Despite featuring one of gaming’s most identifiable heroines, the Tomb Raider series has never been known for its storytelling. If anything, the attempts to impose a story on Lara Croft’s adventures have tended to lead to the worst iterations of the franchise, such as the one shining failure, Angel of Darkness.
After Lara lost her crown as the world’s most popular jumping archaeologist to Nathan Drake and the Uncharted series, developers Crystal Dynamics needed to bring Lara into the brave new world of ‘storylines’ and Quicktime events. Hence this reboot of the series, and a complete abandoning of Lara’s Himalayan plane crash origins.
The result is Tomb Raider, not to be confused with 1996’s Tomb Raider. It smacks of the ridiculous fear of the new that permeates everything from movies to TV to videogames nowadays, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Crystal Dynamics has delivered a bloody good game.
When we say bloody, we mean bloody. Lara’s journey from naive archaeologist to athletic mass murderer is at times a harrowing affair. In many ways there is a cognitive disconnect going on in Tomb Raider where, due to the constraints of delivering an enjoyable experience, her hyper-evolution sees her swinging from injured and suffering to undeniable bad-ass and back again in the blink of an eye. One moment she is lamenting the death of a deer, the next she is headshotting bad guys with a bow and arrow at an alarming rate.
This doesn’t really detract from the game, but it does make it a far cry from the seemingly sanitised Lara Croft of days gone by. It is quite clearly done to show an evolution into the character that we expect, but is done with an intimacy that is at times jarring. It is a game that earns its MA15+ rating.
Get past this, though, and there is a truly fantastic game underneath. Despite this being a series reboot, it is actually the fourth Tomb Raider game from developer Crystal Dynamics. It is quite clear that this is a developer who knows the franchise, and this manifests itself in wonderfully fluid and agile environmental navigation. Lara leaps, swings and climbs around the environments with ease, and the controls are quite simply a joy.
Even more impressive is the way in which the game introduces Lara’s abilities without it feeling like a long, boring Assassins Creed III-style tutorial. The evolution is natural, and when new concepts like the rope arrow are introduced it never feels like you were missing out in the first place. This slow, story-based introduction of such movement methods is enhanced by the fact that you can go back to previous areas and continue exploring and unlocking items. New abilities open up areas that you couldn’t previously access, which encourages you to return to them – even better, you can do so after finishing the main storyline.
There are definitely times when the game gets frustrating, taking control away in order to deliver narrative moments. Like most modern titles, there are also annoying quicktime events, although thankfully they aren’t the focus like some other titles.
Tomb Raider also includes a lot more combat than previous games, and while this will be polarising to fans of the previous games, it is surprisingly well implemented. Weapons can be upgraded over the course of the game, and while limited, each has a distinct feel to it. Central to this is the bow, which doubles as a tool for navigating the environment once you get the rope arrow and other abilities.
The environments in the game are a step away from the claustrophobic Tombs of yore; they are largely outdoors and take the form of areas to be navigated, rather than vast puzzles to be solved. These puzzles do exist, but are of a very different kind than what we have expected from the franchise.
There are still Tombs to be found, but these take the form of fairly self-contained physics puzzles. You discover them through glyphs scrawled in the environment, and they are entirely optional parts of the game. Surprisingly the closest analog to the puzzles is Half-Life 2 and its physics-heavy environmental challenges, where you use the weight of items and careful timing to get around in-game obstacles. These provide a nice palate cleanser when the combat and harrowing injuries get too much.
The game also features multiplayer, the kind of multiplayer that a game like this has to have to tick boxes on feature lists. It is by and large a forgettable affair and is the one part of this package that feels uninspired and decidedly un-Tomb Raider in design. Make no bones about it, this game is at its best as a single player experience, and just because Uncharted has seen a modicum of multiplayer success doesn’t mean Tomb Raider needs it.
While the game is available on the usual platforms, we have spent our time with the, in many ways superior, PC version of Tomb Raider. While we were hopeful that Crystal Dynamics would manage to deftly blend story and jumping, what we didn’t expect was the work that they, and PC porting house Nixxes Software, would do on making this into one of the most spectacularly beautiful titles of all time.
On PC, the game makes heavy use of DirectX 11 features like tessellation, while also featuring some nifty extras like AMD’s TressFX technology, which makes Lara’s hair into a properly realised physics object. TressFX is in many ways a novelty, and causes a serious performance hit on Nvidia cards, but it gives us a window into the future, where both the PC and next generation consoles will rely more and more on GPU compute to enhance visuals beyond simple graphical effects.
Running Tomb Raider on Ultimate settings puts it right up there with the best looking titles on the market, giving even Crysis 3 a run for its money in the looks stakes. Thankfully, the game still runs well, and looks markedly better than others on the market even at lower detail settings.
Crystal Dynamics has done a hugely admirable job of going back to basics with Tomb Raider. While the quicktime events, combat and sections of little direct control are quite clearly influenced by the need to compete with Uncharted, this is undoubtedly a Tomb Raider game in spirit.
You do need to suspend disbelief at Lara’s rapid rise from shipwrecked newcomer to agile heroine and killing machine, but given the constraints placed upon the game this evolution is deftly handled. This process may occur on a hyper accelerated timeline, but it is done deftly and the subtle changes in Lara Croft as she makes her way through the game are a joy to behold.
We love the gameplay, the environments, the puzzles and the gorgeous graphics in Tomb Raider. Action scenes and set pieces are wonderfully implemented, and the pacing of the game is impeccable. If anything, our only significant complaint is the occasionally jarring segues into gore when Lara fails a quicktime event and gets strangled, impaled or falls to her death.
While this is a franchise that has always focused on the environments first, and the character second, this could well be considered the first real Lara Croft game. It effectively turns her from an overtly sexualised tabula rasa into a properly defined character, and we cannot wait to see where Crystal Dynamics takes