Like any other forms of popular media, video games have their icons. Mario, Gordon Freeman, Pacman, Duke Nukem and most definitely Lara Croft. Ever since she made her debut in the first Tomb Raider game way back in 1996, Lara has been a permanent feature in the Video Game hall of fame. She is also one of the rare ones to make it as a bonafide sex symbol. How many video game characters can boast being portrayed by Angelina Jolie in two different movies that grossed over 500 million dollars worldwide? It is fair to say then, that Crystal Dynamic’s decision to reboot the entire franchise and re-launch Lara as a character, is a bold move indeed.
The original Tomb Raider games have been 3rd person action adventures. The emphasis has always been on exploration and puzzle solving, with frequently annoying combat thrown in. The stories have been laughable affairs and regardless of how beloved Lara might be as a character, she was the quintessential over sexualized female acrobatic gunslinger. The undeniable product of testosterone fueled adolescent male fantasies. Pop culture icon she might have been, deep, she was not.
Even so, given the press leading up to the launch of the game, everything I had seen seemed to suggest that this was going to be a horrible misstep on Crystal Dynamics’ part. After having played the game, I can happily say this is not the case. The newly resurrected Lara is a real person, a human being with emotions and a brain. And yes, she is definitely on the path of becoming a badass.
The story begins in typical Tomb Raider fashion, ie, Lara is off to discover the truth behind a myth. This time though, there are definite changes in how the story is presented. Lara now has a supporting cast that is more than just a bunch of props to move the story along. She is accompanied by people that granted, may be generic and stereotypical, but are still believable as characters. They have their own motivations and come with their own back stories. For the first time in a Tomb Raider game, I found myself giving a damn about someone other than Lara.
The engine helps with this as it is truly beautiful. Though there are bits where things are a little too “brown”, for the most part it does a stellar job of making the world around Lara come alive. Character animations are smooth, trees sway in the breeze, the wild life behaves realistically and the overall impression is that of being in a “real” place. A note about the much talked about TressFX technology used by AMD to render hair: Yes, it works. It’s pretty impressive when it does too. Though it does make things go a little wonky on occasion (hair defies gravity and pony tails disappear for example). But I must admit, after using it for a few minutes, I could not go back to Lara’s standard hairjob I usually do not care much for graphics but I have to say this looks pretty cool.
But coming back to the story, without spoiling too much let me just say this: A storm hits, Lara and her crew get washed ashore some unknown island. The island is full of psychotic men out to kill any visitors and there seems to be some paranormal phenomenon that prevents inhabitants from leaving. As far as action adventures go, it’s pretty standard fare. There is one distinction however: The entire narrative is geared towards setting up Lara as a “believable” character. Gone are the tank tops, the shorts and the dual pistols. This Lara is a young woman that’s been put in a very shitty situation. She’s hurt, lost and scared out of her wits. And yes, she still has daddy issues.
In many ways, it’s the exact opposite of the old Lara Croft (Daddy issues notwithstanding). But throughout the game, this changes little by little. This transition is handled decently by the pace of the story but there are moments when it becomes awkward. The best example of this (and one cited by press over and over) is her reaction to killing a deer for the first time. Taking the life of another living being is something Lara is forced into. Her hands are unsteady, she whimpers. All in all, the game makes it very clear that even though she is starving, this is hard for her. Fine. The problem is that right after this little “human” moment, every other kill is just business as usual. Very jarring to say the least. It’s no big deal and let’s be honest, wildlife has never fared well around Lara. This is a game after all, but it’s unfortunate that the designers became victims of their own success. Even so, they do a good job of setting Lara up as an asskicker in the making. It’s an organic process and some missteps notwithstanding, presented well.
There is no doubt that the new Tomb Raider is more of an action game. By this point, comparisons to the “Uncharted” series have become the norm and it’s easy to see why. For a game with the title of “Tomb Raider”, there aren’t many tombs here. And even the ones Lara does “raid” are optional. There are still rock faces to scale, ropes to walk across and all sorts of acrobatic shenanigans to engage in of course. And yes, there are some satisfying puzzles too. But there is no denying the emphasis on combat.
Another departure from the older games is how combat actually works. Traditionally, this has always been a weak spot of the series. Im happy to report that this is no longer the case. Combat in the new Tomb Raider is engaging and fun. Though the foes Lara encounters could not be more generic, the way it works makes it very enjoyable. True, she no longer performs backflips while dual wielding her trade mark Desert Eagles, but Lara still manages to pull off some impressive moves. In keeping with the narrative, it does take a while for her to feel powerful and the early part of the game forces the player to make good use of cover. Indeed, most of the game has Lara being at the receiving end of some pretty harsh treatment. She gets stabbed, impaled, drenched in blood, strung up and generally banged up in a variety of ways.
But pretty soon, new moves are learned and better weapons procured. Lara starts getting increasingly pissed and increasingly brutal in her methods of conflict resolution. Overall, combat is rather satisfying. Unlocking new moves and upgrading weapons keeps things interesting throughout the game and it’s easy to see the bow becoming a favorite among players. One small complaint with skill progression, its all too easy to unlock everything, which sort of makes the whole RPG idea moot. Still, it’s a minor thing.
The upgrading of weapons serves another function. Certain obstacles can only be overcome by upgraded gear. Coupled with the almost cheat-like “survivor instincts” that allows Lara to see things in the environment she can interact with, I got some very strong Batman Arkham City vibes from the game. I hasten to add here however, that while “detective mode” was an integral part of the Batman experience, in Tomb Rader it virtually negates what little challenge there is. My advice? Forget that key exists. It will make the game seem much more of an adventure. Which is precisely what this game is, an action adventure.
There is one thing I will call out Tomb Raider for. It is a pet peeve of mine and there is no gentle way to say this.
The quick time events are fucking terrible. I’ve always hated QTEs but this game has some of the worst implementation of this hated “feature” ever. There were moments when I had to get up and walk away from the computer lest I throw something at my screen in frustration. Some these took over 18 tries to get right. Why developers continue to shoe horn something this ridiculous into games, I will never know. If you want to show me a video, show me a goddamn video. Waiting for an on screen prompt is not fun. It is not engaging, it is forced participation. And it certainly does not make me feel like admiring the work put into the bloody thing. Furthermore, there are many, many places where opening a door or operating a lever requires “tapping” a key. Why? Seriously, WHY!?! What is the bloody point? Just let me open the damn door for crying out loud. How is forcing a player to hit a single key a dozen times “fun”? Bah.
Apart from this, there was very little I could fault the game for. There is a multiplayer component that can give the game some added longevity but this is entirely forgettable. Not bad mind you, but nothing special. To be honest, the single player campaign had me feeling I got my money’s worth. Sure, the story is not exactly Pulitzer winning material, there weren’t many tombs and yes the QTEs suck but the game does do an excellent job of re-introducing one of videogames’ most iconic stars. The action is decent, the voice work excellent (Camilla Luddington as Lara is fantastic) and the puzzles well implemented.
My favorite moment though, comes towards the end. The final battle makes for a satisfying climax, with Crystal Dynamics making it very clear that new look and scars notwithstanding, this is still very much Lara Croft. I won’t lie, it made me smile.
Welcome back Miss Croft. You have been missed.