Tomb Raider Review: This Reboot Is Lara Croft's Greatest Adventure Yet

by David Sanchez March 9, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

Tomb Raider - Feature

Developer Crystal Dynamics had a lot riding on the new Tomb Raider. The studio was promoting the hell out of the reboot and told the fans that this would not only be a reimagining of the long-lasting franchise, but of the Lara Croft character, as well. The game was in development for quite some time, but did it succeed in bringing a new Lara to life? Did it properly mold a new world and continuity for the heroine? This adventure most certainly did all of that, and it did so in truly spectacular ways that make you wonder exactly what’s next for Ms. Croft with the utmost excitement and anticipation.

Tomb Raider begins with a young Lara Croft fresh out of school, embarking on an expedition with a group of friends and established researchers. It doesn’t take long for things to go awry, however, and the crew soon finds itself shipwrecked on a strange island while Lara’s separated from the rest, apparently on the verge of being brutally murdered. If you previously watched promotional footage of Tomb Raider, you’re likely familiar with the first few minutes of the game. You start off by navigating around a dark cave and finding your way out, in the process solving simple puzzles and completing quick time events.

The initial parts of Tomb Raider would likely be a tad more impactful if we hadn’t already seen them ad nauseam in previews, but even then, this is a strong start to the game and a good way to familiarize yourself with Lara and the new Survival Instinct mechanic, which briefly highlights key parts of the environment that can be interacted with to progress. This beginning sequence also introduces us to a naive and fearful protagonist, creating a character that you can actually care about and root for. It’s interesting because during that first hour, I immediately felt bad about everything that was happening to Lara. But when she found herself in the middle of a rainstorm with no shelter, food, or heat source, and she began shivering, I felt completely distressed as to the physical and emotional well-being of the character. Lara then became an underdog player character that I wanted to watch succeed like you wouldn’t believe.

Tomb Raider - 1

As you travel through the island of Yamatai you’re tasked with exploring confined structures. Short puzzles are often strewn about these sequences, and while they’re certainly engaging, they’re never as demanding as those found in older Tomb Raider games. Surprisingly, that’s not a bad thing. The emphasis here is on continuously moving forward rather than figuring out how a convoluted contraption works just to open a door that’s right in front of you. While that was a great gameplay schematic for past entries in the franchise, the new Tomb Raider is about constantly journeying through a sprawling world. When you’re not figuring out simple environmental brain teasers, you’re zip-lining over treacherous yet beautiful chasms, scaling massive cliffs, and scavenging for supplies in abandoned shanty towns.

The flow of Tomb Raider is paced quite brilliantly, and when you’re not bearing witness to the daunting land of Yamatai, you’re encountering hostile enemies. It’s during these instances that Lara’s character really evolves. She goes from killing one antagonist and appearing visibly upset and uncomfortable with what she’s done to mowing down hordes of bad guys. You could argue that Lara’s transformation from inexperienced adventurer to hardened killer is a bit unrealistic, but the fact remains that there are two types of people in these live or die situations: survivors who will do anything to make it out alive, and individuals who perish due to their inability to adapt. After getting her ass kicked by the environment itself and later gun-toting lunatics, Lara can quickly be identified as the former, and as you progress through Tomb Raider, her vocal expressions make it clear that she’s ready to fight for her life.

Combat has seen a massive overhaul from previous Tomb Raider titles, and it’s far more enjoyable this time around thanks to some modern touches. You aim and shoot with ease, and whether you’re using a bow, pistol, shotgun, or assault rifle, control is tight and responsive. You can move freely in and out of cover, and it’s impressive to be able to maneuver Lara behind walls, rocks, and crates so smoothly without having to press a specific cover button. Tomb Raider successfully takes the mechanic we’ve seen in many third-person action-adventure titles this console generation and progresses it just enough to make it feel more organic then ever before.

Tomb Raider - 2

Combat isn’t just relegated to massive gun fights. Certain sequences in the game require a more stealthy approach, and these are both engaging and intense. As you sneakily guide Lara around darker areas, you can defeat enemies by approaching them from the rear; hide behind walls and use your bow to quietly eliminate dudes; and shoot arrows into walls to cause distractions. As much fun as it is to search small corridors and participate in full blown battles, the stealth sequences in Tomb Raider are among the finest, most incredible moments in the game. The sheer magnitude of just how tense these gameplay sequences are really helps you get into the mind of Lara and makes the character’s fight for survival one worth playing through.

Throughout the perilous journey, you can upgrade Lara’s abilities and weapons. Most of what you do in the game rewards you with XP. You can even earn nice chunks of XP from hunting animals, a feature in the game that isn’t exactly as fleshed out as it could’ve been considering Lara doesn’t have a hunger meter. You can then take earned XP and improve Lara’s combat abilities, survival skills, hunting skills, and so on. This aspect of the game never gets overly deep, but it doesn’t need to. You simply enhance the skills you want to use a lot and call it a day. You also come across salvage, which is found everywhere and is used to customize your weapons.

If your main goal is to simply see the story of Tomb Raider through to the end, you’re likely to finish the game in about 10 or 11 hours. This is a fairly linear experience, but there are collectible trinkets to find, many of which provide background information on both Yamatai and Lara’s crew of survivors. There are also optional tombs you can check out, and while these harken back to older Tomb Raider games, they’re fairly short and serve as mere distractions. Fast travel stations allow you to revisit older areas without having to worry about missing something if you’ve gotten too far into the game and feel like collecting everything. This is especially useful considering you obtain items later in the game that can be used to access previously closed sections of the map.

Tomb Raider - 3

There’s an online multiplayer component in Tomb Raider, and it’s pretty much what you would expect from this type of game: it’s fun but unnecessary. You’ve got solo and team-based modes, with deathmatch and capture the flag variants making up the multipayer experience. This is, for all intents and purposes, an entertaining, functional, and competent addition, but the reason to play Tomb Raider is primarily to enjoy the stellar single player campaign. If multiplayer does interest you, however, you’ll be glad to know that you can unlock new weapons, level up, and obtain different playable characters. It’s a fully realized mode, no doubt, it’s just not all that incredible when put up against the riveting story mode.

Yamatai has been wonderfully created by Crystal Dynamics to seem like a place that would be fun to camp out in but absolutely dreadful to be lost in. This is projected amazingly through the visual style of Tomb Raider. Whether it’s day or night, and whether you’re on the coast, in a cave, or in a foliage-riddled area, this game looks absolutely lovely. It also sounds great, with music properly evoking different moods and emotions. It’s incredible how the soundtrack can appropriately make you feel terrified, nervous, or uneasy at will. Voice acting is great across the board, with each of the villains and supporting characters delivering their performances impressively. Lara, however, is the true star and shines ever so brightly thanks to some heartfelt voice acting.

While this new story of Lara Croft evolves rather quickly, it’s still a story worth experiencing. Yes, our terrified protagonist becomes a badass survivor a lot quicker than you might expect or hope for, but this isn’t an episodic series or a TV show — this is a video game, and Lara has to grow up within the 10-hour span of her adventure. If you can put that minor gripe aside, you’ve got a Lara Croft that you can care deeply about — she’s a much more likeable and relatable character than she’s ever been, and her consistently painful and grisly battle with the elements and evil itself is one of the best action-adventure experiences in recent memory. Notice how I didn’t mention Uncharted at all save for just now? That’s because Tomb Raider isn’t some Uncharted knockoff. No, it’s its own game, and it’s a magnificent and cinematic ride that has not only served to reinvent the story of Lara Croft, but also to create a new protagonist and a new journey worth being completely enamored with.

Follow this author on .