Strictly speaking, Lara doesn’t do a lot of tomb raiding in Crystal Dynamics’ gritty reboot, but then “Tomb Raider” isn’t at all like the games that came before it. The blandly-intrepid, gun-toting explorer of the 90’s (and a couple of failed entries this decade) has been replaced by a capable academic forced to learn to survive against the elements and crazed, desperate killers. Mechanically, narratively, and aesthetically, “Tomb Raider” has embraced the humanity of Lara and her circumstances, although it’s sort of at the expense of the wonder and pulp-inspired fantasy of the original games.
The result is an expertly-produced revisiting and reinvention that borrows a bit from “Uncharted” (although less than you’d think) and “Lost” that push the series and character in directions that won’t necessarily sync up with the games that came before (and feels so much better for it).
While searching for the lost city of Yamatai in the South Pacific, the exploration vessel The Endurance is battered and sunk in a mysterious storm that strands its crew on an isolated and very occupied island. Conveniently, the island and its inhabitants are somehow connected to the Princess Himiko, a figure from Japanese folklore said to control storms. Enter, Lara whose theories about the location of Yamatai have indirectly led to The Endurance’s current fate. Separated from her crew, with some rudimentary survival skills (at least, there’s some lip service paid to this in the middle of the game), the would-be explorer is forced to turn survivalist if she wants to get herself and her friends off the island.
The island–a weathered crash site with remnants of WWII, ancient Japan, and modern Russia–and how you’ll explore it infuse the game with as much personality as “Tomb Raider’s” heroine. Lara, initially battered and strung up by the island’s inhabitants, has to become a hunter/climber/adventurer in this “Metroidvania”-style environment that encourages and invites revisiting locations as Lara acquires new skills and jerry-rigged gear. Crystal Dynamics wisely finds a way to make weapons more than the things you point at to make enemies go away: numerous upgrades to Lara’s bow, and later a shotgun and an automatic rifle, allow her to access new points of interest on the map to explore the island’s history while also nabbing more of the game’s upgrade currency, the ubiquitous “Salvage.” Base Camps allow you to upgrade Lara and her weapons while also opening up fast travel routes to previously-seen locations on the island. “Tomb Raider” isn’t quite an open world game–it’s more in line with “Arkham Asylum” in that it’s very linear but offers opportunities for re-exploration.
The survival aspect of the game has a tricky line to walk: it’s nowhere near as deep as say, “Far Cry 2″ where you have to keep finding meds for malaria or something, and hunger and the elements seem to have no impact on Lara. This shallowness should be frustrating, but Crystal Dynamics finds all sorts of wise “cheats” to this–invoking minor claustrophobia in cramped, low caves, or vertigo as Lara perches atop a rickety radio tower. You constantly feel the sense of danger even if the game doesn’t provide a deep bench of features to communicate that danger. Climbing, running, and dodging anything that the rickety island throws at Lara makes makes the whole thing feel desperate and thrilling. There’s no soaring action-adventure movie score here, and by the end, Lara will have earned her bruises and wounds surviving the island.
Like “Uncharted,” “Tomb Raider” offers tons of opportunities and challenges to scale great heights, although without that game’s focus on environmental puzzles. That’s actually the most survival aspect of “Tomb Raider”: the lack of emphasis on testing the grey matter, which could be off-putting to longtime fans of the series. The actual tombs to be raided here are few and far between, side quests offering more salvage with little snippets of history about the island as well as XP (“Tomb Raider” is actually thick with something like five or more different types of collectible).
Combat is a mix of both head-on and lightly stealth-based encounters with the crazed men of the island, often bloody and brutal affairs that don’t quite jibe with Lara as being inexperienced at this sort of thing (at one point, they’re speaking of her in hushed tones like she’s Batman). Nevertheless, your bow and other weapons offer a well-balanced and visceral collection of long and close-range combat options and the weapon progression is just deep enough to make you want to hunt up every piece of Salvage you can.
Crystal Dynamics cribs a bit more from “Uncharted” with a multiplayer mode that likewise feels like another check mark on the box (“Includes multiplayer!”), offering a similar mix of Naughty Dog’s traversal and third-person shooting, offering you the opportunity to play as either one of the castaway crew members of The Endurance or one of the greasy, murderous inhabitants of the island. There’s not a lot here that will get your blood pumping unless you like imprecise bow-based combat. Of course, the multiplayer modes offer the industry-standard loadouts along with scoring and progression but the added verticality never seems to translate to any interesting advantages on either side and unlike Lara in the story campaign, the characters handle much too loosely.
And really, when you take Lara out of the equation, “Tomb Raider” simply isn’t the same thrilling adventure. It’s a credit to Crystal Dynamics (and writer Rhianna Pratchett) that they’ve taken what could have done the typical grim reboot dance of flattening out all of the emotions of the “Tomb Raider” and made it about the tragedy and the suffering of its heroine. Instead, however awkwardly it gets there, Lara becomes a survivor and a protector worthy of more adventures.
“Tomb Raider” is available now on the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC from Square Enix.
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