Like any long-running entertainment franchise, Tomb Raider has had its ups and its downs. These downs were so low that we almost entombed poor Ms. Croft for all time. However, the good lady Lara lucked into a second life by way of the one thing that seems to always happen when the entertainment industry machine has killed something through progressively terrible sequels... the reboot.
How good is she with that bow? She Katniss.
Where the very first Tomb Raider (1996) introduced us to Lara Croft in the prime of her adventuring ways, this 2013 "Lara Croft Begins" version introduces us to her before she's set foot in a tomb, let alone done any raiding. The story is nothing too complex. Lara is traveling with a group in search of some fabled lost ruins and after a shipwreck, ends up marooned on an island that happens to have a crazed cult on it. A cult that kind of enjoys burning women alive in ritual for ... reasons. So the story becomes one of survival where Lara must transform into the hero we know she is destined to become.
In many ways the plot is both the best and worst thing in the game. It is great in that Lara herself is a fully fleshed out human-type character person. She has clear motivations, emotions, and an actual character arc that is enjoyable to experience. The other characters on the other hand seem like they were printed out of the same one dimensional trope-omatic they used when writing episodes of Captain Planet.
You could pull out a checklist of required after-school special diversity and go to town checking it off. The muscular but gentle-souled non-white guy, the joke cracking nerdy guy, the tough black chick, perky asian chick, the arrogant uptight white professor, and so on. They all exist primarily as one note human MacGuffins that are just there to give Lara enough reason to go the places she does. It is an odd balance in that I never questioned that Lara herself cared about these people, just that the game never successfully gets the player to also care for them. Luckily, the amount of time you spend with the side characters is quite minimal. This is more of a minor pet peevish annoyance than a full-blown negative against the game.
Having your face shot off is more of a full-blown negative
The one thing I have no complaints about is the character of Lara herself. Any concerns I had (that were enough to inspire writing an article on the matter) have been proven to be unfounded the more I played. Where once Lara Croft was used as the go-to short shorts wearing pin-up girl of the videogame world, here she is a real woman. Not to say that she isn't an idealized one, but in the direction of a typical action movie hero not as an objectified sexual hunk of eye candy.
The camera doesn't overly focus on giving you cleavage shots, nor does it gravitate towards checking out her "lady lumps" when she climbs up ladders or the like. The enemies do not constantly throw out misogynistic insults. Unlike the blantant lies from the marketing, she is not the target of sexually aggressive advances. She also never goes into the role of your typical man-shaming action girl who screams "girl power" while she kicks a guy in the nads. She is a human being who happens to be female. It is a damn rare occurrence in this industry and should be applauded.
The main gameplay is your standard climb-and-shoot style that you would expect from a modern third-person action adventure game. Where the cynical person would simply say that it is just copying elements from what games like Uncharted have done, a critically-minded person would counter that those games were themselves inspired by the original Tomb Raider. So really it has just come full circle.
You will climb some things. You will shoot some guys. You will have to escape burning buildings. You will come across structures that are somehow perfectly capable of supporting themselves from the elements only to have them crumble the second you put your weight on them. While these are now common elements in action games they don't overstay their welcome and are legitimately fun to experience.
Where the game does manage to excel over these other action games is in the execution. The levels are designed with greater intent and purpose. The puzzles and platforming perfectly blend into the surroundings.
The combat has a perfect balance of stealth and shooting. The enemies act more like a human actually would. For example, when escaping a burning building you will see many more of them trying to escape for their own life than holding their ground behind flaming cover trying to kill you (*cough cough* what the hell, Uncharted? *cough*).
Yes, you will have to get to the red beacon from here.
That is the one thing that I could probably not overstate. This game is fun. It is just a big ball of pleasurable-to-play fun. It does right what so many other games of the genre do oh so wrong. People seem to have now forgotten that the game was delayed for over six months and the polish that extra time afforded is very obvious. Lara engages the environment like you would expect a person to. She has so many little passive contextual animations she feels, for lack of a better word, alive. She turns her head to points of interest. She will place her hand on walls if the path is narrow. She will automatically duck behind cover, but only if combat is possible. The passive cover system works so well, it will be difficult to go back to games that use button presses to stick to and unstick from cover.
It is in part because she feels like a living, feeling person that the death animations are so cringe worthy. They are not gratuitous to the point of being labeled torture porn, really they just serve one major purpose. In a modern gaming age of infinite lives and unlimited continues, the game designers have found a way to make you avoid death. You see her die and you just feel bad because you know it is your fault. You monster. It motivates you to play better and more carefully, fitting perfectly into the theme of survival against impossible odds.
No! Bad doggie! Drop it. Drop the leg. No plays.
In the same situation you wouldn't run around shooting everything that moved without a second's thought. You are rewarded for taking a moment and strategically weakening the enemy before having to full-on engage them. This is largely helped in that you have no radar or minimap. You actually have to take in your surroundings yourself or prepare to die.
While there are tombs to raid (it is in the name after all) they are all optional, taking the form of combat-free zones that require you to solve some environmental puzzle in order to get to the large chest full of experience points at the end. The experience and upgrade system, while not the deepest that ever there was, is nonetheless addicting to complete. Experience is gained for combat as well as exploration (with the latter having larger rewards). All in all it works well towards watching Lara grow from some ponytailed girl with an accent and a torch into a one woman army.
The pacing is so dang perfect that it becomes difficult to "find a stopping point". This is helped along with the fact that you will experience no loading screens what so ever. It is rare these days for a game to have you feeling invested in the story for around 15 hours or more without resorting to sidequests or length padding filler content. Right about when you might have had your fill of fighting, the game suddenly gives you some quiet exploration time. Right about when you are beginning to wonder when the next fight will happen ... bam, some dudes start opening fire on you. Exactly when you sense that the game is getting a bit too easy, hello tougher enemies. New weapons and tool upgrades are given to you at just the right time, a feat generally only the Metroid series has done right.
The comparison to Metroid isn't too far off. Early on you will see gaps you can't possibly cross or obstacles you can't possibly go beyond. But eventually you gain that next upgrade that opens up the island just a bit more for you. Gamers who enjoy exploration and collection challenges will be rewarded for revisiting previous areas.
As with most things in life, this is not perfect. The less said about the obviously shoehorned multiplayer the better. It functions but it is unbalanced, brings nothing new to the table, and other games did it better. The single player far and away stands on its own. Thankfully, since Eidos Montreal (Deus Ex devs) implemented the mode the main game doesn't seem to have suffered from the multiplayer's inclusion. I view this sort of like a great movie with a terrible, optional commentary track. Just don't bother with the sub-par extra and enjoy the feature presentation.
The final minor quibble is the unrealized hunting and foraging gameplay. The game introduces the concept as a survival necessity to avoid starvation, but after the first required deer hunt you never again need worry about it. Every area has some form of critter from rabbits and wolves, to um ... rats. With no hunger meter to recharge, health to replenish, or anything like that, the animals are really just moving pinatas you break for some experience points if you feel like it. It threatens to undercut the theme of survival into just one of being the alpha predator. Maybe a hunger mechanic would have hurt the game's flow, but the way it is handled feels superfluous.
Sorry Bambi, momma needs those 15 experience points.
But any minor negatives can't make a dent in just how impressively the environment is realized. Amazing wide open vistas, lush nature surrounds the elements of previous human civilization, creepy skeleton-littered caverns, and so many more dense details are everywhere you turn. The soundtrack is always mood enhancing, either being relaxing during the exploratory segments or tense during the combat situations. The HUD is practically invisible, only showing the piece of information you need when you need it and disappearing when you don't. This really helps not distract you from getting sucked into the experience. From beginning to end the game has a truly masterful atmospheric and thematic feel.
Simply put, this is the very rare situation in which a game is better than I expected. Crystal Dynamics has surely put Ms. Croft's best foot forward and breathed new life into a franchise that hasn't been doing so hot for quite a long time. Definitely plan to pick yourself up a copy if you haven't already.
This review is based on a PlayStation 3 copy of Tomb Raider.