As can be expected by a guy who spent his teenage years in the late 90s, I was fairly familiar with Lara Croft. Admittedly, I never owned a Sony PlayStation or a Sega Saturn by which I could ogle her pixelated body, but I do remember my only true play of the original Tomb Raider. I was at a friend’s house playing the Saturn version and I recall marveling at how Lara would somersault through musky caves while rapidly firing her twin pistols. And then I got mauled by a tiger.
Lara’s iconic rise from teenager’s gaming crush to Angelina Jolie starring movie adaptations was rapid. Not even Samus Aran could compete with Lara in her prime. But like a flash in a pan, Lara and the tombs she raided became stale and disappointing. Even after attempting to breathe new life into Lara Croft with the solid Tomb Raider: Legend and wildly fun co-op title Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, it seemed as if lady Croft would never recapture her glory.
When Square Enix purchased Eidos Interactive and tabbed Tomb Raider as one of the franchises they sought to resurrect, I felt that it couldn’t hurt any more than mid-franchise titles like Angel of Darkness did. After all, the Japanese publisher had a reputation for timely evolutions of long-running franchises and they did choose Crystal Dynamics to develop, the same team that created the successful TR: Legend. The plan was simple: forget Lara Croft the sex icon, and Lara Croft’s origin. Allow for an audience of gamers to truly experience her birth as a survivor.
From the moment Tomb Raider begins, you are introduced to a young and stunning girl in Lara Croft. Fresh out of school, she has an air of intelligence and natural ability around her, but exudes inexperience and lack of confidence. The game throws you immediately into the events following her expedition’s shipwreck and the hellish island of Yamatai. As an unarmed and confused Lara, you are tasked with escaping your prison and finding out exactly where you are and how to get reunited with the rest of your shipmates.
Given Lara’s past iterations as a headstrong, icy-cool confident explorer, it is definitely different to meet Lara, the young archeologist who hates tombs. But it is a persona that truly resonates with the player and creates a sense of distress and urgency in learning new abilities in order to survive. She is one of those classic tales of somebody who can do a thousand things right on paper or in the confines of a protected practice, but whose confidence needs to be built up in order to utilize her vast skill set in the wild. The direction of the story is thought out and well paced, the characters are charming and human, and the new Lara’s evolution is a gaming experience that I truly enjoyed.
When tasked with how they would make Tomb Raider play, Crystal Dynamics did their homework. In order for Tomb Raider to be able to tell its story in a gripping and engaging manner, they had to do what the best games in their genre did. They had to be as close to Uncharted as possible, without losing sight of their narrative. And since the birth of Lara Croft is a hard thing to lose track of, marrying the cinematic gameplay of Uncharted to the character of Lara Croft was a perfect fit.
Everything that Lara does has had thought put into it. The way she stalks through the forest, how she traverses from cliff to rock face, her movements as she squeezes through narrow passages. Crystal Dynamics knew that they needed to take great care in how Lara was presented and and that care is one of the games’ greatest strengths.
Combat in Tomb Raider is interesting, while she has always been known for her dual pistols in her golden era, the younger Lara will become synonymous with her bow. Not only is it the first weapon you gain access to, but it becomes a sort of multi-tool as the game progresses, eventually becoming the most powerful weapon come the end of the game. The control layout deserves mention because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to use a bow in a game without thinking of Tomb Raider’s execution. The Left trigger readies the bow, while the right trigger notches and draws an arrow to fire. To cancel a shot, rather than using a face button (or shooting into the ground), simply release the left trigger as if you were releasing the tension of the bow. It just makes sense. Other than that it’s a fairly standard cover based shooter, very similar to the way Uncharted plays.
Surprisingly, the puzzles were good but not great. I can recall some of those grandly complex climbing and swinging puzzles in both Tomb Raider: Legend and Guardian of Light. While I understand the need for some simple puzzles, many of the optional tombs are over in about five minutes with more time spent walking in the tunnels to reach the tombs versus actually executing the puzzle. Though I will admit, the storyline puzzles were outstanding. Not for their complexity, but for their grandeur. At one point, you are tasked with ringing an ancient bell to have the centuries old structure collapse around itself while in an incredibly strong wind tunnel.
And while I did enjoy the new voicework provided by new actress Camilla Luddington, my wife found her wispy voice a little too desperate and over-dramatic. She points to the repeatedly exasperated shouts of ‘Sam’ as her main annoyance, and after several dozen exclamations, I am inclined to agree. Aside from Luddington’s turn as Lara, the rest of the Endurance’s crew are voiced remarkably well, in particular Robin Atkin Downes voicing Lara’s mentor Roth and Earl Baylon voicing the Endurance’s cook Jonah.
If there was ever a negative about the game, I do have to question the importance of multiplayer. I can understand that Square Enix has not had the opportunity to have competitive multiplayer in the modern sense, but Tomb Raider is hardly the ideal IP to stress competitive multiplayer. While I enjoy the combat and certainly don’t mind the existence of the mode, it breaks my heart that the only planned expansions to the game are going to be multiplayer maps rather than new tombs to explore.
The Tomb Raider series has truly had its ups and downs over nearly two decades. Lara’s most recent turn is strong in narrative and character, solid in exploration and combat, but most of all, it is fun to play. Square Enix really got their tagline right with Tomb Raider, a survivor is born. Tomb Raider has definitely survived.
9/10 More than just a new coat of paint, this new direction for the iconic Tomb Raider franchise is a step out of the dark tombs that nearly buried it a decade ago. Fantastic storytelling and gameplay mechanics, the single player is truly a must play.