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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.
Of course, Tomb Raider isn’t exactly the same as Uncharted. The way it progresses is very different. It’s a bit of an open-world game, just not in the way you might hope. The cycle is pretty much get an objective, climb and maneuver to reach the marker, and shoot some dudes on the way. Enemies only appear when moving forward with the story, and they never respawn. This means that there are a set number of combat encounters in the game, and it’s just the right amount.
Combat moves well and has some good options. Lara starts with a bow and arrow but later finds a pistol, assault rifle, and shotgun. Each weapon feels tailored to the job it is meant to perform: The bow is good for stealth, the shotgun is great close up, and so on. My personal favorite is the bow; in fact, it’s one of my favorite implementations of a bow in any video game. It feels very different from the guns, requiring time to pull back an arrow and grab the next from the quiver. The complete silence of it also helped to sell me. I actually used only the bow for most of the game and had a great time slinking around and headshotting enemies. It’s a bit harder to use in active combat, but the challenge made it a more rewarding weapon to use well. Even if you hate the bow, the guns do their jobs well, too.
Melee is also part of the combat, but it isn’t that important. At first, Lara can’t do any melee attacks. As she finds new equipment, such as a climbing axe, she can unlock the ability to perform counter moves after a dodge or just straight-up chop at a guy’s body. This works OK for countering the enemies that run at you (of which there are several), but trying to approach and axe a guy with a gun is just going to get her killed. It’s a nice option to have, but it’s not necessary to finish the game. These kill animations also jar heavily with the tone. For someone who is squeamish about violence towards another human, Lara sure doesn’t mind shoving an arrow into someone’s throat. It’s a minor complaint, but this sort of thing adds to that dissonance I mentioned earlier.
The rest of the game has Lara exploring the island for collectibles or progressing to the next objective. If you’ve played an Uncharted game, you will understand how most of the climbing works. There are a few differences — mainly the climbing axe and its requirement of an active button push to jam into the wall — but overall it’s very similar. This means that climbing is also quite easy, requiring little in the way of timing or skill. Most of the paths are straightforward and involve you holding Up on the controller until she makes it. I would have liked to see a bit more challenge in this part of the game.
Wrapping all of this together is a light leveling system. Lara earns experience points from killing soldiers, finishing objectives, and finding collectibles. Every level earns her a point to spend on a small list of skills. These do things like highlight collectibles with her Survival Instincts (similar to detective vision from the Batman games) or enable her to hold the bowstring back longer. More of these open as the game progresses. None of these skills do anything too radical, but they make you feel like Lara is learning how to survive and adapt to her environment.
The biggest problem I had with Tomb Raider was the extremely high frequency of the Uncharted-like set-piece moments. These are scripted scenes with very little need for player control, usually just requiring you to hold the left stick forward and jumping on occasion. Several times, these scenes take place on collapsing bridges. While these moments are very flashy and well-realized, they are also extremely boring to play. They also bolster the dissonance of just how Lara can survive all this craziness. I don’t like scenes like these because they wrest most of the control away from the player. If I wanted to watch a movie, I would go and watch a movie. When I’m playing a game, I want control during most of the game. I wouldn’t be so irritated if these parts were infrequent, but they happen all the time — almost more so than the Uncharted games!
It’s a breathtaking game, though, particularly on the PC (the platform I played it on). You traverse through some beautiful environments and see some gorgeous vistas, especially when transitioning to a new zone. My particular favorite scenes are ones where a high level of wind is blowing around the area you are traveling through. Shutters clap, Lara’s hair flutters with the wind, and she puts up a hand and steels herself against the gale. It’s quite impressive. Tomb Raider even does the Batman trick of having her outfit get worn down over the course of the game — shredded and covered in blood. It really helps remind you how much she has been through.
Crystal Dynamics spent a long time with this reboot, but it clearly made a difference for the final product. Tomb Raider is a game that takes Lara Croft and her fans in an entirely new direction, one that some may not like. While witnessing the rebirth of such a beloved video game heroine is interesting, the gameplay could still use a little refinement in order to find a style that is more unique. The tone of the game doesn’t always quite line up with what I think Crystal Dynamics intended, but it gets the point across of trying to humanize the character in a way that hasn’t been done before. We don’t know where Lara is going next, but thanks to the strength of this first outing, I’m excited to find out.