If pop culture heroes represent their zeitgeist, it’s pretty clear we’re currently living in an age of angst. James Bond isn’t as suave and aloof anymore; he’s psychologically damaged and kind of mean. Batman’s cartoonish gadgets have given way to military prototype technologies while the man himself may just be crazier than his enemies. Even Captain Kirk isn’t quite so sure of himself these days. Enter Lara Croft, who once upon a time was a rich British girl with a penchant for short shorts, exploring ruins and cracking wise. In the new Tomb Raider reboot, she’s a young and impressionable apprentice archeologist without the confidence she’s become known for over the years. She’s also rather humourless, a more serious young woman for a more serious time.
“Flawed and vulnerable” are the words used by developer Crystal Dynamics, which is probably an apt description of Lara at the beginning of this prequel. While the character has been something of a female Indiana Jones since her debut in 1996, she certainly didn’t start out as a swashbuckling rogue – if this origin story is to be believed, there was a time when she could barely climb, jump or shoot, let alone buckle swashes.
The game play is outstanding in every way. The visuals, for one, are some of the best we’ve seen in this generation of consoles. There’s an awful lot of fire in this Tomb Raider – from the flaming arrows Lara eventually constructs, to the burning mountain-side temples, it all looks fantastic and realistic. It’s an excellent illustration of just how far something so seemingly simple as animated flames have come over the past few years.
Tomb Raider has large areas for exploring and you can certainly lose yourself in the distraction of searching for collectibles, but its story is linear; there’s only one path you can ultimately take.
If there’s a complaint to be made, it could be about the actual tombs that Lara raids, most of which are optional. Most games in the series have been notable for their complex, head-scratching puzzles, yet they’re a little too easy in this one. In several cases, all Lara has to do to access the big treasure chest at the end is weigh down a platform using some objects nearby. Alas, the action in this reboot clearly focuses on climbing on shooting, not so much on thinking.
The core mechanics of jumping, climbing and shooting also feel perfect, with smart artificial intelligence subtly incorporated into every aspect. If Lara loiters too long behind a particular piece of cover, for example, her enemies will either shoot it away or light up a Molotov and toss it over to flush her out.
In the event that this does happen and you don’t dodge quickly enough, Lara takes damage, but the AI subtly nudges her away from danger after a brief second. It’s such a nice, small touch that makes all the difference; lesser games would have your character illogically squatting in that flaming napalm until you consciously move your character out of it.
The player-assisting AI is also noticeably clever when taking cover. Most games have you press a button to do so, but here, the game is usually smart enough to just know when you want to be in cover. There’s a bad guy walking towards you down a hallway and you’re trying to hide around the corner? Bam, you’re automatically in cover. Why thank you, Tomb Raider!
This kind of detail sets the game apart from Uncharted, the series that has in recent years become the king of the exploration-action genre. It’s easy to spot the similarities – Uncharted’s Nathan Drake is, after all, often referred to as “Dude Raider” – while Crystal Dynamics’ reboot has the same nail-biting climbing sequences, fast-paced quick-time action events and frantic shoot-outs found in the rival franchise. Heck, it even has a whole level set in a ship graveyard that almost seems like it’s been lifted right out of Uncharted 3.
It’s Tomb Raider’s little AI touches, however, that make it feel just a tad better. The bar on the genre has definitely been raised – over to you, Mr. Drake.
The first hour or two of the story introduces Lara as a squire to the esteemed Dr. Whitman, a renowned archeologist in search of relics belonging to an ancient queen. The duo’s journey has brought them to the Dragon’s Triangle, a storm-ridden area south of Japan that “makes the Bermuda Triangle look like Disneyland,” as an observant crew mate puts it.
Before anyone knows it, the ship is wrecked by a storm and the explorers are violently deposited on an isolated tropical island. Separated from her crew and captured by mysterious assailants, Lara begins her adventure – and her slow transformation from innocent girl to hardened bad-ass.