Crystal Dynamics’ more well regarded titles, was not only a fantastic example of how to prevent the player from wandering into later sections of the game, but was also one that did a seamless job of integrating the character’s growth and gameplay with the storyline.
A good example of gear gating is Lara’s ability to zip line across vast expanses. When Lara obtains a rope, she then figures out that she can actually tie the rope to her arrow and shoot it across a wide chasm in order to get across. However, the only caveat is that she’s only able to target certain parts of the environment that are held by rope and that she can only do this while standing beside something she can tie the rope to. Later in the story, the game elaborates on this concept by giving Lara the ability to aim for areas in the environment that have a rocky patch on the side. In a sense, Tomb Raider‘s way of showing that Lara is able to figure out these more advanced traversal techniques depicts her as someone who’s getting smarter and craftier as the story progresses.
Unlike Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver however, there’s a secondary use for all the traversal gear that you come across. Crystal Dynamics managed to integrate all the gear Lara obtains into the combat as well, allowing the player to create some interesting combat scenarios. Using the bow/rope combination as an example, Lara can target an opponent standing right beside a cliff and pull him to his doom. She can also utilize the pick axe she uses to scale rocky terrain as a deadly melee weapon. The opposite also goes for the weapons Lara comes across on the island. In later portions of the game, she’ll come across frail wooden fences that can be obliterated with a shot from her shotgun and barricades that can only be destroyed with her rifle’s grenade launcher attachment.
Aside from the aforementioned bow and arrow, shotgun, and rifle, Lara also obtains a pistol to use in combat. Yes, Lara’s trademark dual pistols are nowhere to be found in this game but if you’re a series veteran like myself, you’ll immediately remember that the series was never known for its combat. Tomb Raider features a fairly intelligent cover system that ensures Lara isn’t clumsily standing up to the enemy’s line of fire while trying to position herself to get a good shot. Like most third person shooters, Lara can shoot from the hip or get into a precision aiming mode that zooms your view closer to the target reticle. Clicking the right stick in while in this mode, on certain weapons, allows her to zoom in on her target more while clicking the left stick changes Lara’s position onscreen. The latter would’ve been extremely useful during clutch situations where you needed to pop up real quick to put a quick bullet into someone’s head, had the game been smart about allowing Lara to shoot out of cover with her being positioned on the correct side during precision aiming mode… but, unfortunately, this isn’t the case part of the time. Each weapon can be upgraded using salvage parts that Lara can find by destroying boxes lying around in the environment, exploring hidden caches, or even picking them up from foes. Seeking these salvage parts often yield random weapon part drops that, upon collecting the entire set, will grant her access to more advanced weapon upgrade tiers. Upgrades vary from weapon to weapon, allowing Lara to increase a weapon’s rate of fire, increasing the amount of damage inflicted, or even add attachments that help with crowd control.
While the weapons can be upgraded using salvage items, Lara will need to earn skill points in order to learn how to utilize her equipment in combat in different ways. Tomb Raider features an experience system, not too dissimilar from games in the role-playing genre, and you’ll find that pretty much everything she does, save for traversing each of the island’s areas repeatedly, yields a good chunk of experience. By earning experience, Lara can receive skill points that she can use in three different skill trees: Survivor, Hunter, and Brawler. Each skill tree is pretty self explanatory: Survivor helps Lara take more damage, get better ammo, and salvage items, Hunter allows her to hone her skills in ranged combat, and Brawler deals with her ability to deal with opponents up close and personal. All skill trees are tiered depending on how many skills you’ve unlocked cumulatively, and some skills require others to be purchased before she’s able to acquire them. Both upgrading your weapons and skill tree are done by using any of the available base camps spread across the map.
The island that Tomb Raider takes place in has a ton of mysteries strewn about and this encourages players to explore as much of the terrain as possible. To help with this exploration Lara is now able to tap into a new ability called Instinct, which will highlight certain items of importance in the environment. This doesn’t replace the use of a torch and light in the darkness however, as you can only activate this ability when Lara is standing completely still. It should be noted as well that Instinct will be limited early on in the game and additional skill points spent in the Survivor skill tree will increase its utility.
And you’re definitely going to need it. Tomb Raider features a ton of collectibles in each area ranging from journals, treasure, GPS caches, and area specific collectibles. Obtaining the journals adds a ton of value to the main storyline, as some of them are written by the principal characters themselves. By reading these journals, you not only get to see glimpses of each of the characters’ backstories, but also find out their personal motivations and reasoning behind joining the expedition. The treasures Lara encounter in the game does to the island what the journals do for the characters in that they provide additional context to the areas she’s exploring. Some of the treasures even have hotspots that Lara will have to find that give even further context to the setting which, of course, yields some experience too.
In addition to the myriad of collectibles Lara can collect, there are several areas that contain hidden tombs. These tombs are quite a sight to see and are welcome distractions from the main storyline that provide players with a different challenge that’s just not found elsewhere. Players are required to solve puzzles that are driven primarily by the setting, which is often caused by some sort of environmental hazard or weather condition. One of my favorite hidden tombs happens to be a temple embedded on a rock wall, with strong gusts of wind preventing the windows of the structure from staying shut. Successful completion of a hidden tomb yields a skill point and a map that shows Lara where most of the collectibles are in the area she’s in.
While some of the hidden tombs are definitely some of the best sequences in the game, they’re typically over very quickly. This may be due in part because the puzzles themselves are not too difficult to figure out. I can only presume that the reason for this is so that the puzzles don’t stump the player to the point that they’d actually stop playing the game, but I personally didn’t find that to be the case. I would imagine that some players would perhaps come back to this area later in the hopes of figuring these puzzles out while going through the storyline, waiting for some sort of an “A-ha!” moment and get to a solution.
Going back to places you’ve visited prior can easily be achieved by the use of the various base camps that can be found almost everywhere… the very same base camps I described earlier where you can upgrade both Lara’s skills and weaponry. Each base camp has the ability to fast travel from one part of the island to the other, ensuring that gathering collectibles and completing hidden tombs are something that the player would want to consider as an option rather than see as a hindrance or as something trivial.
It’s The Little Details That Matter
While much of Tomb Raider‘s gameplay parallels Lara Croft’s growth as a character, this wouldn’t have been successful had the setting not been as engaging. Each of the island’s areas are littered with details such as abandoned shacks, fallen trees, and hidden caches, giving the player an impression that anything and everything is scalable. And for the most part it is: Tomb Raider, by comparison to its predecessors, is probably the most freeing experiences in series history. With a versatile fast travel system and a large island to explore, the world is truly your oyster.
Portraying young Lara Croft is Camilla Luddington (Californication, Grey’s Anatomy), who does a fantastic job with the role, exhibiting much more restraint compared to when we saw the first Tomb Raider demo at Microsoft’s E3 Press Conference in 2011. Her performance, along with the rest of the cast, complement the powerful set of events driven by Toby Gard and Rihanna Pratchet’s (Mirror’s Edge, Heavenly Sword) writing. And while there are some crazy set pieces that happen throughout the story, it never goes off to Uncharted levels of ridiculousness and coincidence. The score, composed by Jason Graves (Dead Space series, Might and Magic Heroes VI), is used very sparingly but the moments when you do hear his score have presence and are very indicative of the primal nature of Lara’s surroundings. Also, surprisingly enough, the sound design of Tomb Raider is up to par with the graphical fidelity of the game and you’ll feel every shot and thud with a nice home theatre setup. A focus on sound design is not something on most developers’ minds this generation, so I commend Crystal Dynamics’ decision to put much emphasis on this that truly enhances your immersion in the role.
If there is one missed opportunity I felt the game could’ve tried to address, it would’ve been how important it was for Lara to fend for herself during her time alone. For someone stranded on an island and billed as a survivor, Lara sure doesn’t need a lot of food. Lots of systems are already in place that could allow for something like this to exist, even perhaps not making the character too reliant on the regenerating health trope that exists in so many games today. The abundance of wildlife in the environment could’ve been used as a means to regenerate your health in-between fights a la rations in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. All that withstanding however, I wonder how much better (or worse) of an experience Tomb Raider would’ve been had these systems been implemented.
Speaking of implemented systems, the addition of multiplayer in what seems to be an otherwise overwhelmingly complete single player experience was a curious decision. While I appreciate the developers tapping Eidos Montreal to craft Tomb Raider‘s multiplayer, it could very well have done without it. It is because of its existence and its performance that I’m unfortunately giving the game the score that it has now. Tomb Raider‘s multiplayer game type offerings are pretty standard fare and also features a level progression system that rewards you on your play style. The mode only allows for 4 vs. 4 play, but even with only a few characters the frame rate hovers to an almost unplayable rate on consoles. That’s unfortunate, given that I was truly enjoying the experience of being able to utilize all of Lara’s means to traverse the environment in a faster paced setting and getting a kick out of setting rope traps that render people upside down.
A Survivor Is Born
Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider delivers an incredible adventure that stands apart from similar games in the genre. While it shares some bombastic moments with the Uncharted series, the game never goes too far off the deep end and comes out of those moments with very calculating and pointed execution. The inclusion of multiplayer is unfortunate, given that it lacks the polish of the main game, and it could’ve actually been a genuinely fun distraction. Despite this, the main game is obviously the star of the show as it provides players with a healthy amount of exploration, revelation, and discovery. And those things, in and of themselves, are at the core of what Tomb Raider is.
Alex played Tomb Raider on the PlayStation 3 and finished the main storyline at around 13-15 hours with 67% completed. The exact completion time is unknown, given that the game does not keep an in-game clock that keeps track of how long you’ve played. He then hopped onto several multiplayer matches in order to assess its performance and game modes. The overall score does not reflect what he wished or thought should be in the game, but rather the overall package as a whole. In addition, while Square Enix did provide us with press materials for this title, they did not provide our site with a copy to review.
+ The hidden tombs are great places to seek to break up the gameplay.
+ Lara Croft’s characterization and growth as a character is fantastic.
+ The collectibles provide additional context to the world and storyline.
+ Combat is snappy and very responsive.
+ The environments are gorgeous and full of life.
+ The character progression system is both rewarding and easy to comprehend.
+ The choice of setting is excellent and imaginative.
+ Terrific cast and soundtrack.
-Precision aiming sometimes positions Lara on the wrong side of the screen.
-More challenging puzzles would be welcome in future iterations.
-Multiplayer frame rate is almost unplayable on consoles.
-4 on 4 is a little bit limiting.
Available on: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 3