Lara rising

It has been a few years since we last saw a Tomb Raider game, and there were whispers here and there that this iconic video game franchise had exceeded its sell-by date.  Die-hard fans, of course, would have nothing of it, but after a few weaker performances, there were critics out there who felt that Lara Croft’s adventures were losing their shine.

There really were only two routes that Square Enix – who picked up the franchise, along with many other well-known IPs, when they bought out Eidos – could follow. Allow Lara Croft to slowly fade into history, or take a long, hard look at how these games are presented. Naturally, with a franchise and character this well known, they opted for the latter. The result is a series reboot, simply called Tomb Raider, that takes the player right back to the beginning.

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We’re getting used to the idea of reboots these days. We’ve seen several over the last while, as publishers and developers take long, hard looks at their properties and drag them into a new way of thinking. But few have been as well handled and as effective as this one. Here is a game that not only refreshes the Tomb Raider franchise, but also stands as a testament to the fact that game developers aren’t just churning out game after game in order to make a few quick bucks. The new Tomb Raider is a top-notch title that will shift the bar for future action adventure games by quite a few notches.

Tomb Raider sees a young Lara Croft surviving a horrific ship wreck while searching for the lost Kingdom of Yamatai, a sort-of ancient Japanese splinter group. The island she and the other survivors of the wreck find themselves on is a storm-wracked, ruin-strewn place full of dangerous forests, deserted buildings and foreboding mountains. And they are not alone.

It sounds a bit like the TV series Lost, and there certainly are elements of that series in the well-crafted narrative that drags the player through Lara’s first adventure at a breathless, often heart-stopping pace. But there are elements of the older Tomb Raider games here as well, giving the game a rather unique feel.

The plot is not the most original, but it is very well told. Supported by brilliant character animations and top-notch voice acting, Tomb Raider’s story has very few elements to it that will raise an eyebrow. The only really strange part of the story is that Lara goes from being a frightened, innocent girl to an accomplished serial killer pretty easily. It’s a little jarring to see her going from weeping over her first kill to taking out hordes of enemies in a matter of minutes, but it’s not the first game to do that either (Far Cry 3 also had a protagonist who went from scared to scary really quickly.)

To aid her in her killing spree, Lara is given four upgradeable weapons during the course of the game. These can be improved using scrap and weapon parts she finds during her adventures on the island (another little inconsistency, how this Archaeology grad student is a pretty decent weapon smith). The game rolls these weapons and other useful tools that Lara finds out at a rather nice pace – they help add variation to the game in that way, and get the gamer to use a fast-travel system to revisit areas of the island and access things they could not do before. And while travelling back to previously-explored areas may be a chore in some games, Tomb Raider manages to keep that kind of activity fun and appealing.

The secret lies in the carefully crafted game dynamics that Tomb Raider offers the player. Where previous games in the franchise were all about traversal and locational puzzles, this game takes on a slightly different approach. A healthy mix of tense combat and exploration means that the player will always have something to keep them on their toes. The beautifully crafted levels are full of things to discover, and new equipment means that the player will be able to discover new things in almost all of them each time a new bit of kit is added to their inventory. And doing so is fun. Other games may get tedious as you try collect everything there is to find, but in Tomb Raider, even discovering all of the relics and documents in a level can be a challenge that is enjoyable and additive.

While there are optional tombs to be raided in the game, each of which adds a traditional Tomb Raider feel to the title thanks to traversal puzzles, the main thrust in this title is the story of Lara going from student to survivor. So while the player will be scratching their head from time to time to figure out how to get from point A to point B (even in the vast exterior levels that aren’t part of tombs) they will also need to fight and work through stunning cinematic set pieces with quick-time events. The balance is almost perfect, and keeps repetition within the title to a minimum.

One of the greatest joys here is how the character of Lara Croft evolves through the story, and also how she interacts with her environment. As the game progresses, she will gain scars and her clothing will become more worn. Visually, the Lara at the end of the game is very different from the Lara at the beginning. There are even subtle changes to her voice that show her progression towards becoming the legendary Tomb Raider.

Even better than this, though, is the way that she fits into the environment. Rather than feeling like a character dropped into a setting, Lara feels like she belongs in the levels, and that the levels have an impact on her. She gets dirty, but immersion in water will wash the dirt away (the longer she is in water, the more dirt gets cleaned up.) She will steady herself with a hand against a wall while moving, and may even stumble from time to time when the terrain gets rough. When she is cold, she will shiver. There are many of these elements that show a thoughtful, careful design approach not just to the character, but also to how she reacts to the world around her. That thoughtfulness is in evidence in many ways; for example, her skin might get clean when under water, but the cloth of her tank top gets stained, and gets progressively darker as her adventures progress.

Those little details – of which there are many – create a level of immersion for the player that we don’t often see. The game is not only interesting and challenging; the world itself is fascinating and detailed, pulling the player back for more with ease.

All of this would mean very little, of course, if the control scheme didn’t work well. But, once again, developer Crystal Dynamics has managed to hit the mark here. The controls are simple, but very effective. And their simplicity does not take away from the experience. Instead of complexity, the developers demand careful timing and precision from the player. A heart-stopping leap may end in tragedy if the player is off on their controller inputs. Thankfully, the game auto-saves often, and the player isn’t punished too much when Lara dies – they aren’t sent far back into the game, in other words.

Tomb Raider offers a very strong and exciting single-player experience… sadly, though, the same cannot be said for the inevitable multiplayer aspect of the game. Players take on the role of either survivors or island inhabitants, and do battle in four same-ish, team based multiplayer modes. They’re not bad, but after the incredible experience that the single-player game provides the player with, the undeniable run-of-the-mill mediocrity of the multiplayer is a let-down.

But to let the lacklustre multiplayer ruin the overall experience would be stupid; Tomb Raider offers the player a game that hits all the right notes during the single-player campaign. Finishing it provides the player with a great sense of achievement, but also a bit of sadness… you simply don’t want the game to end. At least you can go back and find all those things you missed once you’re done with the story.

Tomb Raider is proof that not every game is a copy-and-paste clone, designed just to generate cash. It is fresh, detailed and an excellent testament to the skills and creativity of Crystal Dynamics. If this is what we can expect from Tomb Raider in the future, I say bring it on. This is how third-person action-adventure games should be made.

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