Review: Tomb Raider (2013)

Tomb-RaiderFor the second time in a row, Lara Croft manages to successfully reinvent herself for a new generation of gamers.

Lara Croft became an iconic videogame character in her debut title Tomb Raider back in 1996, developed by Core Design. The game instantly became a hit, and was a top-selling game for the original Playstation 1. Over the years however, her popularity declined as the quality of the games got worse. In 2006, Crystal Dynamics took over the franchise, rebooting the series with Tomb Raider: Legend. With a complete revamp of the core gameplay and Lara’s background and character design, the game was a huge hit, and spawned two more sequels, Tomb Raider: Anniversary in 2007 (a remake of the original game), and Tomb Raider: Underworld in 2008.

A little over a year later, it was announced that a new Tomb Raider was being developed, with Square Enix publishing. Crystal Dynamics surprised gamers everywhere by showing off a new, younger Lara Croft. This time, the story would tell a new story about her origin as the explorer and adventure we’re all familiar with, and would put Lara to the test. This Lara was raw, untested, and strong-willed. This was the latest direction the team at Crystal Dynamics wanted to take the character, and their efforts have paid off.

In this latest reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, we follow Lara Croft as a young woman, fresh out of college and eager for adventure. She believes that she has found the location of Yamatai, a mysterious Japanese island of legend, and sets off to find it and make a name for herself. Things take a turn for the worse when her ship sinks, stranding her and the entire crew on a mysterious island filled with savage cultists and ancient ruins. What begins is Lara’s desperate struggle to survive, and her journey will ultimately harden her into a strong and cunning survivalist that she is destined to become.

Crystal Dynamics did a wonderful job in rewriting Lara’s origin story. Unlike her previous incarnations, which focused on her sexuality and her exploits as a globe-trotting treasure hunter, we are introduced to a young 21-year old college graduate with a thirst for adventure. This Lara is much more grounded to Earth and very naive about the dangers in the world at the start of the game. Elements from her previous incarnations carry over, such as her father being an archeological explorer and her wealthy family background, but these story elements take a backseat in order to focus on Lara Croft the woman, which I think is a smart move in establishing this new Lara. Even her sexuality, which was often a point of attention, is seriously downplayed, even replacing her trademark shorts with full-length cargo pants to emphasize her ruggedness.

The first hour or so of the game is not kind to Lara. She gets beaten, knocked around, cut, bruised, nearly burned, impaled, and caked in dirt and mud, all before you even pick up a weapon. The game takes the opportunity to introduce the new cinematic aspect of the game through Quick Time Events and elaborate set-pieces. It draws a lot of similarities to recent games like the Uncharted series, which was heavily lauded for it’s cinematic camera and platforming action sequences. What Tomb Raider does better than Uncharted is really give each action a real sense of peril as you guide Lara through each treacherous area, never quite sure what is waiting around the corner. It succeeds in making Lara feel human, and each leap of faith further cements her powerful will to survive.

The game utilizes a nice system of weapons upgrades and skill sets that you can choose throughout the game. Each kill rewards you with XP which you can use to purchase skills such as counter-dodging and maximizing ammo capacity. Doing certain actions such as stealth kills, head shots, or searching for the island’s many collectables rewards you with extra XP points, and the payoff of getting a new game-improving skill is highly satisfying. Each weapon is upgradable, allowing you to increase the damage output, speed up reloads, or reduce recoil. Collecting salvage around the island from crates and hunting animals opens up new upgrades, and its a great excuse to go back and explore each area for new parts.

Combat is surprisingly fluid and easy to pick up. You start the game off with a crossbow, which is easily one of the best weapons in the game. They’re great for silent kills, arrows are plentiful, and they’re just a blast to use. Other weapons include the standard pistol, shotgun, and assault rifle, all of which you acquire over the course of the narrative. You also have the opportunity to use the climbing axe in close-quarters for finishers and stealth kills. One particular mechanic that I really loved was the fact that Lara automatically crouches and can easily duck behind cover if there are enemies in the area. Not only does it alert the player to any enemy presence, it eliminates the need to assign a context-sensitive “cover” button, like in Gears of War. It’s a surprisingly simple gameplay mechanic that helps make combat much more smoother.

One thing that bugged me was the way combat develops in the narrative. Near the beginning, Lara finds herself in a life-threatening situation and ends up killing her first human being with a pistol. It’s a dramatic and powerful moment for her, and is one of the many turning points in her character as she slowly learns to fight for her survival. What a lot of other reviewers have noted is the apparent disconnect between that emotional moment and the fact that almost immediately after, the game begins to encourage you to kill enemies in order to gain XP points. Pretty soon, Lara starts taking on entire armies all by herself, despite the fact that she has little combat experience, especially with guns. I guess you could say that, though she’s just suffered a traumatic experience in killing another man, her situation demands that she quickly adapt and fight back in order to survive. It takes some suspension of disbelief to get past this, and only diminishes the narrative slightly.

The biggest thing that disappointed me were the optional Challenge Tombs that are scattered throughout the island. These optional areas force you to use your wits to find a way to get to a treasure chest at the end, and focuses on platforming. Sadly, all of the Challenge Rooms consist of one room/puzzle that you have to solve in order to get to your goal. I was really hoping for something more challenging, as the solutions were often very simple or obvious. The hidden platforming sections in the Assassin’s Creed games did this really well, and were great platforming side quests. It’s strange that Tombs are downplayed a bit in this game, considering that it’s in the title and has played integral roles within previous games. Granted, Lara explores other tombs within the narrative, but I really wish more thought was given to the development of the optional Tombs.

Tomb Raider is one of the best action-adventure games I’ve played in this current console generation. It strikes an incredible balance in gameplay and storytelling. The combat is fun and exciting, and in no way feels like a tacked-on experience this time around. The platforming and set-pieces provide some of the most intense scenes I’ve ever seen in a video game narrative. The story has a strong emotional pull that grounds Lara Croft and makes her struggles all the more personal. Once again, Crystal Dynamics has done an excellent job once again in retelling the story of video game’s most famous female adventurer, and I cannot wait to see what new adventures they have in store for her in the future.

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