Tomb Raider’s magnificent visuals, fantastic presentation and excellent gameplay make for a great reboot origins story
Tomb Raider has long been the icon of the action-adventure genre. Since Lara Croft’s first outing way back in 1996 on the PlayStation, the series has always been at the top of the pack. However, Lara’s transition to PlayStation 2 found mixed degrees of success. From solid outings (Legend, Underworld) to mediocre (Angel of Darkness), Tomb Raider has been admittedly inconsistent since the fantastic PS1 games. Underworld made it’s way to the Xbox 360 and was still a solid experience, though the controls and gameplay mechanics are dated when observed today. Although there was a solid release in Guardian of Light, a spin-off downloadable game, things admittedly changed when were introduced to Uncharted. Nathan Drake’s first PlayStation 3 outing, Drake’s Fortune, was a fantastic action experience with remarkable production values, graphics and great action. It was a wake-up call to Crystal Dynamics’ franchise. Uncharted 2 completely raised the bar in 2009, and is frequently cited as one of the greatest action games of all time. 2011 then saw the release of the third Uncharted game, further cementing Lara’s place as second best of the genre.
Suddenly it wasn’t looking great whatsoever. Something had to change.
Enter Tomb Raider.
A reboot of the entire series, the game isn’t just an improvement in gameplay, but a new vision of Lara Croft. Forget what you knew of the old Lara Croft, this is a completely revamped, grounded and more humane Lara Croft. Crystal Dynamics’ new start is a remarkable action game. Tomb Raider is a fantastic experience full of tense, exciting set pieces, thrilling combat, rewarding exploration and a great origins story that may well prove the start of an exciting new series.
Tomb Raider tears up the old concept of Lara Croft in favour of a more developed, empathetic character. The new, young Lara Croft immediately makes an empathetic impact, and her experiences here are admirable, making the old Lara Croft look like a caricature of herself by comparison. This Tomb Raider follows Lara and an expedition crew of the Endurance, a large ship that is swallowed inward amidst the Dragon’s Triangle, while on route to Yamatai, a fictional island based in Asia. Upon the ensuing shipwreck, Lara, alone and scared, must venture through dark, mysterious territory in order to find her missing crew and escape this inhospitable island. The central story is relatively interesting, but isn’t the priority for me. Lara’s own character study is much more involving and makes the plot feel weaker in comparison. Lara’s struggle, constant fear and endangerment is riveting, and the cut-scenes are well-developed. Crystal Dynamics have succeeded in bringing a more realistic and gritty approach to Lara’s personality, and our focus never leaves her. The action and plot moves along with good pacing, but Lara’s journey makes the game feel more personal than other games. Look, I admire Nathan Drake, and think he’s a great character, but Croft’s emotional struggle here is more interesting than Drake’s in terms of characterization.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn’t as developed as Lara. The characters just feel like plot devices throughout and their relationship and association with Lara is never explored and this potential feels wasted. There are some moments of exposition, through cut-scenes and also documentations found throughout, and the emotion is there, but compared to Lara, it’s hard to sympathize with the other characters when I don’t know much about them. In addition to this, some powerful moments in the story don’t make that same impact as other games, where relationships are stronger. I just wish the entire cast was relatable, and that the friendships were expanded in order to feel for them the same way I do Lara. Still, the presentation is remarkable. Cinematics look great, the voice acting is stellar and the maps, menus and HUD all look great.
Just like Uncharted, it’s hard to move on to other aspects of Tomb Raider without first mentioning the graphics. As a big fan of Drake’s outings, Naughty Dog has constantly set the bar for visuals in action gaming. Four years on, Uncharted 2 is still among the best looking games ever, and Drake’s Deception only improved on its predecessor’s graphical fidelity. However, Tomb Raider have never been on par with either of those games nor other games of their time. Here though, Crystal Dynamics have achieved wonders in the visual department. Tomb Raider looks phenomenal; absolutely phenomenal. Most of the time, you’d mistake it for a ND game; it’s that good. The graphical quality here is outstanding. The lighting is excellent, the environments are stunning, the animations are fantastic, the art direction is spectacular. Everything is absolutely on the money. Crystal Dynamics have quite clearly followed Uncharted’s quality for visual prowess, and their own results are staggering. It’s the minor details that impress just as much as the wider picture. The objects, the vegetation, the skyline, wildlife, building interiors – all great. I won’t spoil anything, but there are sequences where the visual bar may be pushed that little bit further, and that’s some achievement.
The sound design is equally as solid. The voice acting is great, except for some weird accents in the documents found around the island. The cast are well-written and the variety of nationalities work well and make sense for an adventure game. Camilla Luddington, the new voice of Lara, gives a compelling, empathetic performance that has great emotional depth and mature character. It’s a gritty representation of the character, and it completely works. The sound effects are strong too. Guns sound great and have that boom to them, enemy chatter makes battles and stealth sections more intense, and the understated soundtrack brings a moody ambience to proceedings.
The atmosphere is great too. Seeing as it is based on a mysterious island with potential danger at every turn, its fortunate that the game feels as tense as the premise. Lara is always thrown into bad situations and each area, battle and piece of traversal is staged so well, that it becomes an engrossing experience. A lot of care has clearly been shown in the environments, the enemies, the island itself and the atmosphere, making it an involving adventure from start to finish.
Gameplay is broken up into three segments – combat, climbing and traversal and puzzles. The mix of them is great and serves to add great variety to an already fantastic game. Firstly, the combat. Tomb Raider games have never been known for their gameplay because their controls, shooting mechanics and camera have always been lingering issues. While Uncharted games were getting stronger, Tomb Raider’s gameplay was mediocre in pale comparison. However, the combat in this Tomb Raider is absolutely fantastic. The controls are brilliant, fluid and responsive which makes the game an absolute joy to play. Jumping, climbing, aiming and shooting all works wonderfully and feels the tightest its even been in a Tomb Raider game. The shooting mechanics are outstanding, and there are a solid amount of guns and equipment to use in many different ways. Lara has a bow that will become the signature weapon for most people, as it has deadly accuracy and is just phenomenal fun to use. Aiming is great, and popping someone in the head from twenty feet is really satisfying. There is also a pistol which is great, a rifle which feels good and fires brilliantly, and a shotgun which is devastating at close range.
These weapons are great because of the upgrade system. Tomb Raider follows Far Cry 3’s concept of XP for killing enemies and collecting items, and this ties in to a skill system. There are three skill tiers to level up – Survivor, Hunter and Brawler. Each tier has around six or seven abilities that are “mastered” by earning enough XP for each one. It’s also important to fixate a plan for the hours ahead. Do you want to hang back, pick enemies off quietly and methodically and hunt game? Then place emphasis on Survivor upgrades. Do you want to be bold, calculated and deadly, with great proficiency? Hunter upgrades are the way to go. Fortunately, Brawler upgrades can associate with either ways of play. Some of the Survivor upgrades include abilities like more loot when searching corpses or being able to find collectibles in the environments, whereas Hunter upgrades involve better accuracy, better climbing efficiency and more rewards for hunting animals. Brawler upgrades include awesome, brutal finishers, the ability to stab enemies in the leg with an arrow and being able to instant kill enemies.
Melee is great. It feels a lot more natural and organic than Uncharted, and is more satisfying. When Lara has attacked an enemy once or twice, an indicator will appear than enables her to perform a finisher. These finishers are one-button, brutal kills that are instantly gratifying and never get old. However, sometimes an enemy may get the jump on you first. To avoid this, Lara can dodge enemy attacks. When this occurs, another indicator will appear whereby Lara will stab or hit the enemy and then gain the opportunity to follow it up with a finisher. Therefore, melee is actually a really well-implemented feature in Tomb Raider, and doesn’t feel tacked on like most other shooters. You’ll definitely want to get up close and personal many times during the story.
Then there is the actual shooting. Aiming feels precise, and performing headshots feels awesome. Enemies carry bows too, and most of the time they are equipped with fire arrows. Fortunately, just as they are readying their shot, you can shoot them and cause them to subsequently drop the arrow, resulting in a blaze of screams. Dark stuff, but satisfying. Also, some enemies carry dynamite, and causing them to drop these is a gratifying highlight. Also, sometimes when you shoot enemies with a shotgun blast, their limbs may be blown off, which is cool. Grenades can also result in a shower of blood, and for the most time the enemy AI is great. They are responsive, take cover, fire from cover and also animate really well. When you shoot them with an arrow, they stumble backwards and arrows stick in their heads, which is cool. Each of the four weapons feel fantastic. The pistol is used for emergency situations, but the rifle and shotgun are great. Tight gunplay is important for a third-person shooter, and thankfully Crystal Dynamics nails this. The weapons can also be upgraded. During the game, Lara smashes open boxes to collect salvage, which act as a currency to spend on upgrades. These can be anything from better accuracy, faster reload time and tighter aiming, to different bullet types, silencers and more. So firing incendiary pellets from a shotgun and setting enemies alight with fire arrows is definitely a highlight of the experience, and these upgrades can be applied at any camp you come across. There are over two dozen different campsites located throughout the game, wherein Lara can spend skill points, upgrade weapons, save progress and fast travel. Fast travelling from one camp to another is a welcome feature, although traversing every area is more satisfying and fun, but I appreciate the feature.
The climbing is absolutely fantastic. Lara can traverse mostly any surface in the game, though most objects are highlighted, which helps to identify which objects aren’t climbable. There are many different surfaces, ranging from rope ziplines, ice walls, ledges, inanimate objects and even cloth banners. Climbing any and all of these types of surfaces is great fun and actually works against the general rule of wanting to climb across as quickly as possible. You’ll actually want to explore these areas and traverse slowly, so as to appreciate the brilliant controls and smooth climbing. Just like Uncharted, there can be some minor issues with precise jumping and this can cause Lara to jump to her death on some occasions, but it never intrudes on the fun, and can always be avoided by taking your time. Traversing rope ziplines is fun, as Lara wraps her body around it and slowly makes her way across, which is actually quite tense. Walking over thin, wooden beams hundreds of feet above ground are unflinching moments in the game, and really emphasize the theme of survival well.
Some objects and surfaces can collapse, which brings around the epic set pieces of the game. Collapsing beams, crumbling walls and burning bridges are among the thrilling moments of the game, but there are some sequences that are stunningly cinematic. I won’t spoil them, but know that the adrenaline of escaping, surviving and hanging onto life are relatively frequent set pieces, which are always entertaining. Another minor side note is that every time Lara falls from a surface and lands on the ground with a thud, she holds her wound or side that hurt. Whereas in Uncharted, Drake rarely flinches from falls, which is perhaps a contrast in struggle and real emotion. It’s nothing big, but it makes you feel more for Lara because of these experiences.
There are also some minor boss fights in the game, and these are really well done and enjoyable. They are quite tense, and dodging these powerful enemies and countering them becomes more intense and important. Killing them feels rewarding, and they are standout moments in the combat, that differentiate well from the usual enemy types. Thankfully, things are shaken up with progressively tougher enemies, like armoured foes, masked sword-wielding enemies and enemies equipped with riot shields. Because of this variety, as well as the constant change in environments, gunfights never feel repetitive and are always, always fun.
Tomb Raider has always been notorious for its puzzles, and they have always been challenging, and perhaps too much so for some. There are some puzzles in this game, and they are enjoyable, but nothing as difficult as what has come before. I’m sure this may anger some long-time Raider fans, but for me they adapt well to the game’s pacing, never keeping you from progressing for too long. I suppose having more challenging puzzles would be nostalgic and more rewarding but for me, the puzzles presented here are good. They are mainly physics based and require climbing, pulling levers and timed traversal across the environment. There are also a number of tombs throughout the game, which are mostly well hidden in the environment. Completely optional, these bring back that old feeling of past games, and are a really admirable addition. They shouldn’t longer than a few minutes, but they are definitely worth exploring, and the rewards at the end are enticing. Having said that, I do wish the puzzles inside the tombs were longer and more complex. The first example of this that springs to mind is Assassin’s Creed II, which featured great environmental puzzles in its variety of secret tomb entrances. Though I can understand the fact that the size of the tombs makes sense for the environment and some gamers may be alienated with the complexity of some puzzles, perhaps having tombs underground would have been more beneficial. Still, at least they are here.
The level design in Tomb Raider is outstanding. The massive areas around the game are vast and have multiple sides to traverse. During combat, verticality is a possibility, so firing from atop a building or ledge is a viable option, whereas fighting below has the same benefit. This change and option in fighting is welcome, as there are multiple ways to fight enemies. Like I mentioned, the puzzles are good enough and climbing is great, and so the interior of many buildings are really well designed. The best part of the level design, though, is the non-linearity. Though some parts of the game feature narrow objectives and gunfights, the approach to the environment is relatively open-ended. This means Lara can trek across the beaten path and hunt for many of the game’s collectibles without being punished for wandering. Once an objective is complete, you are free to explore the environment. It’s not completely open-world, but its large and enjoyable enough. This is a magnificent feature in comparison to its rival series Uncharted, and many people will be surprised by the open gameplay that is presented here. Like I said, there are many collectibles to find and, unlike most games, you will actually want to search for everything. Not only is it rewarding in terms of XP, salvage and trophy progress, but there are documents that detail the backstory of the central part of the story and some that portray the supporting cast in a different light. There are lots of boxes strewn throughout that contain salvage, there are small orange boxes that award XP and there are small boxes that contain relics. These relics are collectible valuables that Lara discusses for every one collected. There are also some metal containers that also give larger salvage rewards. These collectibles are actually important, as they are used for upgrading weapons and maxing out skills for Lara. There are also a number of challenges to complete, which mainly involve collecting certain items, activating a particular number of objects or traversing environments, and they are fun to complete. There is also hunting, which isn’t a primary part of the experience, and isn’t as enticing as Far Cry 3 or Red Dead Redemption. It’s still solid, but it won’t be something you’ll be itching to do.
Also, during the game, you will likely notice that some areas are inaccessible without a particular upgrade of equipment. To conquer this, you must find salvage to continue through these areas. Most of the upgrades are gradually gained throughout the story, and returning to these areas appears to be more enjoyable. It’s just like in Batman: Arkham Asylum, where previously inaccessible areas can now be bypassed with the right gadget. You’ll also likely sigh in a “oh right!” kind of way, when you realise that the gadget makes sense for the object that is blocking that particular locked entrance. That said, the variety of gear is great. I won’t spoil all of them, but you’ll upgrade to things such as the ability to pull rope, which means you pull enemies off ledge and break some doors, and also the ability to create rope ziplines so that you can travel across a cliffside, as well as a pick axe that can shatter door locks (and skulls).
Once the game is complete, a neat touch is that you can continue the game to pursue any remaining collectibles you may have missed out on during the story. This means that you can just enjoy the story without having to scavenge too much until completion, but some may want to collect as much as possible, and then clean up on anything else that is missing. I really appreciate this feature. Too many games have punished players for not being thorough enough, and have forced them to play the entire campaign again. Here, Crystal Dynamics have shown the flexibility to give players a chance to play straight away after beating the game, which is admirable. Unfortunately, however, there isn’t a New Game+ option. This hurts the replay value somewhat, considering you can’t venture through a new game as the badass you finished the previous playthrough as, and I wish Crystal Dynamics implemented this feature. However, it isn’t a deal breaker for me, because I definitely feel the need to play through again to experience the fantastic campaign.
Tomb Raider makes me incredibly excited. It’s a phenomenal game that looks astonishing, sound great, feels fantastic and plays remarkably well. However, it’s Lara’s story that makes the game involving and the origins story told here could be the start of a special franchise. That’s the exciting part. You’ll do well to definitely buy this game, as its one of the best third-person shooters I’ve every played, and that’s including Nathan Drake’s efforts. Tomb Raider begs to be experienced, and you don’t regret the purchase whatsoever. Enjoy your stay in Yamatai: it’s one of the most enjoyable experiences around.