A Croft Reborn: Tomb Raider Review
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3.
Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix bring us back to the adventures of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. This franchise reboot takes us to Lara’s first adventure as she searches in the Dragon’s Triangle for the ancient city of Yamatai. She soon finds herself and her shipmates wrecked on an uncharted island after a freak storm tears their ship to pieces – and they aren’t alone. This is the beginning of Lara Croft in a darker, grittier, far more violent story than we’ve ever seen her in before.
Tomb Raider is a third-person action-adventure game with platforming elements. Like its predecessors, this game is one of exploration and problem solving; however, it takes on more of an action-adventure/survival aspect than previous installments. While Lara may not have her traditional pistols akimbo, she is equipped with a bow very early on as her primary survival tool, while picking up additional equipment on the way, such as a pick axe, pistols, machine guns, etc. Interestingly, your bow-wielding foes will be rather surprised to see you returning fire with a machine gun, asking aloud, “Where the hell did she find a machine gun around here!?” More interestingly is the fact that you just happen to find it lying on the floor in the middle of a room somewhere where anyone else could have. Fortunately, the plot holes are really kept to the equipment that you’ll pick up and not found in the story itself.
One of the first things that you’ll notice is that Tomb Raider takes a more down-to-earth approach in the character design than the previous iterations that featured a long-legged, Daisy-Duke-sporting female model character that shared more commonalities with a top-heavy, plastic porn star than someone who goes off gallivanting around the world climbing mountains and researching ancient civilizations. While this new Lara Croft still dons the traditional blue tank top, she also dresses in a more utilitarian set of cargo pants and boots with a more human figure. This makes Croft appear to be a more relatable character that’s easier to take seriously, which makes for a good start to the more serious tone that the story takes than previous iterations.
Croft’s growth as a character is a journey that progresses throughout the entirety of the game. The innocence and idealism of an adventure is quickly dashed to pieces when Lara and her crew land on a mysterious island in the Dragon’s Triangle, home of the Yamatai Empire of ancient Japanese legend. The Solarii, castaways shipwrecked long before Lara and Co., are led by a religious zealot named Mathias. They capture her shipmates along with her best friend and kill those who resist them. The trials that Lara experience as she works to survive and save her friends changes the young and carefree woman that we meet into a more serious person who will do what needs to be done to stay alive. More importantly, as she grows, she becomes a more likeable character and one that you’ll begin to care about. This is, it seems, because as the game progresses and the story matures, so does the writing. While earlier moments in the game can sometimes seem a bit cheesy (such as when she has to kill an animal for food for the first time), the writing and voice acting tightens up to form a very cogent potion that draws you in and makes it difficult to put down the controller.
But like its predecessors, Tomb Raider also prides itself as a game of exploration, with tons of collectibles littering every level that you play across the pacific island that will be your home for a few days. Journals of NPCs can be found throughout to provide insight and backstory to the characters, while GPS caches unlock different items in the Extras menu, and relics add to your collection. These items also give you valuable XP to upgrade your skills, which we’ll get into a little bit later on.
Environmental puzzles, like in the original Lara Croft games, are a big part of Tomb Raider as well. While many of the puzzles involved with moving you along in the story are fairly simple, gamers can find some challenge in the tombs which are hidden throughout the game. The design of most of the puzzles are exceptionally done, often displaying a seemingly obvious solution (which most often is wrong) with the true solution a little more subtle and requires a bit more thought to navigate. At the heart of each tomb is a treasure that offers a large amount of XP as well as salvage which can be used for upgrading your weapons. As an added bonus for completing the tomb puzzles, you also receive a treasure map that reveals the location of all of the other collectibles for that given area.
Throughout the game, you’ll earn experience points by picking up treasures, killing enemies, solving puzzles – pretty much anything. XP earned throughout the game goes towards skill points that can be redeemed at base camps (campfires) to upgrade Lara’s skills. Skills are divvied into three categories: Survivor, Hunter, and Brawler. Survivor skills improve your ability to forage or explore the area; Hunter skills improve your ability to use weapons; and Brawler skills improve your melee abilities. Each skill tree has three tiers to unlock as you progress through the game. The more skills you purchase, the quicker you unlock those additional tiers.
Weapons, too, can be upgraded at base camps by collecting salvage from corpses and crates throughout the game. Salvage points allow you to purchase extended magazines for firearms, stronger bow materials, or modifications that will make your weapons more effective. Like your skill trees, weapons have tiers to be unlocked to be completely upgraded.
On top of the weapons you’ll acquire, Lara will continually accumulate gadgets and gear. For example, acquiring a rope gives you the ability to create rope “bridges” or pull high up objects using your bow and arrow. Acquiring a Zippo lighter allows Lara to set a whole slew of things on fire after she tapes it to her bow. The makeshift pickaxe that you’re given at the beginning of the game is great for opening locked doors, but when it eventually gets upgraded, you’ll be able to use it to scale rock faces or bury it in the skulls of your enemies.
Crystal Dynamics has worked hard to create a dark and somber tone for our heroine in Tomb Raider with a recipe that feels like it belongs more to the survival horror genre than it would an action-adventure game. Take one young and impressionable girl in her early 20s, add small group of trusted friends and colleagues, and a dash of d-bag TV archaeologist. Stir in an island full of crazy religious zealous and bring to a boil to create just the perfect bouquet of death and destruction. But Crystal Dynamics takes it a step further with plenty of brutality and gore to go around. Miss a quick-time event when trying to escape a collapsing tunnel, and you’re greeted with a boulder falling on Lara’s head and a splash of blood as the screen goes grey. Make a wrong turn while you’re navigating through treetops on a parachute, and Lara winds up on the pointy end of a rather menacing tree branch. Of course, you’re not the only one receiving the pain; Lara herself can perform some merciless moves on the island inhabitants such as bashing them in the face with rocks, setting them on fire with a flaming arrow, or choking them against the ground with her bow.
Even many of the environments in the game liberally splash blood and corpses about to give you a sense of terror and disgust. I recall one place in particular where bodies were piled waist high as you waded through a cesspool thick with blood and who-knows-what-else so much so that when Lara made her way out, she was covered head-to-toe in red. But when Crystal Dynamics isn’t trying to shock-and-awe you to death with gore, they manage to create some of the most resplendent panoramas that you’ll find in a modern console creation. The mountain village where you’ll spend a good amount of your time early in the game is just one example, especially as you work your way up to the higher altitudes where foggy mountain vistas make a wonderful backdrop against the earthy browns, reds, whites, and greens that make the setting seem so vibrant. The character models, too, are exceptionally well-detailed and animated, bringing the characters to life and adding to the cinematic quality of the game.
Multiplayer is also available in Tomb Raider, in case you have the itch to get away from the campaign for a bit. Four modes await you: Rescue, Team Deathmatch, Cry for Help, and Free for All. Rescue pits the Survivors and Solarii against each other in a match where the Survivors must recover medical supplies from the Solarii, while the opposition must kill each Survivor using a melee execution. Cry for Help is an objective-based game where the Survivors attempt to activate rescue radios while keeping the Solarii away from their battery supplies. Finally, in Free for All is essentially a lone-wolf Deathmatch mode, while Team Deathmatch is just as the name implies. Each mode has access to the same five maps, which are based on the five primary areas that you encounter in the single-player mode: Beach, Shrine, Chasm, Underground, and Monastery.
While the campaign really shined as the pinnacle of excellence for a third-person action-adventure game, Crystal Dynamics simply missed the mark on the multiplayer aspect. The character textures aren’t quite as sharp or detailed as the campaign, this is most likely to reduce the amount of lag that you can experience in online play. Unfortunately, the lag is still abundantly apparent, and while it doesn’t outright break the gameplay, it comes pretty darn close. If ever there was an example of multiplayer being shoehorned into a single-player game, this would be it. It feels completely tacked on to the game, and even worse, feels like this was something that was added at the last possible minute. I have a feeling that it would have been far better to make an announcement that Tomb Raider would have DLC coming available to add on multiplayer, and give the developers more time to polish something that so tarnishes an otherwise perfect game.
Lara Croft’s return to video games kicks off with a bang in this franchise reboot and doesn’t stop kicking until every zealot is taking a dirt nap. It’s a strong new start with a heroine built for the 21st century in a genre that’s far too long been dominated by the boys of Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed. Hopefully, we’ll see an even larger story for Lara in the very near future. Just don’t play the game online. It’ll spoil the moment.
Tomb Raider receives a 4.25/5.0.
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