In 1998, my mother and I went to Cash Converters to look for PlayStation games my father might like for his birthday. She was ultimately convinced by a man with a disturbing glint in his eye that my Dad would appreciate the platformer stylings of the original Tomb Raider. “I’m obsessed with Lara Croft,” the man admitted. “I just think she’s the best”. The subtext here was more evident to me than it was to my mother: Lara had, with her enormous chest and pistol know-how, become a geeky sex symbol for the modern world, and the marketing around the series shifted to focus on her proportions above her actual tomb raiding abilities.
The following year, I’d read about a ‘nude, blonde Lara’ Gameshark code for Tomb Raider 3 (it was, in fact, mentioned on the cover of ‘Arcade’ magazine). More recently, a friend showed me a copy of Douglas Coupland’s ‘Lara’s Book: Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider Phenomenon’, an unusually creepy read about the popular game series. This reinforced for me the scope of the vicious cycle Lara Croft had become trapped in, the troubling ways in which she had been represented and received, and the difficulties faced by the team behind the then-upcoming new reboot. And don’t get me started on that film (I never saw the sequel, and apparently neither did anyone else).
New Lara is one of just several ways in which this Tomb Raider reboot succeeds, but of everything the game achieves her character will likely be what receives the most enduring praise over the course of the year. For the most part, Tomb Raider’s plot is pretty hokey, but as the central pivotal force driving everything, Lara is brilliant. She’s a rarity – a believably drawn character in a blockbuster game, one who always feels grounded and real despite being capable of impossible physical feats. The numerous ordeals she faces on Tomb Raider’s island galvanise her, change her (for both better and worse), and challenge her in ways that are genuinely compelling. She’s treated and written like a real person rather than an object, which is still far, far rarer than it should be. Camilla Luddington’s strong vocal performance caps off a character that has been handled with respect, admiration and realism. The other characters aren’t quite so interesting, but then they don’t need to be – this is Lara’s game.
Tomb Raider borrows very heavily from Uncharted, in much the same way Uncharted initially borrowed heavily from Tomb Raider’s basic premise and the various other games it inspired (not least of which being the previous Tomb Raider reboot, ‘Legends’). That is to say that a lot of things in Tomb Raider explode, collapse, crumble, and need to be climbed, usually in a spectacular fashion. At the beginning, it all feels a little simple – the initial ‘stranded on the island’ plot is brushed over a bit, and when Lara finds herself separated from the rest of the crew she was previously working with the game takes some time with a tutorial that makes the action feel a little on-rails. The initial combat encounters against wolves feel simplistic, as do the initial set-pieces and instructions (you’re taught how to hunt, for instance, but it’s made pretty clear early on that doing so isn’t actually important).
But the game opens up steadily, improving on a scene by scene, location by location basis, until eventually you sit back and realise that it has slowly transformed into something a bit special. Combat improves dramatically on what Uncharted offered up (especially after Uncharted 3’s dodgy aiming, horrible fisticuffs and constant grenade-spam); frequently providing stealthy options for those of us who like to play in the shadows. If Lara sneaks up on a group of enemies, it’s possible to take them all out with her bow and arrow without alerting anyone, which is extremely satisfying. Otherwise a few other weapons unlock and can be upgraded over the course of the game, and although there’s a cover system in place the game encourages you frequently to play boldly. Explosives can be hurled around, certain kinds of cover can be set on fire, enemies constantly manage to flush you out or flank you, and the shotgun is so satisfying and useful at close range that you’ll frequently want to run out into the open with it. It’s a refined, fun combat system, even if the game does occasionally fall back on hurling a huge group of enemies at you rather than finding new ways to mix things up a bit.
While there are fewer proper tombs to raid than the name may imply (there are optional tombs scattered around the island, but they each only include one fairly basic environmental puzzle to solve), this is still a game about exploration. Lara steadily grows into her role as an explorer, expanding her inventory with all kinds of awesome tools (her penchant for pulling things around with ropes is revisited extensively) and generally becoming more confident and assured as a character.
Her transformation is a lot of fun to take part in, even if there is an occasional disconnect between her abilities and your sense of what is actually humanly possible. Jumping and climbing play a huge part, and although the treks you have to make never quite match up the crazier moments from Uncharted 2, this is a game that fully understands the power of bombast. At times it gets a bit much – some of the best games have a tendency of resembling some of Hollywood’s worst films once things start exploding – but it’s also quite thrilling when you’re right in the thick of it, only very occasionally falling into the typical action-adventure trap of making it feel like the game is playing itself.
Exploring is an essential part of the Tomb Raider experience. Not only can several areas be tackled in multiple ways, but the game is absolutely crammed full of collectables. It also uses audio diaries to flesh out backstory more effectively than most games do, and the ‘scrap’ you can collect is important for upgrading your weapons. It has a bit of an N64-platformer-collect-a-million objects feel to it sometimes, but it’s worth noting that all the collectables are purely optional, and genuinely quite interesting.
Visually, Tomb Raider is stunning on 360, in a sort-of ‘holy hell how are they doing this on seven year old hardware’ way. It is, without question, one of the best looking games I’ve seen on the aging system, and a testament to just how much developers have been able to achieve with this console generation. The level design is just stunning, and it’s worth pausing frequently to take in the majesty of it all.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case, I was unable to test multi properly prior to release. It looks fairly thin, with only a few playlists, but that’s probably a good thing for a game like this – these modes will stand a better chance of being populated. There’s no reason the mechanics wouldn’t translate well, so I’m inclined to be optimistic. But Tomb Raider has always been a single-player experience, and that’s what the vast majority of players will likely want out of it.
Tomb Raider reaffirms the importance and value of having strong, realistic female protagonists in games, while also successfully transposing much of what people loved about the original titles into an adventure that feels superbly modern. It’s a better Uncharted game than Uncharted 3 was, and goes a long way towards reminding us of the value of the Triple-A blockbuster in a market where smaller indie efforts have started to get so good that we need such reminders. This is an extremely impressive reboot, one that provides me with one of the most enjoyable and exciting adventures I’ve undertaken in quite some time.