A survivor is born... again. Reboots are en vogue, and if you wade in to take a look, you will see the internet floating on the horizon, drifting off in a sea of contempt. Remember when Fallout 3 was announced and it wasn't a carbon copy of the original? "Waah". What about when Dante got a haircut? "Waah".
But in the case of Lara Croft, a reinvention has been long overdue. The games industry has grown up (a bit) and the sexualisation, or at least intended sexualisation of the lead character - which actually lead to massive comedy boobage - isn't considered acceptable anymore by the masses. Good riddance, ridiculously proportioned Lara, it's time to be born anew.
This in as origin story. A chance to wipe the dusty slate clean. A chance to tell the story of a young and inexperienced Lara, before she turns into a dino-killing, butler-kidnapping, dual-wielding badass.
Aboard the Endurance, Lara sets sail with a production crew in an attempt to find the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai. Against the wishes of celebrity archaeologist Dr. James Whitman, Lara convinces the crew to plot a course for the heart of the Dragon's Triangle, which is like the Bermuda Triangle's less famous brother.
Upon entering the Dragon's Triangle, a violent storm rips the ship into two and Lara finds herself separated from her crewmates, stranded on a not so deserted island and clubbed over the back of the head by an unknown assailant. The game then hands control to the player and it's down to you to work out the mysteries of its gritty and intriguing narrative.
A short way into her journey, our heroine finds a camcorder that was once aboard the Endurance. This acts as a narrative device, fleshing out the backstory. Even the screen is grimy and covered in fingerprints, just in case you forgot that the game is a gritty reimagining.
To give away too many details of the plot would be detrimental to your experience, so I'll let you discover the island's mysteries for yourself. Who are the others? What is the island? Can you kill a crab with an arrow? (Spoiler: yes you can).
The plot feels very 'Lost', but you know, consistently good. It starts off feeling like a survival horror, and slowly evolves, concurrently with Lara's character.
From the very beginning there's a feeling of creeping dread, one that is missing from many titles that are desperate to evoke anxiety. Tomb Raider manages to portray a foreboding atmosphere with ease. Every scene is littered with disturbing imagery, and initially at least, it feels quite shocking - certainly jarring for long-term fans of the franchise.
Although much of the sense of oppression comes from more obvious sources, like everything wanting to kill you, or the abundance of corpses littering each area, a lot of credit is due to the environmental art direction. Dark, dank caves, contrasting with rich, beautiful vistas. Much like how the game flits between claustrophobic crawl spaces and huge, open playgrounds.
Many people will compare this reboot to a certain PlayStation exclusive that I shall not name because I want to be different. But that's like the age old question of the chicken and the egg. Lara was rocking the Indiana Jones theme whilst other games weren't even a twinkle in their daddy's eye. Another thing that makes the comparison redundant, is the fact that there are huge spaces, where you can make tactical decisions in combat, or hunt out optional tombs, whereas the title that I SHALL NOT NAME is extremely linear by comparison.
The optional tombs are each a unique little puzzle for you to mull over, breaking up the pacing of the game nicely and rewarding you with experience points for your efforts.
Each has a singular object to overcome, where you must figure out how to manipulate physics, or fire to your advantage. Most of the puzzles are organic, and you won't be running around pulling switches, which is fantastic because switches are pretty dull. I mean, when did you last get excited about a switch? Apart from when you switch on your console, that is.
Whether you're balancing weights on one side of a seesaw so you can use it for traversal, or blowing a hole in a wall with fire, each puzzle is different and satisfying.
Lara is a pyromaniac. If you see something flammable, your first instinct is to burn the shit out of it. She sets fire to absolutely everything, because everything contains salvage which is essentially the game's currency. You use salvaged parts to upgrade your weapons, much like you use experience points to unlock a variety of skills and buffs.
If I had to pick one negative with the game, and all games are guilty of it, is the abundance of eye-rolling ludonarrative dissonance.
For example, you're on the radio to your friends who are under fire and in need of immediate assistance... "ooh, a crate"! In another instance, Lara is hungry, and seconds later a deer appears. The deer leads you straight to the bow you inevitably use to kill it, and you never see Lara take a bite but you do get some sweet salvage.
At the start of the game Lara falls onto a metal spike (she falls a lot) and it penetrates her side. She soon forgets about the minor case of impalement though.
The plot is mature, but the systems undermine it. Case in point: the scene that caused controversy because it hinted at sexual threat. The obvious power of the scene is completely undermined by the fact that it's actually a really terrible QTE. The window for response is so slight that I was forced to watch the cutscene six times. It was only when I realised that the majority of the QTE's use the same single button that I succeeded. There's no skill involved, it's down to memory. So I have to ask: what's the point?
When you do eventually succeed, Lara gets understandably upset because she was forced to take a man's life. Not long afterwards, you're mowing people down and scoring extra experience points for headshots.
Granted, it wouldn't be the rollercoaster ride that it is without all the set-pieces and overblown action scenes. The problem is that the game's so po-faced when the player isn't in control.
If you accept it for what it is though (pretend it's gritty in the same way as Rambo 4) you will enjoy yourself immensely. You could even say that Tomb Raider puts the "do diss" in "ludonarrative dissonance".
Essentially, the combat feels impactful and each shot feels like it causes real damage. Lara slips around the battlefield like a rabid panther, dispensing death with an effortless grace.
When near a low object, Lara takes cover automatically, allowing you to move away from cover freely without ever sticking you to the surface. Enemies will often rush you and try to flush you out with molotov cocktails and grenades, so the option to retreat swiftly is welcome. You can dodge with the tap of a button, causing Lara to perform a panicked scuttle across the floor, and if you follow it up with another tap she breaks into a roll.
The cover system works in tandem with your need to relocate and tactically retreat often.
Aiming whilst behind cover pokes your head out as you would expect it to, but the free movement keeps things feeling fresh and entertaining. Traditionally, Tomb Raider games have been more about the exploration, with combat an afterthought where you backflip around whilst shooting animals in the face. Here it's handled properly, and you can still shoot animals in the face, but the action puts many games with a combat focus to shame.
Another thing that surprised me is how fluent the stealth is.
It's possible, in some encounters, to pick off your enemies one at a time. Whether sneaking up behind them and splitting their skulls open with a pickaxe (see, she's mental) or silently dispatching them with arrows from a distance - Lara is like death incarnate. You can even use arrows to cause distractions, drawing an enemy away from his friend, for example.
The only downside to all this shooty fun, is that it takes up a much larger percent than the actual exploration, and let's face it, that's what the fans came to see. That's not to say that it's non-existent. But the fact that these quiet moments, where it's just you against the environment are the best parts of the game, it only serves to highlight the focus on gunplay.
In Lara's world, everything breaks when you touch it. The environment hates you more than the enemies do. For God's sake, even the weather is against you. Do you remember when Hideo Kojima said that he wanted the player to feel the cold of the rain during Metal Gear Solid 2's tanker sequence? His promise has finally been fulfilled... just not by him.
At specific points in the story the weather changes, and at one point it was a relentless torrent of rain, even soaking the screen as you tilted the camera skywards to admire the artwork. I was freezing: especially after watching Lara running around with no coat on for hours.
It's taking in the beautiful scenery whilst hanging precariously over a vast expanse of nothingness when Tomb Raider shines the most. When dynamic camera angles multiply the sense of scale and hopelessness. When you're using Lara's moveset and inch-perfect judgement to flow together a succession of leaps and scrambles to vanquish the true enemy - the environment.
Lara won't do any graceful, showy handstands here. Oh no. She'll hurl herself at the intended surface and smash into it with a grunt or an orgasmic moan. Higher ledges are accessed with a double jump of sorts, where the second tap initiates a messy scramble to grab the ledge. See, even the platforming is gritty.
You can later use you arrows to create makeshift bridges from which you can shimmy across, whilst the camera pans out to show you how far away/close imminent death is.
Once you acquire the pickaxe you can climb up some specific, craggy textured rock faces. You have to time your button press just right to dig into the wall, and then you're free to climb the surface in a gravity-defying animation which benefits from slight suspension of disbelief. One nice touch with the pickaxe is that when using a zip line she slides down using the tool, rather than the asbestos hands of our usual gaming protagonists.
The rock climbing animation being a bit shoddy is the exception though, not the rule. As the animations are another area in which the game excels. Even small details like Lara putting her hand out to rest it on a nearby wall, and the way the differing weight of the various firearms adjusts her posture is impressive.
You can tell that the development team poured over every detail to make it as authentic looking as possible, and it's polished to an absolutely anal degree. The only bug I encountered was when I got killed by a bush. But man, that was awesome. Who wouldn't want to be killed by a bush? I mean, they kill Lara in some pretty gruesome ways throughout, but a bush... man.
The game is pretty long too, and it pounds along at a blistering pace. And once you're done with it, you can still go back for more, with your new equipment opening up new areas and countless collectibles to be found. Completionists will have a field day.
If you're not one for collecting millions of meaningless things, you could always try your hand at the multiplayer offering. This is admittedly light, with a handful of maps and only a few game modes, but it's a welcome addition nonetheless. Also, it's an extra. Nobody is forcing you to play it and it doesn't detract from the unbelievably strong singleplayer offering. The only thing that put me off the multiplayer was the omission of the ability to use cover. Where did it go?
For us, Tomb Raider has been the biggest surprise we've had for a while. I for one hope that this trend for quality reboots continues, because so far we've had some gaming gold with this and DmC. I would even go as far as to say I enjoyed this incarnation of Tomb Raider more than the most recent Unchart... I bloody said it, didn't I.
- Amazing, fluid gameplay
- Intriguing and mysterious narrative
- Incredible art direction
- Fantastic animation
- Killer bushes
- Multiplayer feels like an afterthought
- Ludonarrative dissonance
- Killer bushes