Every origin story is predicated on prying, on digging through a character’s modest, fresh-faced beginnings and exposing the man or the woman before they were the myth or the legend. Few, however, dig so deep as to hit rock bottom, and fewer still do so to a character who before has always seemed impervious to humility, let alone helplessness.
But Tomb Raider is Lara Croft’s ultimate crucible. Shipwrecking the heroine on a majestic but maleficent island and forcing her to discover, not just her will to survive, but her strengths, her weaknesses and her calling as a Croft, the latest installment in the action/adventure franchise is the most significant narrative contribution to the canon to date. And it’s a journey that developer Crystal Dynamics forges with exhilarating aplomb.
Brimming with an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient and world history but green to expeditioning, Lara sets out with a team of fellow archaeologists aboard the ship Endurance to locate the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai, said to have been ruled by the mystical “Sun Queen.” The only trouble: it finds her. In a dizzying introduction, the ship splits apart; Lara is cast out and washes ashore; and soon she’s introduced to the island’s resident mercenary outfit who, as slave-trading cult worshipers of the Sun Queen, butcher the entire Endurance crew save for Lara and a handful of her tight-knit companions. With the exception of Conrad Roth, a father figure to Lara, and (“That’s Dr.”) James Whitman, the expedition’s self-absorbed leader who subverts the survival effort for his personal ambitions, little story is established around Tomb Raider’s supporting cast. The focus is on Lara. Fortunately, as she uncovers Yamatai’s dark but fascinating secrets and evolves into a hardened survivor, her transformation is nothing less than riveting.
Voiced by a compelling Camilla Luddington, Lara doesn’t attempt to mask the agony and the pain of her nightmarish predicament, not through her wistful and regret-tinged emotions and not on her routinely blood- and mud-soaked visage. Her struggle feels piercingly real. But so does her resolve. Lacking the age and bodacious physicality of early-iteration Laras, she pieces together strength through instinct and aptitude. 10-12 hours later (plus whatever time players devote to the strong helping of side challenges available in the world), Crystal Dynamics delivers a resolution of revelations — pertaining to the island, to Lara’s companions and to her forthcoming destiny — that pays off well alongside a complete, refreshingly refined picture of her character.
Further illustrating Lara’s peril is Tomb Raider’s endless barrage of macabre motifs; this is a game that earns its franchise-first “M” rating. Many scenes are devoted to treating Lara with relentless brutality — dangling her from the ceiling in a room piled with freshly, and not-so freshly, cloven cadavers; trudging her through streams of sewage and blood and bone; forcing her to cauterize an abdominal wound with a flaming arrow. Hanging corpses are a common decorative ornament and grizzly death animations a common result of failure. Nothing is held back when it comes to gore. Though, as mentioned, Crystal Dynamics wisely avoids sensationalism by interlacing Lara’s terror with a staunch resilience. It’s more understated than the bravura fans might be used to, but more plausible as well.
And Tomb Raider conveys this gravity further with its overall presentation. Cinematics are rife with button-prompts and interaction, which rather than feeling intrusive, heightens intensity at all the right junctures, such as fighting off a wolf, shaking free of a captor or dodging a dislodging boulder. Set-piece roller-coaster sequences — escaping collapses and cave-ins, running from a crashing plane, washing downstream in raging rapids — are frequent… and they’re tours de force of the game’s rich visual and sound capabilities. Even organic gameplay moments can be accentuated in intensity by Tomb Raider’s clever camera, which shifts quickly to a more… harrowing angle when Lara falls from a ledge (but catches herself), crawls through a tight crevice or cavern or wades through head-high water.
With the weight that Tomb Raider’s origin and evolution themes carry, they aren’t just nestled in the narrative: An ample progression system encompasses the entire gameplay experience, having players upgrade Lara’s physical abilities (which reside under three classes: Survivor, Hunter and Brawler) and and weaponry (which resides under five: a bow, pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, and climbing axe) by accruing skill points and “salvage” points. Both are earned by scavenging from dead enemies, hunting, discovering loot and completing objectives and challenges. With an advancing set of unlocks that becomes available throughout the game, the system duly rewards ongoing investment.
The results of progression yield dividends in Tomb Raider’s combat, even if the sequences themselves can take a turn for the tedious. The game features a dedicated stealth system — Lara can snap unsuspecting enemies’ necks from behind or dispatch them with her lethal bow. Unfortunately, though, players hardly get to avail themselves of it: Mission sequences rarely give Lara the chance to remain undetected; few allow for an open-ended approach; and enemies possess an uncanny omniscience regarding Lara’s location the instant bullets begin to fly. Auto-cover, which binds Lara to a surface automatically when enemies are near, functions seamlessly but strangely precludes blindfiring. Enemies, brainwashed acolytes of a murderous cult leader that most are, vary considerably in their class but little in their main tactic: a suicidal scampering directly at Lara. There’s genuine ambition in Tomb Raider’s blazing shootouts — evident in the visceral punch packed by each weapon, the thrilling chaos action always broils to and the remarkably elaborate set pieces Lara will fight through — and indeed it grows more exciting with every assault-rifle grenade launcher and napalm-arrow upgrade players unlock. It’s starkly out of sync with the story’s emotional vibe, however, and easily surpassed in redeeming value by the game’s explorable landscapes and ingenuously designed puzzles.
Fortressed on all sides by jagged, steel-grey mountains and rusting ship detritus, Yamatai is a composite of rugged natural splendor and deathly foreboding evil. A chronological collage of intricate infrastructure stems from past civilizations and the sadistic cult of mercenaries living presently under its spell. Crystal Dynamics captures this wonder brilliantly with a rich elemental color palate, vivid lighting and weather effects and sprawling terrestrial expanses in every direction (and altitude). Most importantly, for players, the game’s open-world structure places a myriad of jungles, caverns, shantytowns, abandoned Japanese military outposts from World War 2, and, of course, tombs directly at their fingertips.
Climbing feels a bit more streamlined than traversal heavy titles like Assassin’s Creed or Uncharted — not every ledge is meant to be grappled with and rock wall meant to be scaled. Lara does cover plenty of distance, however, through the carefully crafted network of ziplines (which can also be created by a handy rope arrow), man-made structures and land formations that comprise each environment. The ability to jump backwards from a ledge is sourly absent and a few animations, such as reaching for a ledge in midair or tumbling during a fall, blur the line between agile and glitchy. Overall movement, though, is deft and fluid, and lives up to Lara’s trademark lithe athleticism.
But navigation in Tomb Raider isn’t just a feat of physicality — it’s a feat of intuition. Each and every inch of Yamatai is presented as a puzzle. Players are encouraged to dissect and decipher their environment as Lara truly would — piece by piece — before discovering the correct path to their next destination. Between its complex topographical layout, the subtle but useful objects scattered across the scenery, and the labyrinths of swinging platforms and sliding crates and random quirks that comprise tombs and sprawling architecture, most of the game’s settings serve as invigorating riddles; many are deviously clever. (A “Survival Instincts” button does highlight potential interaction points within Lara’s line of sight, but it’s far more fun ignoring it.) Additionally, exploration is infused with further intrigue by the game’s vast array of challenges and collectables. Discoverable items that most games would treat as trivial trinkets — ancient relics, antique documents, personal journals — each contribute their own unique story to the island. And in a nice touch letter and journal entries from Lara’s shipmates and former island inhabitants are given full voiceovers by their original authors.
Announced just this January as an addition from Eidos Montreal (the development studio behind Deus Ex: Human Revolution), multiplayer, unfortunately, hasn’t been treated with the same level of craftsmanship as its campaign counterpart. Maps, though rather small, are replete with ziplines, ledges, scaling walls and vertical depth, making decent use of the game’s navigation mechanics. There are only five, however, which doesn’t lend much variety to the already-limited set of four boilerplate game modes. Frame rate and character animation is routinely choppy (melee attacking is hit-and-miss… regardless of whether you hit or miss). And while I enjoyed the way in-game perks known as “Adaptations” are earned by accruing XP, making players more powerful at the tail end of a round, uninspired leveling unlocks and limited weapon options inhibit any long-term dedication to the overarching component.
Like the many successful origin stories of contemporary film franchises — Batman (with the Dark Knight Trilogy), Iron Man, Star Trek and even James Bond (with Skyfall or Casino Royale) — Tomb Raider grasps the notion that with great risk comes great pliability. The reward only comes after molding a character (or characters) who reconciles with their frailties and emerges from adversity both stronger and more sincere. Lara Croft achieves this by paralleling her eager discovery of Yamatai to her earnest discovery of self. Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix are justified in calling Tomb Raider a rebirth, not a reboot, and it’s just as fun to play as it is to comprehend.
Tomb Raider is available now for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. Game Rant played the Xbox 360 version for its review.
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