Lara Croft got her start on the PlayStation in 1996. Two consoles and sixteen years later, the character has starred in movies, become an icon for both video games and… female representations in video games, and is even now on her second reboot with Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix. Tomb Raider arrives on the PS3 to take inspiration from, and (hopefully) improve upon, Nathan Drake’s moves in the Uncharted series. Sony fans might have to accept that this new Tomb Raider game actually rivals their half-tucked hero.
Still, despite Lara’s meteoric rise, many of her most recent games have totally sucked. In the hopes of a successful relaunch before next-gen consoles, Lara’s undergone a complete redesign, taking the character’s experience and confidence away from her. Now young, Lara Croft sets out to “make her mark”, but maybe not as an adventurer – if that were really the case, she should have never gotten on that boat. Stranded on an island in the mysterious Dragon’s Triangle, Lara’s got to fight for survival. Has Lara’s new look weathered the storm, or will the gaze of millions of adolescent teen gamers turn quickly to disappointment?
The first thing you’ll notice when you start Tomb Raider is that it is damn gorgeous. Environments are beautifully rendered with detailed textures, and the light cast by your torch flickers as you pass through the hauntingly decorated interiors. Many of these “tombs” in Lara’s new adventure are made from narratively convenient objects, with the island containing secrets going back thousands of years, all the way through to World War II and the Scavengers that currently live there.
The Scavengers are the scary dudes that are supposedly waiting for their Sun Queen to let them to leave the island. When Lara’s friend Sam is believed to be the next Sun Queen and taken as a sacrifice, it’s up to Lara and her friends to rescue her. Well, I should say it’s up to Lara because her friends don’t seem to care much. Regardless, Lara spends most of her time mowing down the men who intend to kill Sam.
Like Nathan Drake, Lara uses a pistol, shotgun, and assault rifle. These weapons and the shooting mechanics throughout Lara’s adventure make you feel like a total badass, and they’re upgradeable too. You can add a grenade launcher to the assault rifle or a drum magazine for the shotgun. As awesome as it is to leap from platform to platform, roll acrobatically from cover to cover and even beat some enemies to death with your own two hands (or a pickaxe), the gun upgrades aren’t 100% necessary in the beginning of the game and are totally overpowered by the end.
That said, the Bow and Arrow is a pretty awesome weapon to wield on unsuspecting and attacking enemies. Zooming in and holding the bow steady for a headshot is rewarded with an incredibly satisfying sound and a bunch of XP. Upgrades do allow you to snap shots off rapid fire against more suspecting enemies, but generally hand-to-hand and guns are more efficient there.
In fact, the combination of Bow and stealth means you might never need to upgrade beyond that which is required by the story and level design. It makes the upgrades feel a bit needless. Lara frequently explores open areas that may have paths or doors blocked, and you can back track later and explore for the materials, collectibles. Players will also want to take Lara back around to find hidden tombs that contain environmental puzzles and treasure at the end.
It’s a great way to add a lot of interactivity to a smartly paced, action-packed, single player campaign – really, that’s what Crystal Dynamics has overcome in their reboot of Lara Croft. The Uncharted series is great, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s linearity can grow stale over a long campaign (an aspect that Naughty Dog seems to address in the stealth approach in The Last Of Us). I didn’t stop to obsess over the collectibles and felt like Tomb Raider‘s campaign was as lean as Lara.
Now, despite all of story-enhancing collectibles, perfectly balanced puzzles, and fast combat, I have to tell you that once Lara’s taken a human life for the first time, it’s like she has to finish the whole bag of chips. It feels like thousands of Scavengers cross your path, especially if you trip their alarms. There are plenty to dispatch silently, but even more pour in if you’re spotted. What’s more, occasionally the AI will spot you as soon as you get near.
It doesn’t happen often, and the rest of the experience shines for the time and development funds Square Enix allowed the team. Unfortunately, there’s another over-expenditure Square saddled Lara Croft with: multiplayer. I can appreciate how part of modernizing Tomb Raider also means modernizing the game’s feature set, but it’s just not necessary. It doesn’t detract from the fantastic single player experience, but weapons can feel incredibly overpowered and the modes just aren’t that compelling. If you like Uncharted 3‘s multiplayer, it’ll seem familiar.
Regardless, Tomb Raider is more than worth the asking price. It sets the character up for an amazing sequel and improved multiplayer on next-gen platforms. There’s a whole lot of island to cover and tons of killer action on the way. Set-pieces are astounding and really push the player forward with intense visuals. Lara Croft proves herself one of gaming’s biggest stars once again, but please, don’t ever let her die!