Survival is very much the word that has been thrown around as this reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise approached. This was to be a game in which a rookie Lara Croft struggled to survive much more gruelling and garish challenges than the plundering of tombs. Yet the word survival can also be applied to what has happened to the Tomb Raider franchise as an entity. At the beginning of this generation Lara began struggling to maintain gamer’s interest. The Tomb Raider games, continuing to produce the same mix of old school platforming with over the top set pieces and a colourful, unrealistic art style, were overshadowed amid large numbers of darker, more realistic action adventure titles. If Lara was to remain a video gaming icon, something needed to be done.
The development of this reboot has hardly been without controversy, with PR disasters and journalist debacles in abundance. Yet one of the more consistent voices of discontent have come from the Tomb Raider fanbase, who claimed that the essence of the series was being sacrificed to imitate the adventures of gaming’s new favourite treasure hunter, Nathan Drake. And yes, the parallels are easily drawn, but the Uncharted series is not this reboots only influence. From the QTE sequences that give early sections a real Resident Evil vibe, and a Gears of War-esque cover system, to the large yet self-contained map packed with secrets akin to the Arkham Asylum games. Inspiration for this title has been gathered from across the past generation. But give Crystal Dynamics their due, they have combined all these elements seamlessly and still created a game that feels like a Tomb Raider.
While there remains treasure to be plundered, cliffs to scale and the odd puzzle to solve, the themes of this game are a drastic departure to what has gone before. Gone is the super confident, daredevil Lara of the past; in comes a young woman overcoming her fears to save not only her life but those of her friends. In other games this transformation occurs purely though storytelling and cut-scenes, but in Tomb Raider this development of Lara happens in a much more ingenious manner. At the beginning you are bombarded with QTE’s, reflecting a terrified Lara surviving on instinct. By the end, these have all but disappeared in favour of massive action pieces in which you have complete control of Lara, reflecting how she has now taken her situation by the scruff of the neck and is now bringing the fight to the enemy.
Rarely in gaming do shifts in gameplay also reflect character and story development, and seeing it unfold here is nothing short of masterful. Crystal Dynamics have also ensured the game is brilliantly paced, far from a relentless progression of set pieces, and the learning curve is almost perfect. Not to mention the combat system is seamless and satisfying, even if it’s entirely possible to beat the game while barely touching two out of the four main weapons due to a lack of enemy variety. There are points where you wonder if it was truly necessary to be in control of Lara, like when she’s shimmying up a rock face while you do nothing but push up on the stick, but the rest of the time she responds to your commands with lightning precision, and rarely does she faff about leaping onto unintended outcrops.
The story is a departure given how much time Lara spends battling unpleasant bandits instead of plundering tombs, but there are plenty of Tomb Raider staples, such as the ancient empire with magical secrets to uncover. The scripting throughout is solid, with Lara much more of a fleshed out character and a likeable cast of secondary characters, even if they do leap into ethnic stereotypes on occasion. The island you traverse is almost a character in itself, with varying weather conditions and eye-grabbing scenery, often dark and foreboding but occasionally jaw dropping when the elements calm down. The music is menacing and tribal, adding both tension and drama in equal measure.
And everything all comes together to form a great, cohesive whole. Rarely does a game fuse dramatic tension with all out action and see it work. You happily switch from anxious stealth to all-out attack with relish. Never do you feel like a set piece has been forced upon you. And classic Tomb Raider platforming elements remain intact. Unfortunately another franchise staple, the puzzles, are disappointingly easy. What is also disappointing is how these puzzles are completely relegated to the optional tombs dotted around the map, and can be avoided if you merely want to finish the much more action orientated story.
Tomb Raider is very much a game for the single player connoisseur, with a decent sized adventure for you to delve into with plenty of secrets to uncover and upgrades to unlock. It is shame then that the developers felt it necessary to include an online multiplayer. This addition provides nothing that other games do not already offer. It is an utterly soulless addition, included purely from a commercial perspective and does not add anything substantial that can elongate the games appeal beyond the single player.
Tomb Raider has gained a reputation prior to release as an old pillar of the community trying to keep up with the modern Joneses. This is an unfair assumption, because while the influences on this reboot are all too apparent, the game successfully utilises them in a manner which is easy to pick up, but fresh enough to maintain your interest. Compare Tomb Raider Anniversary to this title, and you are given an almost perfect example of how gameplay styles and practices have changed within the industry over the past generation. Yet at the same time, the identity of Tomb Raider remains very much in evidence, and you never get a sense of déjà vu brought about by playing a game you’ve already experienced.
Lara’s new adventure is bold in many ways. Bold in the themes it deals with and the scenarios it presents you with, and also bold in how it is not afraid to take a gaming institution and update it to modern gaming standards. It is to Crystal Dynamics credit then, that you do not feel that the franchise has been sold out, but rather enhanced by this new vision for Ms Croft. It is not a perfect game, with issues relating to the drab multiplayer and uninspiring puzzles, but when you’re guiding Lara through an intense fire fight or helping her leap across a crevasse, these flaws will barely cross your mind. Tomb Raiding may not be as novel a concept as it was in the nineties, but Lara proves here that it can still be just as fun.
Four stars out of five.