It’s interesting how the most unexpected things can surprise you. I watched the trailer for Tomb Raider and saw an utterly pedestrian action-adventure that did nothing particularly intriguing or special and that would pass beneath my radar with nary a raised eyebrow. Boy was I wrong.
Crystal Dynamics take a lot of abuse for their handling of the Tomb Raider franchise, probably for the very good reason that most of their games haven’t been very good. One screw up with Angel of Darkness and Core Design were condemned to the footnotes of history, but Crystal Dynamics make a whole bunch of mediocre attempts at passing as a Tomb Raider game and they retain the license for years. There would be no justice were there not this game to vindicate the whole affair.
Tomb Raider is an origin story. That much you may have gleaned from the rebooted title, which does get some marks deducted from me merely because that sort of thing is a particular pet peeve of mine. What precisely was wrong with ‘Tomb Raider Origins’ we will never know, but the important thing to understand is that this Lara Croft is markedly different to the one you know and love from prior installments. She begins the game as a young archaeologist searching for a mysterious island of legend and takes quite a while to morph into a real action hero. Indeed, the first time Lara kills somebody is so visceral you may well recoil as much as Lara does.
Not that Lara is weak by any means. In fact, she endures more mental and physical punishment than most other characters by the end of the first hour of gameplay and it only gets worse from there. In fact, the game seems to revel in causing Lara harm, whether it’s impaling her through the abdomen with a piece of rebar, having her swim through a river of blood and skeletons or forcing her to climb terrifyingly tall structures with no safety gear. That results in a pervasive feeling of unease and it’s particularly powerful in turning Tomb Raider from a mere action game into a rather ugly narrative adventure as well.
Over the course of the game we are introduced to a large cast of characters who are largely well-rounded and interesting. The NPCs have conversations when they don’t know you’re watching and there are logs scattered around to give the impression of a living world. The attention to detail put into Tomb Raider is particularly impressive given that the gameplay stands up on its own and I’m glad to say that rather than making the game overly complex it only enhances the enjoyability.
As far as play goes, the setup is fairly standard. The gunplay works rather like Resident Evil 4’s in that it uses an over-the-shoulder view in order to facilitate ranged combat with a numerically superior but technologically inferior (at least eventually) foe. Lara finds scrap and weapon pieces over the course of play which allow her to upgrade her weapons, eventually going from a small homemade bow to a carbon fibre compound bow capable of piercing porous rock walls.
The bow allows for some interesting mechanics, like fire arrows to light things from afar, as well as a rope attachment capable of acting as a grappling hook and, eventually, explosive-tipped arrows to really rain death upon your enemies. It’s good to see the game doesn’t rely on its combat for adventure and puzzling and does allow exploration as well.
Tomb Raider is essentially linear, but can be traversed by fast-travelling to different areas in case you feel like gathering 100% of the items, because you’ve recently been hit in the head with a two by four or you have some sort of disorder. In so doing, you’ll experience some truly stunning scenery – the view from the top of the radio tower is particularly lovely, as is the quiet desolation of the shipwrecks in the bay. It’s a real shame Lara never gets to run around the broken hull of a Japanese wartime battleship, since the environment, judging by her other exploits, seems to be right up her alley.
Other aspects of the graphics, including the much-vaunted TressFX hair animation system, are on full display, but special praise must be given to the fire effects, which flicker and dance in a way we haven’t seen in very many games before and really add to the atmosphere. Granted, they’re a little overused at the start of the game (why does everything catch light so very easily in a damp, cold cave?) but they are generally an example of the best kind of graphical upgrade – one that is simply there, and nice to look at, but never commented on or boasted about by the game.
Sound doesn’t feature too heavily in the game, other than voice acting and the odd primal grunt of a guard unexpectedly having an arrow shot through their neck, but it manages to play its cards in precisely the right places, delivering heart-pounding drum segments to illustrate combat and at other times revelling in quiet ambient sounds. It wants you to know it can make a lot of noise and get your mind racing, but it knows that it can’t overuse that power.
In that and several other senses, Tomb Raider is a brilliantly modest game. It doesn’t try to change its basic formula – a platforming and puzzle focused action-adventure – but knows what it’s setting out to do and does it damn well. The controls are fluid and responsive, the graphics are gorgeous, the plot it visceral and exciting but also contains moments of calm reflection to give the action breathing space and the multiplayer – well, the multiplayer is a bit tacked on, but if you’re here for the multiplayer you have fundamentally misunderstood this series.
It’s weird to compare the two, but thematically and in terms of gameplay they’re quite similar, so I’ll take the time to say that if you liked Resident Evil 4, you’ll probably like this. It’s slightly too easy, the plot could do with more fleshing out (for instance, Lara gets used to shooting people pretty damn quickly) and it does seem to salivate over a chance to brutalise its protagonist, but Tomb Raider has no serious flaws and is a complete blast from start to finish. An absolute joy to play and a solid recommendation for all players. 9.1/10.