Witness the Rebirth of a "Tomb Raider" Review

Lara has been pushed to her breaking point. Ahead are the men that have hunted her, that have threatened her, beaten her, and taken friends she cared for.  They are scouring the forest for any signs of her.  She's drained, but tired of being scared and running away.  Tired of being exhausted. Tired of the fear and the pain.  She's no longer willing to be the victim, the tables have been turned and the hunters are the now the prey.  Lara Croft is coming for revenge.  A survivor is being born.

That's where it all came together for me.   The moment when I lost myself in the experience.  I was guiding Lara through a darkened forest filled with searching cultists, remaining hidden.  Like Lara, I was done looking for a way around them.  Together, we hunted them quickly and quietly.  With machine-like precision I took each and every one of them down without notice.  We crept up behind them, struck from a distance withthe bow; each and everyone fell without a sound.  Lara Croft, and myself by proxy, had started to become the survivor.  We started fighting back.  I was in love with this game.

Few titles have mixed narrative and gameplay this smoothly.  Both elements are structured around the core theme of survival.  Rhianna Prachett and the team at Crystal Dynamics have crafted a riveting adventure that puts as much emphasis on Lara's struggle against a mysterious island and the crazed inhabitants on it.  Rarely is there a dull moment.  Lara is either running for her life as the cultists are in pursuit, orracing across buildings that crumble underfoot.  The environment is alive and trying just as hard, if not harder, than anything else to kill her.  It weaves together into a rousing tale that remains interesting in both the quiet and the loud moments from the minute the title starts to when the credits roll.

That's not to say the story is perfect. Lara's character is handled expertly but the same care isn't extended to her side-cast. Most of them fit into a stereotypical mold and are there simply to just drive the story on. Only a few of them come off as genuine and provide good emotional support for Lara, but if half of the cast were lost in the storm, they wouldn't have been missed.

One of the biggest successes for this game to really draw me in as well as it did was the integration of multiple gameplay types with seamless transitions.  I'm a stealth player, I tend to stick to the shadows and love to get the drop on my foes.  Tomb Raider has a shallow system that works extremely well for players such as myself.  When sneaking fails, the system quickly turns into an action game, again seamlessly.  The process is natural and just feels right.  All I have to worry about is the positioning of Lara, not context sensitive buttons while making sure she's on the right side of cover to avoid gunfire.

The bow is what really shines during all encounters, stealth or action.  It satisfies that Rambo-fantasy perfectly.  The ability to be versatile in and out of combat is what lays the foundation for this being the new go-to weapon for Lara as a character.  It just suits her new image.

This, sadly, leads to a bigger problem with the combat.  Anything other than the bow feels like cheating and never provides the same satisfaction.  The weapons give a small break to the fantasy towards the end as they go from rusted old machine guns held together by only duct-tape into SWAT style assault weapons.  It's a minor complaint, but it was one that consistently stood out to me.

The visuals work well here at bringing the player into the story. Lara's model is very expressive and detailed, helping to draw in the player to her plight. It's hard to not feel any sympathy with her when she shivers in the freezing cold or when you notice the accumulation of scars and bruises. Tomb Raider does what I loved from the remake of Prince of Persia and that's showing a visual progression on the character. Her clothes torn and in shambles covered in blood stains and bandages. All of this blends with the storytelling to really drive home the idea of survival at the core of the new Lara Craft and does so brilliantly.

The island itself has a very great look to it. It's clear that while the island hasn't been inhabited for sometime, that hasn't stopped people from crashing into it. The landscape is populated by the remains of multiple time periods, from feudal Japan, World War 2, and modern day. There's history here and lots of it. These wrecks also amplify the danger with much of the remains in such disarray that they look ready to fall apart at any moment, and those moments happen to, of course, occur when Lara appears.

Many of the areas also change as a result of player actions in the story and it helps with the small amount of backtracking by adding something fresh to an already visited area. Environments are very well varied and the later levels feature the best work of this. My personal favorite are the windy monasteries and seeing the shutters struggling against storms outside.

Tomb Raider accomplished a goal that left me, a fan of the series since the first title way back when, wanting more.  I'm so excited to see where this new path takes the rebirth of Lara Croft.  Crystal Dynamics didn't just fight back against the encroaching Uncharted series, they forged their own path in the adventure genre.  They took Ms. Croft and turned her from pop-culture sexual icon and made her new and exciting.  They made her timeless.

It all came together during a rather simple sequence in the late game. It’s a quiet moment and very different from the daring spectacles Lara has suffered through thus far. The area is a forest late at night. Using only my bow, I quietly dispatch a large group of cultists searching for me. My actions are quick and quiet. Not a one hears me sneaking up behind them, not a one notices their numbers diminish as my arrows hit their mark. By the time I am done with the area, there are none left standing. This is the moment when I fell in love.

Crystal Dynamics has rolled back the clocks and retooled what made Lara into the tomb raider she is so infamously known to be. Gone is the plane crash that forced her to survive. Lara is now part of a TV show that follows renowned archeologist Dr Whitman around the world as he makes discoveries. The kind of programming that's found on PBS when people are channel-surfing. That changes when Lara finds clues that point to a lost island where legend tells of an ancient sun goddess. While on-route to this location, a massive storm hits her ship and crashes on a mysterious island. She washes up on shore, alone against the fury of the elements and hunted by deranged cultists.

By starting at the beginning, we get a Lara Croft that's a far cry from the hard-ass adventurer packing dual-pistols with a lust for the unknown. The game does a brilliant job of providing a number of monstrous obstacles for her to conquer. I constantly felt for her and was always spurred on to see just what happens next.

The adventure to get off the island is riveting. The story is absolutely riveting.What it does so remarkably well is show a sense of survival.  The player feels as weak as Lara from the get-go, lacking even the most basic means of defense. Before long, an arsenal begins to build. And with it comes the best part of the game, a versatile bow that became my personal go-to weapon for the bulk of the game.The story strikes the perfect tone of slowing down to build up the character of Lara in the quiet moments before mashing down on the accelerator on a tense action sequence. It works here; watching Lara grow from scared to lethal survivor makes sense. Her physical form changes as she becomes more and more capable and able. By the end of her trials, he is a battered and bruised warrior and looks the part. Players really get to see her complete a full character arc that transform Ms. Croft from childhood sex fantasy into fully realized bad-ass.

That's not to say the story is perfect. Lara's character is handled expertly but the same care isn't extended to her side-cast. Most of them fit into a stereotypical mold and are they to just drive the story on. Only a few of them come off as genuine and provide good emotional support for Lara, but if half of the cast was lost in the storm, they wouldn't have been missed.

I could tell from the first time using the bow that this was the ultimate tool in Lara's arsenal. That becomes even more apparent as numerous upgrades are applied to it that allow more sections of the island accessible. In and out of combat, the bow is the weapon of this game. Yet, it's the bow that causes the biggest problem with gameplay. There's also a pistol, a shotgun, and a machine gun and they all feel like cheating in comparison to the precision and riskiness of the bow.

That doesn't mean that the action portions of gameplay don't work. Tomb Raider is one of the few games, I feel, to accomplish a cover based shooting system without the need to be pinned to cover. There's no contextual button to slam Lara against the nearest object, she naturally does. Same for the stealth segments, it's all natural. Lara will crouch down whenever danger is nearby to alert players that enemies are close. It works way more than any other game I've played.

Firefights are frantic and fast paced thanks to this system. Maneuvering Lara around is blissful without the worry of being tied down to any part of the environment. The game encourages movement, be it between crates or climbing up a mountainside. When it all comes together, such as the forest segment I mentioned, it works beautifully to create a high adventure.

The visuals work well here at bringing the player into the story. Lara's model is very expressive and detailed, helping to draw in the player to her blight. It's hard to not feel any sympathy with her when she shivers in the freezing cold or when you notice the accumulation of scars and bruises. Tomb Raider does what I loved from the remake of Prince of Persia and that's showing a visual progression on the character. Her clothes torn and in shambles covered in blood stains and bandages. All of this blends with the storytelling to really drive home the idea of survival at the core of the new Lara Craft and does so brilliantly.

The multiplayer is simplistic and tacked-on. While there are some good ideas, most notably in the traps, they feel very underused. The concept of being survival doesn't carry over and it's a sloppy repeat of what is already in the Uncharted series. It can certainly be fun, but it's just a diversion until the next game comes out. There's nothing done here that hasn't been handled better by another game and that's a shame. I would recommend giving it a play, it can be fun, but it's nothing that'll keep you coming back for more.

What a way to come back into popular culture. This new Tomb Raider launches a new series in the best way possible, to have me anxiously anticipating where it goes from here. The whole of the game I was pressed on by wanting to know what happened next and that didn't stop when the credits rolled. A new Lara Croft for a new age and one that is set to take her crown back from that other adventurer. She puts up the right amount of fight and if I were the team over at Naughty Dog, I'd certainly be sweating. Ms Croft is coming for you and she's ready to take on anything now.

There are multiple moments I can think of off the top of my head that continued my love affair with the new Tomb Raider.

Rebooting the character of Lara Croft, from the get-go there’s a big difference in who she is. The plane crash that created a tomb raider never happened. She is working for a documentary team that follows a washed-up archeologist struggling to find stardom again. That puts the film crew on the search for an ancient Japanese site which Lara has determined lies in the center of a vicious maelstrom. Unable to weather the extreme storms, the ship breaks apart and separates Lara from the rest of the group. On an unknown island with crazy cultist searching everywhere for them, Lara has to find the strength to survive amidst the worst possible conditions.

Survival; that’s the word Tomb Raider's advertising pushes. They want to turn Lara Croft not just into the fabled tomb raider of yesterday, but into a survivor. There’s a real Hunger Games vibe in the story. Lara is put through the ringer physically. The island is just as vicious as any enemy with a gun and is constantly punishing her. The amount of pain and suffering she endears is hard to take at times. It made me wince more than once. Death scenes in particular are surprisingly brutal.

The gameplay is very finely honed. Lara controls with the grace of a ballerina thanks to the precise movement.

"Tomb Raider" is on sale March 5, 2013 and is rated M. Action, Adventure. Developed by Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal. Published by Square Enix.

Jun
20
2013

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