A survivor has been reborn: tomorrow, developer Crystal Dynamics and publisher Square-Enix release a new Tomb Raider title. The script is by Rhianna Pratchett, who’s no stranger to strong heroines – she wrote Heavenly Sword, which featured the red-haired, sword-wielding Nariko (voiced by Fringe‘s Anna Torv). She also penned the first person gem Mirror’s Edge. The challenge was greater here, though, since Ms. Croft was known more for her short shorts than memorable character traits.
In 1996, Lara was the double-handgun packing British explorer who lost her parents but not their inheritance. (Think 007 with Bruce Wayne’s estate.) Aficionados will recall that was also the year Nintendo debuted the game-changer, the fully 3D platformer Super Mario 64. Mario was a more fluid – and just plain more fun – experience than Lara’s clunky four-directional first outing, but was there anything in SM64 as memorable as discovering the tombs of Atlantis? Or taking down a T-Rex with pistols? Or the awesomeness of not having your deadbeat brother Luigi show up to crash the party?
Sadly, the years have not been kind to the franchise. Original developer Core Design squandered their goodwill with mediocre sequels (part 2, now with lightning effects!) and one really awful one: The Angel of Darkness. Crystal Dynamics took over in 2006 with Tomb Raider: Legend, which was a good start (the puzzles were clever) but too much seemed dated compared to Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia, like the graphics and gameplay. They also made a remake of the original, Tomb Raider: Anniversary.
Then Naughty Dog debuted Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007) on the PS3 with memorable characters (Nate, Sully and Elena), witty dialogue and – this was clincher – gorgeously immersive environments. No matter how many bathing suits Tomb Raider: Underworld (2008) unlocked, it wasn’t enough. Ms. Croft’s time seemed as up as Ms. Pac-Man’s. A shake up was needed so in 2011, a new title was unveiled, simply called Tomb Raider. The adventure would recount just how young Lara became the confidant ass-kicker from her first adventure. Pratchett’s script would be focused less on her wardrobe, more on her motivations.
However, many journalists were concerned that one of the early demos seemed to insinuate that Lara’s captivity by a hostile thug crossed into unpleasant sexual violence. The uneasy attempted-rape feelings left a bad taste. Now in 2013, that scene has been trimmed and after finishing the single-player campaign I can say that those two years spent refining Lara’s reboot was worth it.
Minor spoilers ahead; in case this freaks you out, know that the gameplay is addictive, the story solid, and Lara Croft finally has a fully realized personality… if still nowhere near as funny as Nathan Drake’s. Get ready for one the best action-adventure games in years. (I love the Uncharted series but I preferred Lara’s latest to Drake’s last.)
But just what makes this reboot so good, anyway?
8. Combat Is BETTER than Uncharted
Lara’s deaths are unpleasant; I look forward to the many memes her bloody fatalities will inspire. For now, you’ll just witness those a lot in the actual game. As her quest begins, Lara has no experience and no weapons, and the first hour is probably the most frustrating. Lara just keeps getting beaten down over and over, and most of the time the player just keeps hitting Y when prompted for quick-time events. Oh joy. Still, once she acquires a bow and arrow the game begins to feel promising. Even after I acquired the pistol, shotgun and assault rifle (strangely, not many grenade-type weapons) the bow was still my favorite. The Katniss/Croft vibe works on an island that’s as decayed as District 12; that satisfying feeling of becoming a master of archery on wildlife and baddies never got old. Throughout there are plenty of opportunities to engage in stealth or all-out war; both are hella fun. Hitting Y for instant kill; now THAT is a joy! The AI of the enemies is most effective when they work as a team, always trying to flank Lara and always aware of her status (“She’s reloading!”). This is an M-rated game so be ready for plenty of gruesome deaths for the endless hordes of crazed, Paul Bunyan-looking dudes too. Plunging a pickaxe into their skulls feels good.
From a technical POV, the load times are kept to a minimum, only being noticeable when Lara dies (a lot) and during restarts. On the 360, the colors don’t pop like they do in Uncharted on the PS3 but overall, this is a gorgeous game.
7. Survival Instinct Becomes Second Nature
Those familiar with the Batman Arkham games will be at home with this new-to-the-Tomb Raider-series feature. Essentially, hit the left button and survey the area – now showing up in black and white with important things glowing gold. At first, I kept hitting thinking the LB was a toggle, but it’s not. Once you move, the instinct feature disappears. So no need to toggle, although no serious gamer I would associate with wouldn’t endlessly hit that button over and over.
Like the weapons and other skills that get upgraded, your SI does too, although in more subtle ways. The more capable Lara becomes, the more she sees in this mode. Like in the Arkham games, instinct is an essential part of this. I hope they keep it for the sequels.
6. All Those Tomb Raider Moments for Fans
ah, the good old days…
– “I hate tombs,” says Lara Croft. She might, but I sure didn’t. There’s a genuine sense of discovery in Lara’s voice as she enters every creepy cavern.
– Be sure to keep an eye out every time you reach a new area; many of the establishing shots harken back to previous adventures.
– All sorts of secret items pop up.
– When Lara finally holds a gun in each hand, for the first time ever… reboot FTW.
– In keeping with the best Croft tales, the ultimate force to be reckoned with is another woman.
– I do wish she were able to perform her signature swan dive into the ocean. If anyone finds this as an easter egg please let me know!
5. The Story Is Pretty Compelling.
Time for some ghost stories!
By no means am I saying you’ll be left pondering life’s bigger questions, but I dug it. In brief: university graduate Croft and a crew of wannabe archeologists students have agreed to journey with their professor to shoot a reality show in search of the Lost City of Yamatai. They sail aboard the ship Endurance, but after Lara insists on heading to the Dragon’s Triangle (good plan) a crazy storm hits. They find themselves on a strange island. Could this be Yamatai?
Once they’ve arrived it’s clear they are not alone. The hook is that the folks they encounter and the relics unearthed are from different time periods; it’s all very Losty. A mysterious island that you can’t ever leave is a clever conceit for a game, allowing for a permanent feeling of being trapped. The need to keep exploring keeps you on your toes, but remember to hit the Y button every 108 minutes if you don’t want to get a nose bleed….
On the downside, like in that hit show, most of the supporting characters are pretty generic, but that’s fine. This is, after all, about Lara.
4. Lara Really Is a Croft!
I’m not saying a great villain like Andrew Ryan or a fun sidekick like Sully wouldn’t have made this an even better game, but this is akin to JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek. The point of both reboots was to establish a new take on the familiar. For Trek it was the crew, for Raider it’s the hero. In Trek, did you really care that Nero was forgettable? We’re with Lara 24/7 so her growth is key, not the supporting players.
Lara’s constantly commenting on her situation. Grey’s Anatomy actress Camilla Luddington did the voice and motion capture for Croft and she gives the young adventurer her most grounded personality ever. Little moments like speaking on her ragged condition (visibly shaking in the rain, starting a fire, pushing herself, “You can do this”) to her sudden confidence (guns blazing, “I’m coming for you, you bastards!”) go a long way to filling out more than Lara’s far-more-practical pants.
Her transformation from innocent, headphone-wearing naif to armed-to-the-teeth killer is a bit too quick but Luddington sells it. I can’t wait too see what Crystal Dynamics has in store for Lara next.
NOTE: although her dad the “famous” explorer is mentioned we don’t know if the Crofts are as uber-rich was they were in the previous versions since we never see her home.
3. A Well-Paced and Lengthy Campaign!
Value is a big deal when you plunk down 60 bucks. Because they rely on multiplayer, first-person shooters like COD can be finished in six hours. (This game also has multiplayer but that’s in a different section.) More satisfying is a campaign that has a good length but doesn’t overstay its welcome. As you progress in the game, new skills will allow you to revisit places the were blocked off before. Ah, now I tie a rope to an arrow and knock down that wall! Normally, backtracking can feel like filler. Here the feeling is more Metroid.
There’s no actual game time/stat screen, but I played through the story over four nights. I’d say it took a good 12-14 hours. After that, the game opens up so you can return to previous sections to find collectibles. (I was about 70% done.) The real surprise is that you’ll want to do this, mainly because the campaign is so fast-paced that the ability to return to unexplored sections without all that mayhem harkens back to the original series, with its more peaceful sense of exploration.
2. The Tombs Are Optional But Any Fan Will Make Them Mandatory.
Since Lara and the rest of the stranded crew of the shipwrecked Endurance are busy fighting off cultish island baddies, Lara’s stopping to check the occasional crypt is plausible but doesn’t make a lick of sense. This is where the post-campaign really shines with caves filled with treasure, wonder and puzzles. Full disclosure: the puzzles are pretty easy but, what’s more enticing is the sense of isolation of being in these rugged and worn-out areas.
The puzzles, like the rest of the game, make great use of the environment with varied solutions like the need to use fire to burn down obstacles, or letting the force of a running river propel Lara like some Olympic bobsledder, or good old-fashioned rock climbing.
1. The Island Is An Open World (sort of) Dream for Adventure Fans… and Those Sunsets Sure Are Pretty!
Most great games offer unforgettable vistas within their world: Rapture, Liberty City, the Ishimura, the list goes on and on. The island that you end up stranded on is no different. Gritty in detail but also brimming with moments of rare beauty (like a sudden change in climate that explodes into a snowstorm that rocks a Japanese temple) the island is a wonderful playground. And like in Metroid, the more Lara’s skills are upgraded the more you have to do. Riding ziplines has never been more well, zippy. Not only is this mode of transit a great way to see the areas from up high, it’s just so much fun.
I should make clear that although you can traverse any section of the island, by the end of the campaign you can only do this by using campsites for fast travel. Unlike GTA or Skyrim this is really not an open world, but who’s gonna complain when being on such a wacky island keeps us so entertained? Certainly not me.
And then there’s the bad but fortunately, not THAT bad…
2. The Letters Are Interesting but Menu Screens Are Never Fun to Look at.
As you explore the island, you’ll find letters written by those who had the misfortune of getting stranded here too. They span centuries. Lara can read them all; each is voiced by an appropriate-sounding man or woman. (My favorite involved two missing children and their toys left behind.) But in order to hear the whole diary type entry you have to stay on the menu screen; a weird blunder since games like Bioshock and Dead Space have been doing the “voice recording that you find” thing for years now and wisely let you get on with the game. After all, it’s only a voice, so why can’t we traverse the terrain while we listen? Yes, technically, those other games were using recordings. Here they are letters. But as long as the game “plays” them as voice-over I don’t see the difference. Annoying.
1. Multiplayer: Why Did They Bother?
cosplay lara and way too happy geek
First off, even after finishing the game you cannot automatically be Lara for online play. And since every character but Lara is pretty generic there’s no incentive to play anyone but her.
Next, hats off to making the action elements of the game shine for single-player, but there’s just not enough variety for online play. They do supply tons of leveling, loadouts and more but none of the stages are any place you’ll want to be in a firefight for too long. I’m an achievement whore, but even I’m not sure if I’ll bother with these.
Even more frustrating: for some reason, in the single-player game, Lara is never given the ability to sprint, but in multiplayer sprinting is allowed. Maybe if ever I do unlock Lara she won’t be able to sprint? Only the other characters can? Um… WTF.
I’m saying it: the Tomb Raider reboot is as big a leap as Resident Evil 4 was for that series. Everything feels so much bigger and more focused. Like that game, the action does put the exploration on hold for most of the campaign, but all is forgiven once you’ve completed the story mode and realize that you’ve got a whole island to explore. Just you, Lara and the elements. As it should be.