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.
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.