Back in October 2012, I had one of the first hands-on experiences with Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix’s reboot of the legendary icon, Lara Croft. I knew back then I had my hands on something special, but once I began to play the finished product, I knew it was going to be legendary.
The Legend Begins…
Tomb Raider opens on a ship – the Endurance – which is captained by Conrad Roth, a treasure hunter and seemingly experienced rugged man who has become Lara’s guardian after her parents’ disappearance. Lara and the crew/team are searching for the legendary island of Yamatai, home of the Sun Queen, which has been shrouded in mystery since apparently no living person has yet to find it. *Cue ominous music* Lara suggests that the reason it remains hidden is because people have been searching in the wrong area and the correct one is within the Dragon’s Triangle, also known as Japan’s version of the Bermuda Triangle. And, of course, as soon as they get close enough to the island a huge storm appears and succeeds in destroying the boat, killing most of the crew, and getting the game started. As one of the few survivors of the crash, Lara gets separated from the remaining crew, and almost immediately gets captured by some of the island’s creepy inhabitants/cultists. You eventually escape their capture, and as you do, Lara displays the logical fear and anxieties anyone in this situation would, and rightfully so. She lacks confidence, feels insecure and totally blames herself for putting her crew in this situation just because her theory proved correct – Good thing this is an origins story because it’s hard to believe the Lara at this point in the game would eventually become the Lara we have known for the past 17 years.
Beauty and the Reboot
One thing that’s strikingly apparent from the start; however, is just how stunning Tomb Raider looks. Every environment that you encounter has been meticulously crafted, from the forests, to the ruins, to the dimly lit caves she explores. The perspective is third-person throughout, and Lara’s manipulation and control always feels solid and fluid. Voice acting has been greatly improved, with Camilla Luddington taking over the reins of Lara, and delivering a memorable and realistic performance. Throughout the course of the game, Lara will run into various inhabitants of the island, none of them are friendly unless they are from your ship’s crew, whose voice acting and AI are pretty top notch as well.
Tomb Raider’s tutorials, such as hunting and salvaging, kick in once you reach a particular camp (more on the camps below). This is also where you learn about the leveling system of the game. In order to level up, you must collect “salvage” points by looting your kills, smashing crates, or completing the optional tombs. With the “salvage” points, you can upgrade your weapons such as your bow or pistol to allow for better accuracy, quicker shooting and/or stronger effects. As you salvage, scour and complete objectives, you’ll gain XP, and when enough is collected you’ll yield a skill point. Skill points can be used to improve Lara’s survivor, hunter, or brawler skill sets. Be sure to load up on your skill points as much as you can because its one tedious, and sometimes difficult journey to surviving the island. You’re going to need to level up as much as you possibly can.
As much as I love the realism in this game, I didn’t want it to hinder my progress. So much to my delight, after the initial scenarios of Lara needing to hunt or make a campfire because she was hungry and cold, those issues never pop up again. Just assume that they are taken care of at the aforementioned Base Camps or Day Camps. Base Camps can be fast traveled to so you can re-explore areas, and achieve that much-coveted 100% completion, but Day Camps can only be used to save progress, and adjust skills. As the game progresses, those little necessities are all but forgotten as Lara becomes the hunted on this island and its kill or be killed.
She’s not a murderer, She’s a survivor
Although it may not have been a major factor in previous entries, killing is a central role in this game. Essentially, Lara is not a killer, but this time around she has to be. It’s a defining moment, and an excellent piece of characterization not seen often in today’s video games. We all remember the pointy polygonal vixen that raided tombs left and right, slaughtered animals, and gunned down assailants to no avail. The Lara of the past had no true character development, and it was hard to sympathize with her because you really didn’t know her. This time around, the developers succeeded in not quite softening Lara, but in humanizing her. The way she grows is very compelling, and as the gamer, you really get into Lara’s character.
Through all the trials and tribulations she incurs on that island, the one that stands out the most is how she reacts to killing someone for the first time. The aftermath of that had her reeling with guilt and remorse but it is quickly diminished. No sooner than she makes that first kill is she flawlessly gunning down an army’s worth of bad guys like it was nothing. She even lets out a battle cry or a little trash talking at times as she turns into a one woman army. At one point of the game, as she stealthily approaches some of the cultists, you can overhear them talk about how one woman is single-handedly taking them out and they are actually afraid of her. As such, the trauma induced by her first kill kind of disappears, and although I am ecstatic to see Lara portrayed as strong-willed and determined to face her fears and not cower helplessly in a corner, her transition to that level ultimately seemed rushed. In order to progress the story, the developers had to get her there quickly but it would have played out smoother with a little more development. Perhaps in the games to come they will fully flesh out more of her character.
In the end…
Tomb Raider is an excellent reboot on an aging character. Like many have already griped about, the multiplayer is completely unnecessary and appears to have been tacked on at the last minute. However, the beauty in this flaw is: if you don’t like it, don’t play it. It’s not essential to the story, and you can ignore it.
All told, it’s quite obvious that the developers have borrowed from Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, but if their hero Nathan Drake has been described as “the male Lara Croft,” can it be justified that everyone borrows something from somewhere? God of War popularized the “Quick Time Event” (QTE) style, and almost every game since has used it. The Batman Arkham Series has the detective mode and it has popped up in other games, including in this one as “Survival Instinct”, since. Sure, sometimes the QTEs of Tomb Raider are a bit off, and maybe the “Survival Instinct” shows you too many elements at once. The point is that the borrowed elements are just an example of how Tomb Raider can keep up with the trends of today and still be highly entertaining. It is an excellent video game, and arguably the best entry in the Tomb Raider series in a ridiculously long time.
Best of all, it sets you up for her next adventure and I’m excited to see where Crystal Dynamics will take her next.
Tomb Raider is available for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It is rated M (Mature, for players 17 and older) for intense violence and strong language.
&dagger Images provided by Square Enix