When it was first announced that Crystal Dynamics were going to reboot the Tomb Raider franchise, there was a mixture of scepticism and excitement. Lara Croft’s origin story is one that hasn’t really been explored and the character’s development from a vulnerable young woman into a hardened survivor would have been a welcoming experience.
However, the term ‘reboot’ made a lot of people anxious.Where it is one thing to make a prequel, it is another entirely to restart a franchise, potentially configuring the classical characteristics of one of the gaming’s most iconic heroines. Yet I am thrilled to report back that Crystal Dynamics have achieved something that looks gorgeous, plays brilliantly and has a story that redefines Lara while retaining what makes her Croft.
Right from the off, Lara is instantly thrust into danger. Suspended, upside down in some underground cavern, she worms her way through the narrow and twisted passageways, completely consumed in darkness with only a flaming torch as a light source. As you would expect, she begins as a wounded, vulnerable, scared character and through the gameplay mechanics the player feels her struggle.
The first thing to know about this game is that it is completely unpredictable. Whether you’re shimming through a narrow gap or crawling through a low passage, at any moment the environment could start crashing down around you or an islander could come out of nowhere, forcing you to move quickly and start pressing buttons. It certainly manages to keep you on edge and you’ll be thankful when there is a moment to breath.
The gameplay itself is practically flawless. The animation in her movements is smooth and realistic on the majority, yet there are a few niggles where certain actions look a little stiff and solid which appear unrefined compared to the rest of the game, yet these are minor issues in an overly great game. There is a good balance between the exploration and the gunfights, yet there can be moments where it feels that they’ve simply put in a gunfight in case their players get bored. But with environments such as these, there is little to be bored about.
There’s plenty to capture your eye, whether you’re at the highest peak of a mountain or down at the shore amongst the wreckages of lost ships through time. Caves will have ritual areas littered with skulls, markings and flickering candles you’ll find Temples filled with severed limbs, heads and a mountain of bloody bodies, depicting scenes that should appear in horror films.
But where the game really becomes impressive is the interiors, which is where the impressive lighting comes into play. You’ll spend about half of the game in darkness or low lighting, which is where the lighting becomes so important. You’ll barely be able to see five feet in front of you and with the unpredictability of the game, previously explained, you’ll be on edge until you manage to see daylight once more.
It’s clear that Crystal Dynamics have also paid attention to the smaller details of gameplay. Lara will constantly have a fearful expression on her face and be looking around at her surroundings; features that maybe don’t seem significant, but put together with everything else and makes the experience feel that more realistic.
Before I go onto the emotional side of Lara’s experience, Crystal Dynamics seems to have also perfected the art of creating an emotional experience of the player. The one example I’ll use without going into spoilers, if when you have to enter a wolf cave, which was is pitch black other than the torch in your hand. You can constantly hear the howling of the moves, movement from afar and at one point a wolf’s shadow passes over the light. It’s incredible what they have managed to achieve, not only on a visual level but an emotional level and deserves all the credit is deserves.
It terms of the actual narrative, Crystal Dynamics have achieved an emotionally powerful story that will last you between 5-6 hours. The transitions of gameplay to cutscenes are practically seamless which is something quite uncommon in this generation of gaming, but hopefully will be something we’ll see more of with the release of the next-gen consoles. If the cutscenes of this game were extracted and put together, you would practically have a fantastic movie.
Credit must go to Lara’s voice actress Camilla Luddington who manages to bring heart and soul to the character. Even the littlest things such as gutting a deer are a struggle and it’s easy to feel for her. It’s hard to explain the extent of her acting when I don’t want to go into spoilers but her performance has the potential to rival many Hollywood movies. The typical archaeological aspect of the narrative remains interesting, but is overshadowed by the survival story and you’ll find yourself paying little attention to the details of the historic side. Lara’s talents as an archaeologist are less of a focus this time round, but undoubtedly will become central in future releases.
But where the development of the story fails unfortunately is one of the games major flaws. Up until the point where Lara claims her first human kill, she becomes a reckless, cold-blooded killer, able to take down hoards of islanders without a moment’s thought. There is little growth in her ability to kill from that point, other than upgrading your weapons for a more devastating impact.
In a story that intends to show Lara’s development of character into a survivor, it’s hard to see the plausibility of her story when she’s been killing ruthlessly for most of the game. The bad-ass Lara will typically know starts to bleed through in the cutscenes later on, but well after she’s killed half of the island. Of course to achieve such a progression would be horribly difficult to perfect and hypocritically I can’t come up with a solution, but in the context of this story, it provides a rather large contradictory in the origin story of Lara Croft.
Overall, Crystal Dynamics have managed to create a successful reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, leaving us wanting more. It shouldn’t offer too much a challenge but in the sections where it is there is a handy instinct mechanic to guide you through puzzles and mazes. There are plenty of collectibles and classic tombs to find and explore in a relatively free roam map, keeping you coming back. And if you’re not fussed about the collectibles, the story is well worth a second playthrough, just to spend more time with our favourite heroine.
With a fine mix of exploration and combat, taking you from one environment to the next, you’ll never find yourself getting bored and sequences that will make you hold your breath and grit your teeth.
The animation of the vast landscapes and environments to the realistic, emotional expressions of the characters are all in all breath-taking, bringing astounding visuals on a dying generation of consoles.
The sounds of the wildlife, mainly the wolves, will keep you on edge when creeping through caves and every hit that Lara takes is felt, both through the heart and the ears.
Replay Value: 3/5
The story is gripping enough to deserve a second playthrough but there are plenty of collectibles and tombs to explore outside of the main narrative to keep anyone busy.
Other than looking a little like Far Cry 3, Tomb Raider has its own distinct identity that tells a truly unique story of such a well-known character.
A successful reboot of a popular franchise, providing something new and exciting while retaining the qualities of the classics.
What do you make of Lara’s latest adventure? Let us know in the comments section below.
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This article was first posted on April 6, 2013