Forget everything you know about Tomb Raider and its star, Lara Croft. If you can't do that on your own, this reboot is guaranteed to get you there by the time you've finished it -- or probably long before.
My mom would even know who Lara Croft is. She’s one of the most popular and well-known characters in video games, alongside the likes of Pac-Man and Mario. But the sequels steadily increased her bust size while decreasing her validity, and in the end she was reduced to irrelevancy. In short: she no longer mattered. As hard as it may have been for developer Crystal Dynamics to admit, Lara Croft was has-been.
If ever a pop culture character needed a desperate makeover, it was our Ms. Croft.
After developer Crystal Dynamics was handed the Tomb Raider franchise from creator Core, they tried to reignite Lara’s popularity with a trilogy of games that began with Tomb Raider: Legend. But while those games were better than average, they maintained the continuity and legacy of the older games. The franchise was siphoning fans fast, and if something wasn’t done, it might never recover.So they decided to do something bold and unexpected. They decided to make the game of their careers.
This new Tomb Raider is more than a reboot or a prequel telling the story of Lara’s origins. It’s a reinvention, an exhaustive reimagining of Lara Croft and who she is, on par with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek or Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. But unlike those reboots, which were handled by creatives new to their respective franchises, this one was reimagined by the same people that crafted the last three entries in the series. For a company hip-deep in a fictional world to be able to step back and rebuild that world from its very foundations, and do it well, is a creative conundrum of mind-boggling proportions.
It would have to be a tale for the ages. The story of how Lara becomes the tomb raider we all know, sure, but it had to be so much more. It had to be modern and satisfying to today’s players without betraying the memory of what Tomb Raider has always been. Those two things are opposites, so making them play nice together would be no small feat. This game needed to transform Lara Croft from a silly digital pinup doll to an extraordinary, flesh-and-blood survivalist. They would have to turn a ridiculous sex symbol into a revered role model.Lara needed to matter again. She needed to be taken seriously. And we the players needed to believe in her.
After playing the new Tomb Raider for hours on end, I am a believer. I was never a big fan of the franchise before, though I’d certainly played several of the games, but I’m a major Lara Croft fan now. And that might be a transformation just as profound as Lara’s.
In the game, Lara has embarked on her very first expedition in an attempt to find the mythical island of Yamatai somewhere in the Pacific. There, a sun goddess ruled over an entire civilization for hundreds of years, but it’s never been found by modern researchers. It might even be a myth. Finding it would make Lara’s career; it’d have to be a treasure trove of artifacts waiting to be found, and the discovery of one of history’s most notorious lost civilizations.
As the game begins, Lara and her team are shipwrecked on an uncharted island after making the daring choice to search for Yamatai within the Devil’s Triangle. But what is this island? Could it be Yamatai? Here, Lara and the other survivors encounter dangers galore — mostly directed by the island’s very own Colonel Kurtz, a madman named Mathias — and must find a way to escape the place with their lives. And because of various circumstances, most of the responsibility for this is placed squarely on Lara’s inexperienced shoulders.But nothing ever goes as planned. After washing ashore, Lara is immediately knocked out and taken prisoner by a deranged member of a homicidal cult. Her introduction to players is a literal trial by fire, as she’s forced to use flames, water, and boulders to aid in her escape from this cultist’s den, and she doesn’t leave unscathed. The stakes are instantly high for our naive heroine, and the pace is as breathless as it is gritty. Needless to say, Lara just barely escapes her first predicament, only to find herself in another, and another, and another…
Tomb Raider is one epic set piece after another, like playing a Hollywood movie that unfolds with a relentless fervor. It’s never overwhelming, and it’s never less than exciting. This is not a game about a cocksure adventurer who can handle any situation she finds herself in; this is the heart-caught-in-your-throat thrill ride of an untested young woman who’s thrown into a dangerous new world and made to grow up much too fast. This Lara feels fear, she’s plagued by uncertainties, and she never takes joy from fighting or killing. But she learns and grows and finds her courage. She perseveres and transforms into a warrior right in front of your eyes — and it happens organically and believably. I was rooting for her from minute one.
Cynical players might suggest that this newly cinematic direction is a direct response to — and copy of — the success of the Uncharted series. Nathan Drake undertakes similarly movie-like adventures, and he got there first. But such a blanket statement is an unfair generalization. I find the new Lara to be even more three-dimensional than Mr. Drake. She’s beaten down so much, you can’t help but root for her to get back up and keep going. She doesn’t react to her situation like Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor; she reacts as would you or I. She’s not fearless — sometimes she’s downright terrorized — but she keeps going.She gets hurt and doesn’t shrug it off. Sometimes she’s really hurt — the game at times pushes the player’s suspension of disbelief beyond its limits — but she dresses her own wounds and pushes on. She gets filthy and needs a good rainstorm to clean her up. At one point she even swims through a river of blood. And she doesn’t kill willingly. She’s flawed, she’s breakable, and she’s frequently uncertain. Gone are the melon-sized boobs and teeny-weeny shorts. This Lara is no caricature. She has real humanity. This Lara is not a video game character. She’s a fully-realized protagonist, worthy of great storytelling in any medium.
A great deal of emotional and narrative impact is devoted to the very first time Lara kills someone; the metaphorical blood on her hands scars her internally and changes her forever. Her innocence is erased in that one action, and there is no going back. What I adore most about this Tomb Raider is that moments like these are given the dramatic weight they deserve. Lara’s first kill isn’t rushed, or immediately forgotten about afterwards. It changes her. It means something.
This new story pretends — as it desperately needs to — that none of the previous games ever existed. It stays true to the heart of who Lara is (or rather, who she was meant to be) — she’s still a brilliant British archaeologist who grew up as a child of wealthy adventurers who are both dead, and who desperately longs for adventures of her own. But at the start of the game, she’s not the Lara we remember. At least not yet.She’s a bright, innocent 21-year-old who finds herself way in over her head. But her many trials and tribulations on this dangerous island toughen and mature her quickly, building confidence and a warrior’s dogged perseverance. In short, she comes to the island naive and powerless, but leaves it a force to be reckoned with. This is very cleverly demonstrated in-game by how the island’s inhabitants respond to Lara’s presence. Mathias’ soldiers initially see her as a helpless “little girl,” but as she takes more and more of them down, her legend grows until the mere sight of her inspires fear in them.
Author Rhianna Pratchett (daughter of Terry) is female, British, and a powerhouse of talent. She could be Lara Croft, so it’s no wonder that she writes the smartest, most visceral story Lara’s ever been a part of. Lara has never been more real or more sympathetic, and when people she cares for make the ultimate sacrifice, it hits us just as hard as it does her. Anytime we invest this deeply in a fictional character, that’s the mark of a good writer.
As great as every part of the story is, the gameplay is equally spectacular. Controlling Lara’s movements, whether in battle or merely navigating the island terrain, feels just right. The responsiveness is smooth and Lara’s animations are realistic. That latter bit is largely thanks to the work of actress Camilla Luddington, who breathes new life into Lara, both her voice and her movements, giving her something she’s never had before: a soul.Of course, it helps that Lara’s surroundings are stunning. The almost entirely outdoor locations are massive, and more often than not, photo-realistic in quality. Many times I found myself stopping Lara in her tracks just so I could swing the camera about and gape at the natural beauty of the mountain peaks, waterfalls, wreckage of ships and planes, and lush landscapes. It’s the perfect setting for Lara’s filmic adventures, a land where the thrills never stop, hitting her (and you) in an ongoing barrage of one adrenaline-pumping moment after another. Just when you think Lara might get to slow down and take a breather, the ground crumbles underneath her feet again.
Even though there’s a tightly focused narrative, there are still several opportunities to go off-script and explore. Exploration has always been a big component of Tomb Raider games, and while it’s importance is lowered a bit here, it delivers some welcome breathers in the form of brain-teasing physics games that exercise Lara’s brains more than her brawn. And despite all the daring-do, Lara is still an archaeologist, and she frequently comes across artifacts belonging to the many different factions that have visited Yamatai and made it their home. The island of Yamatai is full of so many mysteries and surprises, it’s quickly apparent that there are some major Lost fans on staff at Crystal Dynamics.
The big action set pieces are glorious to behold and even more fun to interact with. On-screen prompts always pop up just when you need them, telling you which buttons or triggers to use to help Lara escape or fight for her life. The environment often comes in handy for taking down enemies, but it’s always Lara’s own ingenuity that saves the day. Keep her moving and you’ll find Tomb Raider to be a roller coaster of insanely cool moments that don’t end until the credits roll. (One of my favorites is a brilliantly cathartic beat near the end where the game nods at the old Lara’s signature firearms.)Speaking of Lara’s arsenal of weaponry, each item helps underscore the ultra-realism of this game. The guns are so tangible, it’s easy to get lost in the illusion that you’re carrying them and not Lara. The rifle and shotgun are heavy but not unmanageable, while the pistol is a headshot-lover’s new best friend. Everything from recoil to how bullets impact enemies feels just right. And then there’s the bow.
I can’t say enough good things about the bow. It starts out as a simple survival mechanism, but grows to become a powerful tool not just for fighting but for hunting for food, stringing up zip lines, and setting fire to strategic targets. Drawing the bow and firing feels wondrously smooth and silently lethal, making it the perfect weapon for stealth players. Again and again I marveled at how satisfying it is to make head shots with Lara’s bow. It eventually occurred to me that I loved this aspect of battle because it’s so similar to my favorite form of combat: sniping.
Leveling up your character skills, weapons, and gear is crucial, and the game does a smart job of increasing the game’s difficulty while spacing out these upgrades. There are always new skills to learn and more powerful weapons to unlock after every new obstacle, giving you plenty to look forward to right up to the end. There are also loads of extras to find, such as treasure maps that show you the locations of collectibles, journals that tell the stories of past visitors to the island, and “Salvage” you find and later spend on those upgrades. Every level has at least one “Base Camp,” which is basically an in-game campsite where Lara can briefly rest and you get to buy upgrades.One very welcome feature is a “Fast Travel” option, letting you move from one Base Camp to another without having to backtrack every single step of Lara’s journey across the island. It’s also a necessary feature since some of the skills Lara unlocks in later levels are needed to access hidden goods you’ll come across early on. You also have access to an “Observation” mode that reveals everything in the immediate environment you can interact with. It’s pretty much a carbon copy of Batman’s “Detective” mode from the Arkham games, but it comes in mighty handy.
It’s all of the little touches like these that make Tomb Raider so much fun. It’s like the game was given an exhaustive polish and a ton of thoughtful tweaking, so that Crystal Dynamics could ensure that every last moment you spend with the game was scientifically engineered to let you squeeze the most possible fun out of the experience.
The only area of the game I found lacking was multiplayer. It might be a fun diversion for some, but I found it mostly forgettable. In light of the spectacular single player campaign, it would take a lot to make multiplayer not feel like an afterthought. But it just can’t reach the same heights of pleasure as the single player campaign, and frankly, I don’t need it to.
Jason Graves‘ haunting score gives Lara a soaring, emotional new theme while emphasizing the tribal nature of the island of Yamatai. Graves went to great lengths to give the new Lara a distinct musical feel; he actually commissioned a North Carolina artist to create a huge metal sculpture that he used to create a variety of eerie percussion sounds, chimes, and tones. The game deserves a phenomenal score with a big sound, and Graves delivers.I was ultimately surprised at how long Tomb Raider is. It would have been so much easier for the devs to crank out a solid eight-to-ten hour experience, but they managed to maintain the quality level while crafting a deliciously longer experience. I’m talking ten to fifteen hours for experienced gamers. Completionists who won’t be satisfied with anything less than 100% will gleefully invest at least twenty hours in this thing, maybe more. Maybe a lot more.
It’s not just better than any Tomb Raider game that came before. It’s better than 95% of the games on store shelves. It’s every bit as riveting as a five-star big-screen epic, with utterly perfect gameplay. There are few single player campaigns I want to play more than once, but I will play Tomb Raider again.
As for Lara Croft… The version of her that we get in this game is the character she should have always been. I’m pretty shocked to find that I actually admire her. This Lara’s brains, resolve, and skills do a better job of making her desirable than enormous boobs and an hourglass waist ever did.
Images: Square Enix