Tomb Raider is a reboot of an iconic heroine of gaming who has long since fallen from the legendary status she once held. Rebooting any franchise is hard but especially difficult when you try to make it accessible to new fans while still appealing to those who grew up raiding tombs–without disappointing either audience. Crystal Dynamics has proven that it can be done and while the the multiplayer component is the usual completely unnecessary tacked-on nonsense, the single player experience to be had here is nothing short of exceptional.
I’ve been describing this game to friends as a lovechild between God of War, Far Cry 3 and Uncharted but now after finishing it I realize that as apt of a gist as that is, it’s so much more than that. Tomb Raider breathes new life into a genre long since monopolized by the likes of Kratos and Nathan Drake in a way that not only borrows what has worked before and fixes some of the downfalls of those behemoths in gaming, but glues together all of these effective but disparate bits and pieces of other games with enough innovation and fresh ideas to make it stand out entirely on its own. Every time I found myself comparing some aspect of it to one of those games, the game would quickly present me with a reason why it does that thing even better. One of my biggest gripes with Uncharted has been the excessively long and frustrating combat sequences that I seem to run into two or three times per game and that never happens here. On the few occasions that a combat sequence became that heated and frustrating it would abruptly switch into an adrenaline-fueled cinematic or elaborate set piece that would end leaving me catching my breath before switching from intense combat to a more relaxed looting and exploring state. It’s things like that flawless pacing that make Tomb Raider stand out not just as an adventure game, but as a finely polished game that shows moment-to-moment what a great game can be.
You begin the game with a brief cut scene introducing Lara, a young archaeologist who’s eager to explore the world around her, and a crew of very archetypal and mostly forgettable characters on a ship which very soon after wrecks and by the time the cinematic ends, you’re fighting for your life. The next hour or so of gameplay is one of the most seamless, and intuitive tutorials I’ve ever experienced. Right from the start it feels like the story, while never feeling like a prologue or the rigid training simulator so many games depend on at the start. It often won’t tell you what to do until you seem to be having trouble figuring it out; throughout the entirety of the game there will be times when you’re stumped and the game will give you a gentle nod to use your intuition (very much like Assassins Creed’s eagle vision) which highlights important items in the environment, which is almost always enough to steer you in the right direction. Everything from pressing X to jump and then to quickly pressing square to regain your grip after a fearless leap all make sense quickly and the game is very subtle in how it prompts you with hints or teaching you something new without breaking the immersion. Getting behind cover is as simple as getting near your cover and Lara reacts by ducking down, or peeking around corner–it feels a little strange at first because I’m always expecting to press a button to get into cover, but it works so well and like all of Laras controls they become so fluid and natural incredibly fast.
There is this wonderful balance of linearity and freedom throughout the experience that while not necessarily revolutionary, is done so much better than any game I’ve played. It gives you the same linear, controlled, cinematic experience that games like Uncharted and God of War do but gives you enough freedom to feel like you do have choices, like you’re not playing on rails. Its freedom vs. linearity ratio is a perfect balance between games like that and much more open games like Farcry 3. It gives you the best parts of both worlds, without leaning too far in the other direction. There were even times replaying it where I found I even had some freedom of movement and choice in my path taken during big set pieces like sliding down a cliff face or leaping from rooftop to rooftop as the buildings collapse behind.
The world walks a fine line between realism and the supernatural but it does in a way that everything feels real until slowly more is revealed about the mythos of the island you’re stranded on and the hostile inhabitants that you’re trying to survive against. It’s a type of setting that works incredibly well at making the experience that much more believable. It brings that fictional element in so slowly and with such trepidation over whether it’s real or not that by the time it solidifies itself as wildly supernatural, you don’t even question the transition; it never feels less real. One of the ways in which Tomb Raider is ultra-realistic is in it’s intensely graphic death sequences. They happen somewhat frequently (less if you don’t die often, of course) and they are particularly gruesome whether you see Lara getting impaled, choked to death, or smashing her head on a rock and drowning. They felt really unnecessary but after a while I realized that while they may be gratuitous and even disturbing to some, it helped ground a sense of reality behind all of these heroic feats; no matter how incredible Lara is, she is still human and can die from the wrong step or mistiming of a jump and there is nothing grandiose about it. I’m unsure of whether or not that’s totally necessary for a gameplay mechanic and if other people will see it that way, but it worked for me.
I have never played a character that felt so damn human before. Yes, Lara even as a young woman who hasn’t quite developed into the iconic Tomb Raider, of iron will and performs death-defying feats seemingly on a whim—but she never feels supernatural. She struggles. You can hear it in her voice, see it in her movements and even when she’s kicking ass fiercely and mercilessly, there is this sense that she is human and fragile and not special in any other way than that she refuses to give up—it’s downright inspirational at times. When I’m feeling badass playing as Kratos I feel bad ass because he is SO overtly a badass, in the most heavily accentuated hyperbole possible. When I feel badass as Lara it never feels like I’m a god, I feel like a human character that is so steadfast in her will to survive and so fearless and persistent in adapting to survive at any cost—something about that feels so empowering. When the dust clears after a huge combat sequence where Lara, wielding bow, pickax and a small arsenal of basic firearms, wipes out every single well armed enemy in sight, there is a surging sense of accomplishment and power. So much of that comes from that careful balance of making Lara play like a hero while still being no more than a determined human being. It’s an emotional approach to character and gameplay I haven’t felt this sort of attachment since the narrative approach to Spec Ops: The Line.
Tomb Raider is spectacular reboot of a long-loved heroine we all know and love, but even more than that, it’s approach to borrowing tropes from successful games and tweaking them to be just a little bit better. It accomplishes this task without ever fully mirroring any of them, and it’s what makes Tomb Raider stand out as one of the most fresh takes on adventure in gaming this year. Lara Croft is back, and I already can’t wait for her second coming in this massively successful reboot.
The only real downfalls with this game for me, would be the tacked on multiplayer that I just couldn’t care less about, and the lack of replay value. I’m always frustrated by the ridiculous notion so many developers seem to espouse: that hit games can’t rely on just an enthralling single player experience, and NEED to cater to multiplayer possibilities as well. If it makes sense for game to have a multiplayer component, great, but this is yet another instance where the game didn’t need it, will benefit very little (if at all) from it and where all that focus could have been put into expanding the multiplayer experience, the obvious core strength of this game, if those resources weren’t expended on multiplayer development and maintenance. While you can continue to explore the world and hunt down Tomb Raiders many collectibles, the story is so well tailored to a perfectly paced adventure that stepping back into that world (with little to no enemies to fight) feels so underwhelming. It lacks streamlined performances that makes the initial playthrough so thoroughly fantastic and your left with this hollow shell of the experience you grew into over the course of the game. That really hurts the experience after the initial playthrough, but that first playthrough is indubitably worth your time and money.