Our heroine finds a bow and learns to hunt deer and also figures out how to dress her wounds and stay warm at night. She also gingerly tests her footing while traversing cliffs and crossing fallen logs across chasms. It’s only when her previously unseen captors catch up to her that she learns the real skills necessary to survive on an island where the people are even more vicious than the animals.
Portraying Lara as a vulnerable innocent who must become hard in order to survive does much to humanize her. It also gives her some of the depth she’s been missing since her debut, since we now know what she was like before she was forced to adapt.
Much was made in the months leading up to Tomb Raider’s launch about its supposed rape scene, where Lara is nearly victimized by an evil thug. The developers defended the sequence by saying that it lays out the necessary reasoning for how she first kills another human being.
While they perhaps brought the criticism on by previewing the scene out of context in the first place, they are inevitably right – too many protagonists in video games are wanton slaughterers without any real explanation or background as to why.
The scene itself, meanwhile, is implied as opposed to explicit; the potential violence to Lara and players is thus more psychological than explicit.
That’s not to say she doesn’t take a significant amount of abuse throughout the game. Whether it’s bouncing around a rocky rapid river or being threshed while parachuting through pine trees, Lara is continually getting beaten up and injured. But, as unsympathetic coaches everywhere seem to always suggest, suffering builds character.
In the first half of the game, she often demurely pleads with the bad guys – “You don’t have to do this!” As her reality gets more cruel, she gets progressively tougher and by the end, she is more likely to rage “You can’t stop me!” as she charges into a firefight. You can’t help but cheer her on. The game ends with the proclamation, “A survivor is born,” and damn right if we can’t wait for the next instalment, this time helmed by the butt-kicking Lara Croft we’ve known all along.
Lara’s latest adventure actually had me thinking more about its similarities and differences to Far Cry 3, one of the best games of 2012, all of which are purely coincidental given that both games were developed at the same time. Although each has a high level of polish, Ubisoft’s game is more expansive given that it’s a true open world with a wealth of side missions and distractions.
The story is also to Far Cry, in that game, the innocent, frat-boy-ish Jason Brody also finds himself on a hostile Pacific island, where he must transform from hunted into hunter if he is to survive. Far Cry 3’s tale is more engaging, though, in that Brody has an excellent foil to play off of in a richly envisioned villainous psychopath (Vaas Montenegro). Tomb Raider’s villains, disciples of an ancient goddess bent on restoring her glory – not to mention its entire cast of ancillary characters – are nowhere near as interesting.
The game does offer some decent enticement to replay it, since there are sections of the island that can only be accessed after Lara has upgraded her gear. Given the great mechanics, it’s a world I want to explore further, which makes this one of the few games I’m actually planning on replaying.
And not to be outdone, the online multiplayer mode – designed by Eidos Montreal – offers some fun too. The core climbing and shooting mechanics from the single-player campaign carry over into a number of game types, including standard team deathmatch, last man standing, capture the flag and domination. The wild card in all of these is the ability to set traps for other players. The crafty player can thereby sneak through the maps via tunnels and zip lines and set snares, electrical mines and crushing walls, then rack up points without firing a shot. It’s an insidiously fun play option.
The overall unlock progression, however, is shallow, with a limited number of weapons, attachments and skills to choose from. While I certainly enjoyed the multiplayer for the few hours I played, I’m not sure if it’s something I’ll still be playing months from now.
All told, Crystal Dynamics has succeeded in their goal with the Tomb Raider reboot. As with other recently rejigged heroes, Lara Croft emerges from this game a darker, more troubled protagonist. But that’s okay – just like James Bond and Batman, she’s better off for it. Gamers are too, since this is certainly the best Tomb Raider game on this generation of consoles.