Since her first tomb raid in 1996, Lara Croft has become one of gaming's most iconic figures. Though overt sexualization helped her case, notable adventuring abilities made Lara the original strong female protagonist. In 2013 we get a different Lara, but Crystal Dynamics presents us with an origin story for the famous character, aiming to show how she turned from innocent archaeologist into tomb raiding master. To some extent the developer pulls this off: Lara has a clear arc through the game that takes her from scared victim to hardened and capable survivor, yet the arc itself may not always be so sensible. Narrative complaints aside, Tomb Raider remains a superb experience filled with impressive set pieces, solid level design, joyful traversal, and surprisingly enjoyable combat. It’s easy to list a number of titles which Lara’s journey takes clear inspiration from, but that would do the game a disservice. Ultimately, Tomb Raider doesn't just replicate what has come before; it iterates, improves, and delivers a unique adventure of its own.
Tombs will be raided.
The game opens with a disaster at sea that shipwrecks Lara and her fellow survivors on a mysterious, uncharted island. It’s a familiar premise, but Tomb Raider uses the mystery well, cleverly withholding answers from the player until much later on. This unforeseen detour also makes for a great environment in which to test the main character. The island's a diverse place full of unknown threats and dangerous climates, and Lara's character, as presented in cutscenes, makes fundamental sense. She's not a caricature anymore; she has a good deal of realism to her personality, and she's all the more appealing for it. Lara starts out having to hunt a deer in order to survive, and her reaction realistically reflects the unease of her first kill. However, hunting becomes entirely optional after this moment and only benefits the player by means of loot (for upgrades) and experience points. Tomb Raider would have gained a greater authenticity by taking the Metal Gear Solid 3 approach, where survival was truly part of the experience as a whole, but not doing so does not hold the game back.
The things Tomb Raider concentrates on instead are universally well executed, providing more engagement beyond typical shooter fare. The disconnect between Lara’s killing as presented by the story and her killing as presented by the gameplay remains an issue, though. She may cry after her first murder (in self-defense), but then players spend the rest of the level killing scores of men with an arrow to the face and no remorse. The developers do deserve some credit for trying to address this dissonance, even if they don’t handle it in the best of ways (a single "It's scary just how easy it was" during a conversation). However, the combat's not as frequent as your traditional shooter, meaning the disconnect isn't quite as egregious.
Leaps will be made.
The story has its strengths, though the main appeal of Tomb Raider is the gameplay. As previously mentioned, Tomb Raider does a lot of things that games have done before. The Uncharted-like set pieces, Metroidvania structure, experience-based progression system, bonfires (where you can level up, upgrade equipment, and fast travel just like Dark Souls), free running, and shooting guys in the face provide a familiar setup for sure, but each element does well enough (or differently enough) to keep from feeling like a retread of old ideas and mechanics. The most impressive part of this happens to be the level design. Although Tomb Raider is not an open world game per se, the interconnecting environments are ostensibly broken down into a level-like structure, and this approach helps the game stand out. You will revisit old locations with new gear, but contrary to other Metroidvania games, there’s rarely a sense of being locked off from areas when you do not own the right traversal tool.
On top of this, the variety of visual design looks brilliant (especially on PC). Despite the many dangers, the island is a place you will want to spend a lot of time in. It’s also full of secrets and collectibles, which encourage very light puzzle solving and exploration. Attainable maps and skill show these collectibles on your map, but there is a lot of joy to be had out of pure traversal, and the degree of openness for each area merits mentioning. Even though there is a definite main path, Tomb Raider is not a corridor shooter. Getting from A to B is never complex, but there are usually alternate routes that reward exploration and improvisation. Combat takes place in these large areas too, which adds a frantic, fluid nature to the encounters with a lot of available options. Of course, action set pieces are much more confining, though still excellent. They help the game's pacing, add a great deal of excitement in spite of limited interactivity, and are boosted by a superb presentation that makes for a cinematic experience to rival (and often exceed) the best in the genre.
This may be my favorite skill description ever.
Combat itself remains one of the games high points, as the developers use the third-person gunplay sparingly, and with a decent variety of enemies and combat options, to keep you on your toes. Tomb Raider hardly classifies as a challenging game. In fact, it can be a very easy one, but the tools you are given leave a lot of room for experimentation and for you to set your own challenges, which makes the shootouts more engaging. Most battlefields are littered with interactive objects (either gear specific or a good old explosive barrel), and working these into the manic combat helps Tomb Raider excel. There's no way to manually duck or enter cover, but the game still incorporates stealth and cover shooting. Lara will automatically hide behind barriers and pop over walls to aim, though players never feel stuck behind cover. Taking out the manual element removes the stickiness, and makes you more mobile; it’s far easier to quickly change position and avoid incoming fire this way, too.
Stealth is similarly gratifying, though not fully featured. Lara will start to crouch when she enters a hostile area, and this enables you to play assassin. Once again, the open approach to level design facilitates this well, and the inclusion of stealth weaponry and silent takedowns does make this a viable option. That's not always the case, as stealth offers one way to tactically approach combat rather than a long-term solution, but dropping enemies with anonymous arrows to the head feels awesome. The bow itself is actually one of the best parts of the game; it’s a trusty stealth companion and can be upgraded to bring down fiery death on those unfortunate enough to get in your way. Taking out enemies with a machine gun may be all well and good, but the bow adds a touch more challenge to the already satisfying combat.
One round is as much as you will want to play.
The only real negative point to Tomb Raider (that isn't forgivable) is the multiplayer. The campaign's mechanics don’t quite fit the run-and-gun kind of action, and maps are uninteresting and too small even when games are not at full capacity (the usual scenario). You will be constantly flanking people or being flanked, and climbing rock faces is a death sentence. Eidos Montreal tries to emulate what Uncharted pulled off so well, and in this instance, Tomb Raider is pure imitation. The balancing is also extremely poor with a wasteland of empty servers. Chances are, if you do find a match, you will be outnumbered by your foe or outnumbering them. Players can switch sides in lobbies, and though the game will eventually even out the teams, the amount of time it takes to do so makes the multiplayer unappealing before you've even tried it. A survival mode in which the heroes have to fulfill an objective while the villains try to stop them also comes off as unbalanced and boring. Hero characters bleed out when taken down, meaning you just sit around with a pistol picking off enemies as they make their way to execute you. Needless to say, the multiplayer is best ignored in favor of the sublime single-player.
Put plainly, Tomb Raider is enjoyable from start to finish in a way most games aren't. It’s expertly paced and lengthy enough to warrant a full price purchase even if you ignore multiplayer. Optional activities like collectibles and fun (though simplistic) puzzle-based tombs add to the overall package and give you reason to keep playing beyond story completion. The credits state that Crystal Dynamics tried to make the best game possible, a statement that rings true throughout. Whether it’s the well-implemented progression and upgrades, an engaging narrative, or the open approach to level design, Tomb Raider manages to impress in nearly every aspect. Lara's origin story is much more than another installment in an formerly irrelevant franchise; it’s an intelligent reimagining that does service to its roots while matching current standards. It's a proper adventure and an experience you simply should not miss out on.
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics (Single-player), Eidos Montreal (Multiplayer)
Release Date: March 5, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-8 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, Xbox 360