Tomb Raider is an action-adventure game with platforming elements, available for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. This game marks the return of Lara Croft in a publicized and highly commented on reboot of the iconic series that once helped propel Sony’s PlayStation into huge popularity in the 90s. Originally, Core Design created and developed the Tomb Raider series over nine titles and multiple consoles. The original Tomb Raider that launched Lara Croft into the zeitgeist was a huge commercial and critical success. However, each sequel was an example of diminishing critical returns, but due to good branding and familiarity with the iconic character sales stayed strong, until the disastrous Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness. That marked the end of Core Design developing the Tomb Raider series.
In 2006, Crystal Dynamics took over control of the short-short wearing and dual pistol toting archaeologist with Tomb Raider: Legend and its direct sequel Tomb Raider: Underworld. While both games did well with critics, after good sales with Legend, there was a large drop-off with its follow up. The last appearance of Lara was in 2010 in Crystal Dynamics’ Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, which sold well as a digital only title. It has been three years since Lara made an appearance (five since a proper “Tomb Raider” game). Now Crystal Dynamics and Square-Enix (taking control of the series after buying up Eidos) want to re-introduce gamers to a much more realistic, human and 100% less short-short wearing Lara. In the time since Underworld, the landscape that the original Tomb Raider helped shape has changed with the popularity of Naughty Dog‘s Uncharted series and other similar titles. Will a new look, a more grounded origin story and a modern gameplay system help re-sell the world on Lara Croft?
That is when events take a turn for the disastrous, the weather becomes deadly and a tremendous storm tosses the ship about. The ocean is unruly with waves battering the vessel. Panic sets in and the crew scramble around the battered ship until it buckles from the torrential blows. After struggling to escape from a submerged cabin, a fellow crew mate rescues Lara. She finds the ship has broken apart, split down the middle like a severed vertebrate. Noticing Roth calling her from the other half of the ship, Lara runs with determination to bridge the gap. Although she comes up short, Roth grips her wrist and as the two stare at each other until Roth can no longer hold on dropping Lara into a sea full of wroth. This is not the end though and Lara washes up onto shore. Hearing her fellow survivors, she screams to them for help. However, before anyone can take notice, a mysterious figure knocks her out. Lara wakes up strung up next to corpses, she must find a way to escape and find the answers to where she is, what happened to her missing crew and who took her captive.
The main goal of Tomb Raider is to tell a more realistic origin tale for Lara Croft that shows her growth from a naive and inexperienced graduate student to a more seasoned and hardened explorer. Taking inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s successful re-imagining of Batman in his lauded trilogy, Crystal Dynamics want to create a world where there was enough real world mimesis to have gamers identify with the reality, but still be able to throw some fantastical curve balls into the mix. It is safe to say that by the two hour mark, this is achieved because at that point players have experienced some real harrowing situations with Lara and can safely insert themselves into this world. So when thing take a turn for the bizarre, players are firmly invested and willing to suspend their disbelief thanks to real, three-dimensional characters and a relatable protagonist. There are obvious comparisons to be made to Uncharted with Tomb Raider, but one of the biggest difference between that series and this game is that Lara unlike Nathan Drake is instantly human. Thus, giving players these moments of insight and vulnerability that make her act of survival and fighting against uneven odds have magnitude. It was not until Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception that he became human and sympathetic, but Tomb Raider manages that within the first few hours.
Tomb Raider pulls inspiration from plenty of modern sources and curbs from current popular gameplay mechanics. The game mixes third-person shooter elements organically with platforming elements, which is what many expect from a Tomb Raider game since the series has done this since its debut. However, it is the presentation of these mechanics that feel similar to various other games. Players will take cover when enemies show up and use that cover as a means to rain arrows, bullets or shells into various body parts of enemies. The benefit here is that the cover system is done automatically, so there is never the unfortunate problem of pressing for cover only to have the character glitchily stand taking fire. If Lara is near an object that can be used for cover then she will utilize it while the player figures out the best way to deal with enemies. When taking cover for too long, enemies will flank the player in an attempt to eliminate them. Utilizing certain environmental features will confer specific advantages to the gamer, whether it is explosive barrels or flammable cover to better attack foes. Lara will move from heated fire fights to platforming sections that involve players climbing from ledges to sheer cliff to buildings and many other environmental features. The platforming is responsive and intuitive with little issues hindering the experience (the camera is extremely responsive to give good angles for plotting jumps). These normal platforming sections and combat sections are broken up by larger more cinematic action set pieces where gamers must help Lara run off a crumbling bridge or scale a crashed plane hanging precariously on a cliff. Even though the presentation is similar to other recent games, they are done here with polish and everything flows fluidly into the other.
When exploring the island, Lara can use a ‘Survival Instinct’, which allows her to see if any important items are nearby or enemies. Unlike the Detective Vision in Batman: Arkham Asylum, Lara can only use this vision when standing still and in certain combat instances, but it is mainly a tool to help orient players to important information nearby. Outside of simply shooting an enemy, Lara can creep up on enemies and perform stealth kills to take out enemies quietly without alerting other guards. To help augment the gunplay in the game, there are two gameplay mechanics to improve Lara’s proficiency in combat and use of her various weapons. There is an experience system in place and players are rewarded for finding various relics, documents and secrets. Also, gamers will gain experience for killing enemies with extra experience given for head shots or special kills. When Lara has earned enough experience to level up, she gains skill points that can be redeemed in one of three areas: Survivor, Brawler and Hunter. Each skills will give Lara certain proficiency and perks during gameplay. In addition, players can improve the various weapons at camp sites with salvage found around the island and improve various aspects of the weapons. These little additions to the core combat and platforming gameplay add an extra dimension to the game. It keeps players working toward improving their skills and weapons to make gameplay more rewarding. The experience system works well with the journey of Lara Croft from a jejune student to a world worn raider of tombs.
Graphics and Sound
This game running on a good gaming PC will look amazing set on high graphics settings (For more information on the PC Specs, click here and to learn about AMD’s TressFX, click here). There is great detail in character models and the environments, the graphics give the game a good sense of magnitude despite it not being an open world game. The island that Lara has to explore feels alive and there is a sense of a huge area to explore even though the island is broken up into way points without a huge connection to each other (outside of the initial story ascent). The character models are gorgeous. Lara’s new look is fantastic and works better with the more practical pants given the grittiness of her survival situation. As she moves through the game, the character model becomes more beat up with scratches, cuts and dirt. By the end of the game she looks properly weathered and worn. While the game features a pre-rendered cut scene to open the game, every cut scene later on uses the in-game engine and it still looks clean. There are moments when Lara is hanging up from a rope high in the mountains and the scale of the scenery behind her is eye catching and amazing. The game runs smoothly for the most part, there are some hiccups here and there, but nothing that hinders the experience. Some people have been complaining about frequent crashes, but that only happened once (due to answering an e-mail while the game was running).
The sound in Tomb Raider is excellent. Its soundtrack is big and properly robust mirroring many of the John Williams and Hans Zimmer action movie scores to help hammer home Tomb Raider’s cinematic approach. Music cues play well when Lara is running across crumbling set pieces or when she is fighting for survival in heated firefights with large amounts of enemies. What this game does extremely well is the voice acting. Everyone from Roth to the various NPCs to various bad guys are acted with care. The care that Crystal Dynamics put into the voice acting is best exemplify by the various documents Lara finds around the island feature full voice acting even from random characters that do not show up in the game. This additional voice acting give weight and emotion to these ancillary items and add depth to certain characters. Then there is the performance by Camilla Luddington that brings Lara Croft to life. Camilla makes this character pop and she gives a performance full of humanity, dramatic weight and makes the player sympathetic to Lara’s plight. She manages to capture the various levels and conflicting feelings that Lara experiences throughout the game. The voice acting is a great achievement.
Does Crystal Dynamics’ gambit of retelling the origin of Lara Croft in a more mature and realistic fashion work? Yes it does, with surprisingly finesse, polish and poise. The goal, outside of creating a fun and adrenaline packed action-adventure game, was to re-introduce gamers to this character that many know from the wild years of the 90s when she was mugging for the camera on GamePro covers with Gex the Gecko. However, it was not only to re-introduce Lara to older and younger gamers, but to bring her back with more humanity, depth and soul than her prior incarnation. Crystal Dynamics and Square-Enix have successfully done that. Tomb Raider also proves to be tremendous fun with stylish and rousing action set pieces mixed well with solid and compelling gameplay. While it may lack in innovating the action-adventure genre, what it manages is to deliver a satisfying, refined and exciting take on the current formula with some nice additions. What this game will ultimately serve as is a fantastic origin story and a beginning to what will hopefully be a few more tales with an assured, confident and highly capable Lara.
A copy of the game was provided to Gaming Illustrated for the purpose of this review.