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. Crystal Dynamics was passed the torch, and they began a new trilogy. These games were well-received, but Crystal Dynamics wasn’t happy with making the same old games. 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 game 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 shipwreck on a mysterious island in something called the Dragon’s Triangle. These storms prevent anyone from leaving the island, no matter how much they try. Almost immediately, they are set upon by a strange, aggressive cult that seems to want them dead for reasons unknown. 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 in order to do what she has to do in order to survive. 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 kill 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 takes those deaths and it really works—at first. 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 do with this dissonance between a character’s personality and what that character is doing during the game.
The bigger problem in the dissonance category is that I often wondered how in the hell Lara survived 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 awhile, she holds her side and seems pained by it. Pretty soon, however, it seems to be just fine; at least until later when it starts to pain her again and she has to cauterize the wound with a heated arrowhead. It feels very inconsistent, how she can be winded and hurt at one moment but is just fine the next, even though she hasn’t patched herself up or even taken a rest. These wounds also almost never seem to hinder her climbing ability, 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 hinder 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 seeing Crystal Dynamics come up with this origin story for a new Lara. There may be a bit of dissonance in the story, but I was still fascinated by the way she grew as a character. I haven’t really seen anything like it and am intrigued to see where the next game will try to take her.
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 and an acrobatic and fast-paced shooting system. This new Tomb Raider feels more like Crystal Dynamics copied Uncharted’s style in more than one area. Both games have the third-person shooting (although Tomb Raider has no true cover system), the follow-the-obvious-path climbing, and the huge setpiece moments. It even feels like an Uncharted game, in the way it moves and the way it plays. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as those games are pretty well-executed third-person shooters. The unfortunate thing 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 its own thing.
Of course, Tomb Raider isn’t exactly the same as Uncharted. The way the game progresses is very different. Tomb Raider is a bit of an open-world game but not in the way you might hope. The loop is pretty much get an objective, climb and maneuver to get to the marker, and shoot some dudes on the way. The 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, a number that I feel is just right. 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 a 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 on it. I actually used just the bow for most of the game and had a great time slinking around and headshotting enemies silently. 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 other guns do their jobs well.
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. It works okay for countering the enemies who run at you (of which there are several) but trying to run up and axe a guy with a gun is just going to get her killed. Nice to have but not really necessary to finish the game. These kill animations also jar heavily with the tone of the game. 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 it just adds to that dissonance I mentioned earlier.
The rest of the game has Lara exploring the island for collectibles or just moving on 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 the axe into the wall, but it’s very similar. This means that it is also quite easy, requiring little in the way of timing or skill. Most of the paths are straightforward and just have you holding up until she makes it. I would have liked to see a bit more challenge in this part of the game. As the game progresses, Lara receives new tools to open new areas in a light Metroidvania style. Some examples of this are rope arrows for making bridges and the climbing axe that lets her climb a different kind of wall. It never goes quite far enough down this path (at least for me), but it still gives you good reasons to go back to re-explore old areas for collectibles.
Wrapping all of this together is a light leveling system. Lara earns XP 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 highlighting collectibles with her Survival Instincts (similar to Detective Vision from the Batman games) or letting her hold the bowstring back longer. More of these open as the game progresses. None of these skills do anything too radical, but they do make you feel like Lara is learning how to survive, adapting to her environment. You can also find salvage, both on enemies and in chests around the environment. Salvage is used for upgrading Lara’s weapons. Want a silencer for your pistol? Spend some salvage. More draw on your bowstring? Spend some salvage. These upgrades are locked until the appropriate level of weapon has been reached. New versions of the weapons can be unlocked by finding weapon parts in those same chests. Enough parts change the look of the weapon and unlock new upgrades. These systems are light but influence the gameplay enough to be meaningful and worth spending points/salvage on.
The biggest problem I had with Tomb Raider was the extremely high frequency of the Uncharted-like setpiece moments. These are scripted scenes with very little need for player control, usually just having you hold the stick forward and jumping on occasion. SEVERAL times during the game, these scenes take place on collapsing bridges. While these scenes are very flashy and well-realized, they are also extremely boring to play. These scenes also add to 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 scenes were infrequent, but they happen all the time, almost more so than the Uncharted games! A few of these flashy moments are fine, but Tomb Raider has too many for my liking.
Tomb Raider is a breathtaking game, 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. The level of detail is pretty intense; it is easy to see why it took Crystal Dynamics so long to get this game out. My particular favorite scenes are ones where a high level of wind is blowing around the area you are travelling 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. The animations are also quite good, like how she puts down her torch to open a door. It isn’t always perfect, with some odd glitches here and there, but that’s to be expected in the first game in a reboot series. I also liked some of the smaller touches, how water will clean the dirt and blood off of her and how her new gear would show up on her model. 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. As a last side note, I think Crystal Dynamics also worked the tutorial messages into the game very organically. Where they appear on the screen and the way they seem to actually fit into the environment is done extremely well. A small part of the game but done in a sharp way.
As for the music, it does its job adequately. There are a few moments where it really shines, particularly near the end sequences, but it didn’t really stand out to me otherwise. Sound effects, on the other hand, are terrific. Sharp gunshots, howling winds, and torrential rainfall are all captured beautifully. Lara is constantly groaning and gasping from exertion (and emotion), a feature that seems minor but one that helps to sell the character’s reality. It is much more believable that she is being worn down when her VO gets so stressed. The voice acting is serviceable, with Lara’s being the best of the bunch. She had the hardest job of all, selling Lara’s distress and reluctance to do these things that she must, but she does it quite well. I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.
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 seeing the birth 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, trying to humanize a video game 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.