It’s been 17 years since Lara Croft burst onto the scene, growing into an iconic video game heroine who stood the test of time. Initially dismissed as a “female Indiana Jones,” Lara won hearts with her strong personality and a keen eye for archaeology After nine games (three of which retconned Lara’s back story and relationship with her mother), SquareEnix and Crystal Dynamics decided to start fresh with a full blown reboot that depicts how Lara becomes the hardened and adventurous woman we know her to be. The game depicts Lara’s first expedition that ends in tragedy after the transport ship carrying her friends and colleagues is destroyed during a violent storm within the Dragon’s Triangle near Japan. Lara must brave the elements and crazed island survivors all the while uncovering the mystery of the island’s storms and its connection to an ancient Japanese goddess.
2013’s Tomb Raider offers a completely different flavor than series fans may be used to. Eschewing traditional expeditions filled with ancient temples and traps that required mechanical precision to navigate, the game handles like a cover based third person shooter and as such, it isn’t long before comparisons to the Uncharted series can be drawn. Lara travels along a fairly linear path marked by the occasional raiding of tombs, traversing environmental obstacles and engages in a fight for her life against cultists.
While previous Tomb Raider adventures mirrored the type of pulp found in Doc Savage stories, the reboot grounds the story in reality as much as possible. The primary antagonist, Mathias, is a man driven by the legends of a Japanese princess and has bent the wills of those shipwrecked to believe in his cause. The theme of survival trumps all else as Lara braves the harsh environments at every turn resulting in the poor girl receiving a great, great deal of physical punishment. Having been thrown into the world for the first time, Lara lacks finesse: she can’t perform a perfect dive into pools of water nor can she do handstands as she vaults up ledges. Lara bleeds and bruises often and the game isn’t shy from trying to get a reaction out of the player when she gets thrown about like a doll, earning all sorts of wounds, cuts and bruises. The game’s penchant for death animations just about crosses the line of good taste. Players’ failure to act or get through loathsome quick time events often results in Lara getting sliced, stabbed, crushed, shot or impaled in scenes that show off Crystal Dynamic’s fetish for Lara’s agonizing deaths.
Thankfully, Lara isn’t some defenseless kitten. As she makes her way across the island in search of her friends, she’ll stumble upon a small arsenal of weapons that allow her to hold her own against the island’s inhabitants as well as traverse obstacles and open up previously blocked areas. The standard action game weapons, shotguns, assault rifles and pistols, make an appearance but the most interesting piece of equipment is the bow. In many cases the bow allows Lara to stealthily thin out the numbers a bit before moving into open combat. By collecting salvage from crates, fallen enemies and dead animals, these weapons can be upgraded at any base camp to offer increased damage, accuracy and ammo capacity. An experience point system is a great way to invoke a sense that Lara’s trials are allowing her to grow and develop into the role a survivalist as a skill tree system opens up new avenues of combat and survival talents.
Apart from her weapons, Lara can make use of her survival instincts which, at a touch of a button, highlight important objects (including scaleable walls) and enemy conditions. Should an enemy appear glowing yellow, they can be taken out without alerting his cohorts unless they are marked in red. Distracting enemies, by shooting an arrow nearby, can break up a cluster of enemies – a useful mechanic to know despite the game casually glossing over it. So that players don’t spend the entire game in survival instinct mode, it can only be activated when Lara is standing still.
When Lara does engage her enemies, the gameplay feels comfortable. An intuitive cover system frees the player from having to press a button to snap into cover as she will do so automatically (although she does lack the ability to blind fire). Aiming for someone’s head will result in a quick death while going for the legs causes enemies to stumble, leaving them open for a colorful stun kill. Larger enemies equipped with armor require some finesse as dodging opens them up to an attack from behind. In certain situations, combat can be avoided entirely via environmental objects that can wipe out everyone in the area at once. Seeking out these environmental kills is not only an efficient use of time but the chaotic result is entertaining to watch. When all enemies have been cleared from the area, an extraordinarily helpful piece of animation has Lara holstering her weapon indicating that it is safe to continue.
Thanks to the events and situations she witnesses combined with how her skills are developed, Lara comes out of the game a very different person than when she started. This brings up one of several narrative issues in the game. Although the story treats Lara’s first human kill dramatically (reminding me of a similar circumstance in Silent Hill 2), it conflicts with the bloodthirstiness and gusto of combat in which Lara’s deftly kills people left and right. Granted, this is the same tired argument that sprang up from each Uncharted game but because Tomb Raider goes out of its way to depict Lara as vulnerable and inexperienced as possible, there isn’t much wiggle room to suspend disbelief. It’s a simple and common problem of the gameplay getting in the way of the story. There are moments when Lara finds herself at the mercy of her captors who, despite their anger and hunger for blood, make the most inept decisions in dealing with her. If you’re going to leave someone for dead, why on earth would you let the victim keep their weapons? Moments such as these don’t occur frequently yet they stick out like a sore thumb.
Criticism can be levied against the game’s early insistence on hunting animals. When Lara first starts off on her journey, the game commands the player to use the bow and arrow to hunt animals in order to eat them. The problem is, there is absolutely no reason to do so outside of earning a few experience points. There is no Metal Gear Solid 3 style hunger meter and at no point is Lara affected by lack of food. Outside of a few trophies, there is really no point to the exercise. I also took issue with the amount of collectible items. In short, there are just too many for me to care. Those who hound for hidden items will probably enjoy it but my lust for finding them quickly waned. That said, the journals are the only item worth talking about as they shed light on the history of the island as well as those who inhabit it. The hidden tomb puzzles are depressingly pedestrian and resemble the early physics based puzzles in Half Life 2. There’s also an overabundance of Quick Time Events. I really think we’re ready to move on from this ridiculously overplayed mechanic.
If there is one aspect of the game that helps to look past the game’s flaws, it lies in it’s beauty. Tomb Raider is a beautiful game on the PlayStation 3. As deadly and nightmarish the island it, it’s also a beautiful one that benefits from its strange weather patterns with snow, fog, wind and rain behaving realistically. Fire burns brightly and embers glow beautifully. Many of the game’s environments convey a real sense of fear and dread as bones and piles of bloody, rotted corpses litter darkened chambers, hallways and tunnels. My favorite visual element can be seen in Lara’s animations. The way she shivers, shakes water from her arms and reacts to old wounds just about reaches Uncharted-quality. Jason Graves’ soundtrack deserves some attention as well and although some of it sounds as if pulled from Dead Space, it is fitting.
Despite stepping away from the tone and play style of its forbears, Tomb Raider is an entertaining adventure and a great jumping off point for the new direction Crystal Dynamics wants to take. Great combat and beautiful scenery help to balance out issues stemming from questionable storytelling, elementary puzzle design and an overabundance of secondary items to collect. At the end of the lengthy adventure, Lara’s resolve to travel on a new path has me very excited to see what is in store for the future now that a strong foundation has been laid.