Way back in 1996 when gamers were first introduced to the sexy female heroine Lara Croft in the original Tomb Raider (releasing for the PC and Playstation 1), adventure games were given an entirely new boost of innovation, showing that the genre could appeal to all new demographics of mature players. Elements of discovery, vast exploration, and thrilling-seeking action tuned gamers on to brand new worlds where they themselves could act as a new form of “Indiana Jones” for a new generation.The action title then released one sequel after another as Lara herself took on many new facets, some of which turned new players on, and others off (so to speak). Yet while the series overall may have become steadily less popular amongst her hardcore original following, Lara herself would become a staple icon of not only video gaming, but popular culture, thanks to lots of word of mouth and two Hollywood big budget films.
Yet after so many titles, studio Crystal Dynamics felt things may have been getting to shallow, so a few years after the last sequel, they hooked up with Square Enix to reimagine not only Lara Croft, but the entire series of Tomb Raider in order to breathe new life into it. Hence, giving us this brand new game, simply self-titled. And after playing through this game all I can say that all the work pays off incredibly well, in what is definitely one of the best action/adventure titles to hit any console of this generation.
Tomb Raider is basically a reboot and prequel of the entire series, giving us a very young, naive, and inexperienced Lara Croft of which we have never seen. Characterization and storytelling play a gigantic role in this new adventure, giving us a story where we see how the strong, self-assured, and seductively cocky Croft we have come to know start out as a brave yet insecure young woman who is infallibly more relatable.
The game takes place initially on a crew ship called Endurance, where Lara and her team of archeologists are on a mission to investigate a distant island where previous explorers have gone to look for ancient treasure told by mythical legend. Lara has some ideas in order how to get there that other team members disagree with, yet her decision and a deadly storm gets them accidentally shipwrecked , and now the team must find a way out. Little to their knowledge, the island has been the hotbed of a deadly cult for years already, and when the team gets unintentionally discovered, they must all find a way to simply survive; and that is one of the biggest draws of the game, that the player is given that as their motivation – to be a survivor. This is so prevalent in fact that it is itself the game’s main tagline. Once the player gets accustomed to that survival aspect, the Endurance crew soon discovers there are greater and deadlier motivations that the cult has in mind.
Now although the character voiceovers are mostly done very well, particularly Lara’s voiced by newcomer Camilla Luddingham, the story itself is not anything new and perhaps something that most experienced gamers won’t be incredibly gripped by. Critics give it a lot of slack for being somewhat cliched and typical, but given what the story as a whole is, regardless of the individual character arcs, video games have never been known for intriguing storylines, especially for action games. So sad to say there are no mind-bending twists endings here, and only a very select few characters show any sort of growth (and that’s a stretch, because Lara by far displays the most characterization and growth out of anyone). Still, nothing about it really does anything to detract from the experience, and the game itself is so good, the fact that the story is the weakest link is not very important in the end.
You of course take control of Lara and the game begins with you going it alone in a forest trying to reunite with your crew. Here is where the player is given the basics, and introduced to all of the game’s dynamics. In TR, the motivation is not simply to get off the island and advance from one area to the next, but beginning with your bow and arrow weapon, Lara must hunt for wildlife and search for collectibles throughout the game, not to also mention explore various optional hidden tombs throughout. Each level only becomes more and more complex as the game goes on, and the player is given a great sense of motivation to discover and explore all the gorgeously detailed areas in order to find items such as documents left by your crew, ancient relics, treasure maps, and salvage in order to be used to upgrade weapons throughout the game.; not to also mention the weapons themselves you pick up as you journey through the desolate land. Whenever the player picks up these items Lara gains experience points, which when accumulated enough, can be traded in for character upgrades, such as combat, hunter, and survival abilities. As stated, salvage can be traded in at checkpoints (or campsites) that would be used to upgrade weapons and give them new abilities. What is a bit unfortunate here is that as cool as it was to gain visible abilities such as acquiring flaming arrows, attaching a grenade launcher to a rifle or shotgun and such, more subtle abilities are barely even felt, if at all. Examples of this being getting more ammunition per clip/magazine, upgrading weapon stability and recoil, etc. Since ammo is mostly abundant, you really only run out of it two or three times throughout the game, to no worry since you’ll most likely have plenty of it in another weapon, and many enemies seem to die with the same amount of bullets regardless if you’re using a rifle or basic handgun. Since enemies are not especially difficult to kill, the only real motivation you will have to fully upgrade all weapons will be to earn the PSN trophy. The biggest redeeming factor would have to be the bow and arrow; since stealth plays a pretty significant part of the combat, there is nothing like sneaking up to a distant enemy, aiming your arrow and striking them right through the head (which the game rewards the player for in experience points, as headshots are the greatest kill). With the combat itself Lara has quite a few options on how to take down enemies, either by one of the 4 weapons you gain, or by melee attacks and even some nifty finishers when approaching a stunned enemy. These are nice pieces of icing on a solid combat cake, and do much to add to the intensity of the action when foes begin to come at you in significantly large hordes.
Another impressive element in the game is the “survival instinct” mode, where by pressing L2 Lara goes into a view where any important items or environmental aids will be highlighted in a glow atop the remainder of black and white. This helps the player not only find important items such as ammo and even treasures, but also ropes or stumps needed to progress to greater areas. In order to keep things fair, once Lara moves the view goes out, so as not to be compared with something like the detective mode in the Batman Arkham games. As you progress through a level the game gives map markings as to where other items can be found, so the player can mark them on the map and they will be highlighted in blue so as to be more easily attained. While this may feel like a cheat, it beats having to run through every single square-inch of these vast lands to hopefully luck out in finding items.
What is best about all these elements is the question of motivation. The player feels the need to explore and do more than just kill enemies or raging animals (of which there are far too few I might say. So to fans of the older games, there are no large bears, tigers, mummies… or T-Rex’s to kill). The items only add to the atmosphere and story as a whole, and the player is given a great sense of accomplishment when finding these hidden items. This is not even to go into the hidden tombs in the game, of which are optional but still a grace to explore, if somewhat small in their own scopes. Just like the other areas, players need to manipulate environments in the game’s great use of puzzle solving to reach higher areas and find more treasures. Not only does completing these tombs and finding items grant experience points, but also game extras such as character models, conception artwork, videos, and the like. Since these aren’t unnecessarily difficult to unlock, once players complete the game all these extras should be unlocked quite easily. So no spending hours and hours trying get every extra and measly achievement while wearing the game thin (I’m looking at you, Resident Evil 5 and 6).
Enough good cannot be said about the visual presentation TR gives us. Character models move very smooth and lifelike, particularly during dialogue sections. The amount detail in Lara’s face alone is downright impressive, and helps the player feel all the more for her character, as she does become particularly scuffed up, drenched, dirt-ridden, mud and blood laden throughout her adventure. Even the meticulous inventory does show on her person no matter how overrun things become, unlike the usual video game technical hangup of protagonists somehow hiding their five gun inventory in their back pockets. It works seamlessly to make TR feel all the more realistic. This is not even to also talk about the environments themselves, which while not as good, still are a treat with their design over texture quality, the exception being more indoor areas like the various rundown and busted warehouses and ancient monastaries, where lighting effects from fire and sunlight are downright beautiful, and give a great sense of realism, especially when Lara is sneaking up on enemies.
Still, with all these impressive visuals, the game does have slight slowdown in sections, and framerates act a bit jerky and erratic when running around certain areas, particularly when the camera is rotating. These seem like usual game hiccups that we see in lots of games when too much is filled up on the screen at one time; but the game is for the most part very smooth, and thankfully these small hiccups don’t occur in the mist of battle. So in total, the graphics are downright great.
TR has been given a brand new atmospheric treatment in the way of a game soundtrack. There is more intense music during battle scenes that keep things pretty thrilling and lively, cuing in the player as to when enemies are close and even when a pack of them is finished off. The strong intense beats keep your heart pumping, but things do change during slower sections. When action is on a break, many times you will get no actual music besides atmospheric noises and synthesized sound effects for the purpose of making the player feel isolated. It all works very well in terms of balance, so nothing is out of place but things always fall together perfectly in terms of sound and especially music. For more dramatic scenes and themes, there are some beautiful sweeping orchestral pieces, which while never too loud, add a sense of drama and epic nature to the game, rivaling some great film soundtrack scores. Its adventurous feel give the deserted island a personality all its own, conveying a sense of loneliness and beauty that will only seduce the gamer into playing more and more. The collector’s edition of the game comes with a 10-track soundtrack CD, and if possible, I would recommend that version in particular only due to getting to have this memorable score on your mp3 player. It’s great music to say the least.
Sound effects themselves are also pretty good. As stated before, the crew does a good job at their voiceovers, and animals and natural elements are rich enough to be recognizable, but it isn’t anything that you haven’t heard before. The good news is that the graphics do such a tremendous job of sucking the player into this world, that things like the ocean, animals, wind, etc, sound pretty predictable, even though more richness could’ve been added. It is forgivable and an extremely minor flaw, near negligible anyway. What is great though is the enemy dialogue which can provide a few moments of comic relief, as well as wild animals when they are up close.
What makes TR so much fun is not so much the combat, but what TR has always been about – exploration. The game does a great job at empowering the player through upgrades and experience points. While the player will not feel a real need to use every single upgrade as they progress, they do more act as fun extras when they are used. The dodge counter adds an enjoying element of skill as well as the bow and arrow. The downside being here the enemy AI, which can be a bit stupid to say the least. While it’s never too difficult or too easy, it can be seen as somewhat unrealistic when lots of enemies run towards Lara while she has a gun straight pointed at them. Lots of enemies with guns will duck for cover and shoot at you in spurts, or at times altogether, making it difficult for the player to just stay in one place and fire. Certain tactics and environments can be taken advantage of to take down your foes, using the environments of course, but mostly trying to decide which weapon to choose from for whatever scenario. The game also makes it very easy to navigate through Lara’s moves as the in-game tutorial is very helpful and well spaced. Gamers will become better and better without even knowing it, growing such as Lara does through her experience points. The downsize to this ease is that for some, the game may come across as too easy. There are no real bosses at the end of areas, and the ones that are there are probably going to be defeated on the first try. Most deaths will come by quick-time events which at times feel like they were just designed poorly. A slow circle may show up on the screen and the the button will highlight to press, but many times even a milli-second after the icon shows up, pressing the button didn’t even work, but does when I press it even BEFORE the icon shows up, which in itself doesn’t really make sense.
Many experienced gamers may take about 10-13 hours to complete the game, and if you look for all the collectibles and tombs (which I highly recommend), you may get at 13 hours or more. Yet even after the game is over, the mutliplayer comes off as pretty basic and way more choppy graphically than the game (this is perhaps due to the internet connection in itself). In multiplayer, you can use the same elements as the game, and upgrade through salvage and experience points, so doing so will gain you better performance on other multiplayer games. There is nothing unusual here in terms of game options, as we have free for all deathmatch, team deathmatch, and 2 other modes where teams work together to either steal batteries, turn on mechanical items, all in order in order to level up. With such a vast single player experience, this kind of multipayer gaming feels too short, choppy and basic for lots of gamers to keep coming back. I’d rather stick with my Killzone 3 with multiplayer; something that’s an asset to the game, and not so much a advertising bullet. Granted that TR has always been about the single player experience anyway, I would have preferred them scrapping the multiplayer for a longer single player campaign. Yet when it comes to replay value, even after one has finished the single player campaign, and especially if done at 100% completion, it may be hard to care to go through this whole thing all over again. Yet, that is probably just the nature of TR games.
TR is without a doubt one of the best action/adventure games of the year, alongside others such as Bioshock Infinite, DmC, Dishonored, and Assassin’s Creed III. Gorgeous graphics, great music, solid gameplay, a charming, relateable, and greatly likeable new Lara, and a grandly motivational upgrade and treasure hunting system, TR is easily worth full price of admission at $60 retail at the time of this review. Yet I would recommend the collector’s edition tin containing some weapon DLC, a Lara posable figurine, artbook, soundtrack, island map, and lithograph, which would make any longtime Raider fan happy.
One does not need to be a veteran in order to enjoy this game, especially since it controls and plays almost nothing like its predecessors. Fans aren’t completely put to the dust as there are some cute scenes that harbor back to the original Lara and are likewise charm. Yet this is such an engrossing game that you literally can’t wait to see what puzzles and platform adventures will come next. Getting to a new cave or tomb is pleasingly exciting and wonderous. The best part is trying to manipulate your environment in order to see where to go through next. Yet figuring things out isn’t the most difficult thing in the world, thus it’s important to stress the game perhaps isn’t as hard as it probably should be. But still, the focus here is not on frustrating challenge, but on the atmosphere, story, and plain ol’ adventure. The developers would rather have you appreciating the beautiful worlds you find yourself in and progressing Lara’s story rather than failing a shooting section over and over and over again. In the end, TR has gotten a greatly needed new rejuvenated face, and I for one am very excited to see what prospective sequels have in mind. The old Lara Croft, her short shorts and choppy sluggish gameplay are gone forever. Make way for one of the strongest female heroines of all time. Tomb Raider is BACK, and here to stay!
Despite some cosmetic and technical faults here and there, this is a fantastic and stellar adventure feat of technical and creative prowess that any fan of the genre would easily enjoy. It’s not the deepest in terms of style, and may only appeal to action/adventure fans, but even with that, what IS good here is in fact so good, that all the faults will be mostly shrugged away thinking it’ll get better the next game, but does little to nothing to detract from this one. It has plenty of substance that will keep you engrossed for those 12 or so hours that awaits. I give it an easy 4 out of 4 tombs.