If you’re of a certain age and breed of gamer, one of your seminal memories of gaming will be from this game’s namesake, the original Tomb Raider. In between pushing cyclopean blocks to solve strange puzzles, and working out the best sequences of jumps and climbing to get past a level, there’s a mess of wildlife to deal with - wolves, typically - but the real surprise...
A Tyrannosaurus Rex, charging out of a shadowy cavern. If you didn’t squeal and immediately run for your life, you’re made of sterner stuff than me.
The latest iteration of the game, effectively a reboot and much grittier than before, explores what made Lara Croft such a dangerous figure. It places her on her first big expedition, one where she is young, inexperienced and... in for a hell of a surprise.
The elephant in the room
There was a huge controversy earlier in the year regarding one developer’s reference to an apparent threat of, well, rape. As distasteful as this all was, the actual event in the game happens very early, and is hardly the focus. Taken out of context, it’s easy to feel the game trivialises the issue; but in context, it’s more organic to the story and far less controversial.
If anything, the whole discussion tells us more about the importance of marketing and PR in gaming. After playing the game, it does seem to have been blown out of proportion.
Lost and alone
So, Lara is looking for a lost Japanese treasure (it’s more complex than that, but... spoilers) as part of an expedition made up of stereotypes: there’s the genial Islander, the stuck-up professor, the gruff Scottish friend of Lara’s father who believes in her absolutely... you get the idea. But it all goes wrong when their research vessel hits a storm, is blown onto rocks, and the party is split up on a mysterious island.
It’s a good setup, because you have numerous points where NPCs direct and provide focus for Lara, help explain backstory, act as conduits for learning game mechanics, and overall add a lot to the game. Also, as Lara explores the island, the game pauses as she wistfully rewatches footage from a recovered camcorder, showing parts of the voyage and various onboard mysteries.
There’s a very solid story in Tomb Raider, and after two hours with the game we’re as keen to discover more as we are to find more ways to bounce around complex environmental puzzles, and shoot crazy island people.
Run, run... JUMP!
The core of the game, however, remains exploration, leavened as always with combat. Both systems are thoroughly modern in their execution.
The exploration starts as linear and very simple but ramps up fast, and before you know it you’re presented with challenges that require you to run, explore, collect, climb and generally be very, very aware of your environment. Whereas past Tomb Raiders have often been one-solution puzzles, many of the environments in this iteration are more open – it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that any apparently complex solution is the best path to progress, but there are often simpler ways to get from A to B. You may not find all the hidden extras, but it’s rewarding to cut straight to the chase, as it were. Other puzzles are more classic, requiring you to balance weights, set things alight, and generally stand around staring at the environment until that Eureka! moment.
Combat features heavily, and it’s human prey that you’ll spend most time hunting – or being hunted by. You’ll have a range of weapons to defend yourself with, as well as a lot of tricks to learn in an RPG-like skill-tree. And along the way, there’s a lot to learn about the island, its history, and the people who’ve come there – and perhaps stayed – before you.
So far Tomb Raider’s looking like a pretty solid game. We played two hours of the roughly 12 hours’ game time of the final product, and it looks to contain enough variety, tension and story to satisfy anyone. More importantly, the way it tells Lara’s story is deftly managed, with enough darkness, empowerment, and just plain cool stuff to satisfy anyone.