A survivor is born…
It’s the tagline that’s been attached to every trailer, screenshot, and press release surrounding Crystal Dynamics 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, but it actually serves as a pretty good summarization of the series as a whole. From the revolutionary first game, through its progressively mediocre sequels, eventual revival with Legend and then repeated downward spiral, it’s not always been the most successful of franchises but nonetheless is one of the most enduring throughout its failures. With Tomb Raider 2013 (hence force just “Tomb Raider” or “TR”) Crystal Dynamics has done away with many of the hallmarks of the series, leaving something behind that some may argue bares little resemblance to its predecessors but in my eyes is the exact incarnation of what Tomb Raider needed to become relevant again.
Gone are the lengthy, puzzle riddled tombs, the emphasis on absurd level designs, lackluster combat, and an enormous set of breasts standing in for a protagonist. In their place we find a tightly knit, extremely cinematic, blockbuster action game that completely overhauls what we consider TR to be and turns it into something far more compelling and polished than the series has ever been.
As an origin story, TR is as much the story of Lara Croft’s ascension from curious but naive archaeologist to the incredibly self sufficient treasure hunter we know her best as, as it is the harrowing account of an expedition gone south as Lara and co become stranded on an island populated by what could most easily be described as the criminally insane. It’s a darker narrative than we’ve ever seen with Lara, with moments that made me legitimately cringe and could very nearly be categorized as horror, but it’s also the deepest and most personal.
Lara is a fragile and vulnerable character, but not a helpless one, and in watching her grow and overcome so many trials she becomes an immensely relatable and empathetic character. She keeps your attention from cheap sex appeal, but for the fact she’s a believable and well acted character; flawed and broken by the events around her, but never beaten by them. It’s a shame the others characters didn’t receive nearly the same level of development, though for what they are they provide enough of a narrative hook to be memorable. If I had any issue with the story, it’s that it disappointingly falls back on the series trademark supernatural elements in the latter half, which came off as almost silly in such a realistic and brutal world. But even then, the plot moves at such a quick pace and so much velocity that it remains almost absurdly compelling the entire way through, making it easy to gloss over an occasional lack of exposition to just enjoy the ride.
Where TR has seen the most growth over past games though, is in the refinement and broadening of its mechanics. Combat is no longer a tedious lock on affair, but made up of brutal, intense encounters that are consistently evolving and requiring you to constantly think on your feet as enemies react and attempt to flank you from all sides. For this the auto cover system works shockingly well, causing you to crouch behind objects when enemies are nearby and easily pop in and out as you pop enemies off. It’s fast and feels incredibly fluid, never once breaking on me as similar systems have in the past, but instead given me one less thing to worry about so I can focus my attention elsewhere.
This would mean little if the gunplay wasn’t excellent, but to Crystal Dynamics credit they’ve crafted some of the most satisfying third person shooting of any game I’ve played in recent memory. Your arsenal is limited, but it’s composed solely of the weapons you will actually need, chief among them an amazing bow which works brilliantly as both a stealth weapon and a powerful killing machine if you’re spotted. It defines the combat in TR and gives it its own identity that I’ve yet to tire from.
The other most prominent part of the experience is the Uncharted-esq platforming (I tad ironic considering where that game got most of its roots), which if anything is scaled back from what it used to be but is made up for with how intuitive and fast movement has become. There is no extraneous platforming to be found here, but a focused and dynamic moveset that works with the environment to direct you where to go and gives you no trouble getting there. It really cannot be overstated how much of an improvement this is over the often confusing, terribly imprecise level traversal of even Crystal Dynamics’s prior TR game, Underworld. I never once had to fuss with the camera or controls, which is more than I can say of even most of TR’s contemporaries.
Wrapping this altogether is an open world that finds the sweet spot between so large it becomes overwhelming to navigate, and too small you lose all sense of scale. It’s distinct and enjoyable to explore, packed with secrets that actually mean something and are used to flesh out the world past the core plot.
And less you somehow forget, this is an absolutely astonishing looking game, with a recognizable art style and some incredible environmental effects. Watching a building be torn apart by violent winds, or fire engulf a ship is jawdropping, even more so when it’s viewed through a wonderfully cinematic camera that escalates even simple scenes into something you can’t look away from. It’s simply gorgeous, and has been scarily well optimized so much so that my mid-range PC barely flinched as I began turning settings up well past what I expected I could.
Tomb Raider might not be what you expect, but it’s a game that deserves all the praise and recognition it has received. Crystal Dynamics has managed to once again salvage a series and brought it to a height I didn’t think was possible. It’s a stunning adrenaline rush, that does as much for Lara’s character as it does for rejuvenating the franchise, which by the end had left me with a lack of words past a barely audible “wow”.Disclaimer: this review covers only the single player portion of Tomb Raider.