The Tomb Raider franchise had a promising beginning: the first few games delivered on their promises of exploration, careful jumping, fighting dangerous enemies, and unbelievable cup sizes. The games slowly became less successful and soon enough the best Tomb Raider games were called Uncharted. There was an attempt to reboot the franchise in 2006 with Tomb Raider: Legend, which was quite successful, but its sequel, Tomb Raider: Underworld, slowed any momentum the franchised had regained.
Then 2013 happened and Crystal Dynamics, the company responsible for the franchise since Legend, decided to reboot the series yet again. This time, they brought Lara into the modern world and rewrote all of her established history. While still considered a reboot, Legend only changed Lara’s background and still fit into the overall canon. 2013’s Tomb Raider is a brand new start.
This fresh start was necessary for the once-legendary franchise, but will it pave the way to greater adventures or will it seal its own tomb?
“This is the story of a girl…”
Lara Croft is a young archaeology graduate and daughter of Richard Croft, a famous archaeologist. Lara, her friend Sam, her mentor Captain Conrad Roth celebrity archaeologist Dr. James Whitman, and many others are on an expedition to find the lost island of Yamatai. Sam’s family, the Nishimura family, is said to be direct descendants of Yamatai, and so they are funding this expedition.
The action begins nearly immediately with deadly storms splitting the crew’s ship in half, leaving Lara (and players) to find a way off and safely reach the island. Lara is alone, completely separated from the rest of the crew, her best friend, and her mentor. She eventually meets Sam and another survivor named Mathias after escaping both a frenzied pursuer and a collapsing cave. Sam tells Mathias the legends of Himiko, a queen who supposedly controlled the weather around Yamatai. She also mentioned her family’s blood ties to the so-called “Sun Queen” Himiko. Thinking she’s safe, Lara drifts off.
When she awakens, she discovers both Sam and this Mathias are missing. Upon meeting up with some of the other crew members, Lara and Whitman search for Captain Roth while the others search for Sam. Lara soon learns Mathias is the leader of a cult called the Solarii Brotherhood, a group of killers and shipwreck survivors. Their goal is to free Himiko to harness the power of the island, and they believe Sam Nishimura is the missing piece of the puzzle.
While there are many characters in this game, the story is focused completely on Lara. Some editions of the game come with a comic that flesh out the supporting cast, and a few cutscenes involving Sam’s camera catch some of the lighter moments during the expedition, but the game never forgets that this is the story of Lara Croft. Everything that happens to other characters serve only to strengthen or change Lara. When she and Dr. Whitman are captured early in the game, Lara must make her first kill. This is a pivotal moment for the archaeology graduate, and the game does a fantastic job putting the right amount of emphasis on this point in time.
As the game progresses, Lara must endure increasingly dangerous situations, and the toll they take on her shows: she gets grimier and sounds more tired the further into the game players get. She falls from great heights on many an occasion, and while most of those times show her recovering in a cutscene, a few other times force players to behave more cautiously during actual gameplay. These moments stop Lara from jumping high or dodging effectively, showcasing just how much pain she must endure.
Since this is Lara’s first real adventure in the franchise’s revised canon, she isn’t quite the skilled acrobat or killer she is in other games. She has to motivate herself out loud before certain jumps, whispering things like “You can do this, Lara” or “It’s just like Roth showed you.” She doesn’t always grab ledges perfectly, requiring players to quickly press the X button to ensure she doesn’t fall. By the end of the game, however, it’s clear this Lara is the tomb raider gamers expect: she can quickly mow down enemies with a variety of weapons, hunt animals without alerting them to her presence, jump from one cliff wall to the next with finesse, and tackle nearly an obstacle without the constant verbal self-reassurance.
“I’d like to play a little game…”
As with all Tomb Raider games, players take control of Lara from a third-person perspective, meaning she’s in view at all times. The game goes for a minimalist feel regarding the heads-up display, so text or visual icons or only displayed as needed. Because of this, most of the time there will be nothing on the screen but Lara and her environment.
Players will come to know two tools very quickly, as they are Lara’s two most important tools: the bow and the pick axe. The bow allows Lara to take down enemies or animals silently while the pick axe can open doors and chests. It can also function as a melee weapon during combat, stunning or killing enemies depending on their health. Lara also gains access to a pistol, machine gun, and shotgun, as well as flaming arrows for her bow.
Combat is very satisfying. Stealth is an option sometimes, but once an enemy is alerted, things get very frantic. Enemies will try to slice, shoot, or throw dynamite at Lara, and despite the inclusion of a semi-sticky cover system, players are encouraged to keep on the move. There may not be many weapons, but the weapons that do exist all handle very well and each work better for different situations.
The game contains upgrades that come in two forms: weapon upgrades through the use of salvage and survival upgrades through the use of experience. Experience can be gained from killing or discovering relics, while salvage can be gained by looting dead enemies, animals, or crates. With weapon upgrades, Lara’s guns can do more damage, reload faster, or be fitted with a silencer. With survival upgrades, Lara can throw sand to stun enemies, find more items on the map, climb faster, and much more. What kind of adventurer or killer Lara becomes is up to the player and how they spend their hard-earned experience or salvage.
There are quite a few sequences involving quick-time events, in which the player must quickly press a certain button or move the control sticks while the game takes control of Lara. Luckily, most of them are entertaining and failure won’t set a player too far back. Unfortunately, they’re still a sign of linearity and represent a lack of imagination in most developers. They can’t figure out how a really cool sequence would play out if the player were controlling Lara like they do during the rest of the game, so the developers decide, “Oh, let’s do a cutscene where the character can do things she can’t do in actual gameplay, and we’ll relegate those complex actions to the press of a single button.” They’re tolerable in this game, however, because even if they don’t quite benefit the gameplay, they at least benefit the story.
There are also a few other sequences that give players more control over Lara but are extremely linear, like the escape from the plane seen in the screenshot above. During these set pieces, Lara is really only supposed to go in one direction, leaving players with the single task of jumping at the right moment while moving Lara in the obvious direction. These are a lot more entertaining than the traditional QTEs. Sometimes Lara will be rushing through rapids and has to blow up barricades, lest she gets impaled. Other times Lara will have to jump from one falling building to the next. There’s another moment where a friendly sniper is covering her as she climbs under and around an enemy-infested bridge. These moments may be linear, but their intensity during a first-time playthrough is almost unmatched.
The island of Yamatai provides a lot of variety to the game’s environments, with locations ranging from broken down temples to a beach to a small mountain village. The verticality to the environments provides plenty of jumping and zip lining opportunities in addition to plenty of exploration. When there aren’t any enemies to shoot or QTEs to worry about, the game’s exploration takes the front seat. Players can freely check out the varied locations and search for relics, weapon upgrade parts, and secret tombs.
Yes, it’s possible to play a Tomb Raider game and not visit a single tomb. When Lara does find a tomb, however, she will be confronted with a very simplistic puzzle and a reward in the form of experience. They’re nothing to write home about, but fun to look for nonetheless.
“You have to see it to believe it…”
Visually, the game looks great, even on the ages-old Xbox 360. While pure graphical power isn’t this game’s strong suit, the animations and attention to environmental detail certainly are. Everything, from Lara to enemies to animals, move with a purpose, thanks to the wonderful performance capture. The island looks beautiful. Clouds congregate at the top of the highest mountains, lanterns sway as the storm blows through a dark and forgotten village, and light shines through the tops of trees in dense forests.
The island also looks ugly, but in the best possible way. Pools of blood in weird ritual chambers look like they’ve been there forever, bones are scattered throughout caves where previous travelers must have lost their way, and abandoned complexes have become the home of rust and rats. Again, the attention to detail is great and it really gives the island a personality.
The game also sounds great. The voice actors do a very good job, especially Lara’s latest actor, Camilla Luddington. Her vocal interpretation of Lara is of someone born to aristocracy yet wanting to forge her own path. She’s a strong individual who hasn’t quite prepared for a disaster of this magnitude, yet she finds her way through it and learns from it. She is vulnerable at times and doesn’t force herself to suppress: she merely accepts it and tries to find a solution to whatever problem is at hand.
The sound of the island is nearly perfect. Wildlife, the weather, and the echoes of enemies come together to give players a soundscape they won’t soon forget. The music is more atmospheric than memorable, but don’t take that to mean it’s bad. There may not be many memorable themes, but the music itself is practically a sound effect, blending in so well with the island’s other sounds that players may think it’s the island itself making the music.
“The elephant in the room…”
EDIT: This will be saved for a separate post another day. This section became too long and doesn’t need to muddle the review. I’m keeping the picture and heading here, however, to show my intentions to follow up on the topic of Lara Croft as a well-written female protagonist.
Tomb Raider is a fantastic reboot to the franchise. The visuals get the job done, the music is very atmospheric, the island is a great location, and combat is a joy. The game is accessible enough for newcomers to feel comfortable, yet it still retains many of the key elements that made the series famous in the first place. Unfortunately, some of these key elements (especially tomb raiding) aren’t explored enough. In the context of the story, it makes sense because this is Lara’s first real adventure. Think of it as a tease towards future titles.
The major downside to this game, however, is that everything it does well has been done before. The only real draw is Lara herself. It’s like playing an Uncharted game (which borrowed a lot from older Tomb Raider games and perfected the formula) with a less cocky protagonist and new supporting characters. This isn’t a bad thing, but it still feels a little too similar.
Overall, this is a solid refresh for a once-legendary franchise struggling to remain relevant with gamers. It walks a very familiar path in terms of gameplay mechanics, but once gamers start the game, they’ll certainly want to play to the end to see Lara’s transformation.