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The Tomb Raider franchise has been all over the place in the decade and a half since it began. The first three games were quite loved, but soon the quality started to decline, and followers began to drop off. A reboot, Angel of Darkness, was meant to start a new trilogy but failed to entice customers. Developer Crystal Dynamics was passed the torch.
Their games were well-received, but Crystal Dynamics wasn’t happy with making the same old experience. They wanted to take the protagonist we all know and love and explore her roots. A third reboot went into effect, and now we have the new, simply titled Tomb Raider. This is the biggest change the series has ever seen, adopting an entirely different gameplay style. While it doesn’t quite go in the direction some of us may have wanted, it is a sharply made game that left me wondering just what will happen next for Lara.
This new Tomb Raider is all about Lara Croft becoming the video game heroine she is meant to be. She is fresh out of college and on her first archeological expedition along with the crew of the ship Endurance. A storm hits one night and causes them to wreck on a mysterious island in a location called the Dragon’s Triangle. These storms prevent anyone from leaving the island, no matter how much they try.
Almost immediately, the group is set upon by a strange, aggressive cult that seems to want them dead for unknown reasons. Lara manages to escape and must learn to survive on the hostile island.
The story is very much about a scared young woman overcoming her fears and doing what’s necessary to live. Lara isn’t the grizzled veteran we know her to be in the other Tomb Raider games; her first few kills leave her pretty shaken. Her very first actually brings her to tears, a reaction that maybe feels a bit direct but is still effective. Of course, she soon kills a dozen more men and then hundreds more by the end of the game. Crystal Dynamics tried to balance the absurd number of people Lara kills with the way she deals wit those deaths, and it really works — for a while. As the game goes on, she becomes more hardened to the violence. It never quite feels like she has become heartless and bloodthirsty, but she gripes less about what she must do as the game marches on. Even though this character-building doesn’t quite succeed, it’s the best I’ve ever seen a game handle this dissonance between a character’s personality and actions.
The bigger problem is that I often wondered how in the hell Lara survives everything that happens to her. At the beginning of the game, she frees herself from a rope just to fall onto a piece of rebar. It stabs her completely through the torso — in through the front and out the back. For a while, she holds her side and seems pained by it. Pretty soon, though, she’s just fine; at least until later when it starts to hurt her again and she has to cauterize the wound with a heated arrowhead. How she manages these injuries feels very inconsistent.
These wounds almost never seem to hinder her climbing ability either, except for one or two parts in particular where she climbs slowly and groans as she does. I understand the need to make a game fun to play and not annoying for the player, but it really sucks all the believability out of the moment. Even with all these complaints, I still really enjoyed the story. It was interesting to see Crystal Dynamics come up with this new origin for Lara. There may be a bit of dissonance in it, but I was still fascinated by the way she grew as a character. I haven’t seen anything like it, and I’m intrigued to see where the series will take her next.
Fans of earlier Tomb Raider games may not like the changes that have been made to the gameplay. Those games had a very unique feel, combining tricky platforming that required sharp timing and reflexes with an acrobatic and fast-paced shooting system. This new Tomb Raider feels more like Crystal Dynamics copied Uncharted’s style in multiple areas. Both games have third-person shooting (although Tomb Raider has no true cover system), follow-the-obvious-path climbing, and huge set-piece moments. It even feels like an Uncharted game in the way it moves and plays. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as Naughty Dog’s games are pretty well-executed third-person shooters. What’s unfortunate is that this robs Tomb Raider of some of its uniqueness, making it feel like a clone of another game when it could have been more original.