Review – Tomb Raider

tomb-raider-logo

Tomb Raider
Crystal Dynamics reinvents an icon

Review by Sam Desatoff

Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Genre: Action
Platforms: PS3/Xbox 360/PC
Release Date: March 5, 2013

Lara Croft is an industry mainstay. Since the original Tomb Raider released for the Sony PlayStation in 1996, she has become one of the most recognizable characters in the medium. But how do you keep a 17-year-old franchise relevant in today’s packed market? The answer came to developer Crystal Dynamics in the form a reboot. When faced with the task of reimagining Lara Croft, Crystal approached the situation with all the gravity befitting of such an icon. The result is a thrilling ride that transforms Lara from a budding and enthusiastic adventurer into a hardened survivor.

Crystal Dynamics has settled on a decidedly darker tone for the reboot of Tomb Raider, and the new direction is evident almost immediately. The game opens with the ship carrying Lara and the rest of her expedition getting torn to pieces by a storm. Lara is thrown overboard and makes her way to the nearby island where she must regroup with the other survivors of her crew. What follows is a sprawling story of ritualistic sacrifice, betrayal, and desperation. The opening cave sequence sets the pace at breakneck and does not let up until the end credits roll.

Voice actress Camilla Luddington brilliantly brings the new Lara Croft to life. The performance contains many small touches that illustrate how unsure Lara is in her abilities – she can often be heard telling herself “I can do this” and “Just keep moving.” Luddington’s work lends weight and believability to the inexperience of the new Lara, and goes a long way in selling the reboot.

tomb raider screen 2

Perhaps because of the high caliber of voice work provided for Lara, however, the rest of the cast falls short in comparison. The remaining members of the expedition fall into stereotypical archetypes such as rugged father figure, spiritual sage, and tech nerd. The voice acting is not as strong with these characters, but an unintended result is that Lara shines even more when compared to the others. The characterization shines when Lara is alone and struggling against all the danger the island throws at her, but loses something when she interacts with the other survivors.

The island is divided into several hub areas, which can be revisited at any time through the fast-travel system. Each environment is full of small details and beautiful vistas, making Tomb Raider a very pretty game indeed. The appeal of returning to previous areas comes in the form of gear-gating: Some areas are locked off until Lara receives better gear, not dissimilar from games like Metroid or Castlevania. This makes story and character progression all the more satisfying. New weapons are doled out at a respectable pace, but I found myself leaning heavily on the bow, which is the first weapon you’ll acquire.

Combat scenarios all usually play out in similar fashion: Lara is dropped into new environments from a vantage point. She can then choose to silently take out enemies with the bow and stealth kills, or use her guns and other gadgets. When in combat, Lara automatically takes cover behind low objects. This system
feels more natural than the sticky cover mechanics of series like Gears of War.

Because Lara is a fresh-faced adventurer, she begins the game with very few survival skills. For example, Lara starts off with no melee attacks. But as she explores, collects salvage, and takes out enemies, she gains experience points. Players can use this experience to purchase new skills such as the ability to collect ammunition from downed enemies or to highlight collectables in the environment. Players shouldn’t feel stuck with skill choices, however – as long as you spend some time exploring and searching for collectables, you should be able to obtain most of the skills available.

tomb raider screen 1

While I appreciate the attempt at character progression, many of the skills are unattainable until you have unlocked a certain a number lower-tier skills. Because of the distribution of experience points, this creates an artificial barrier that feels like a cheap way to hinder progress until key story moments. Still, this gripe is minor.

The story is filled to the brim with huge set-piece moments in a way that Uncharted series could be envious of. From outrunning a plane crash to climbing a storm-ravaged tower, Tomb Raider provides a huge number of action movie-worthy moments. The controls are responsive, if a bit stiff at times. Platforming is satisfying and rarely did I feel that the game was to blame for any deaths.

Crystal Dynamics go out of their way to throw everything they can at Lara during her stay on the island. Throughout the story she is beaten, stabbed, and shot, creating a sort of Die Hard effect where, by the final moments of the game, you wonder how Lara is still standing. The reboot is much more violent than previous Tomb Raider games. Some of the deaths Lara can meet shocked me with their brutality. The punishment she takes stretches the believability of how much damage the human body can sustain, but I got more enjoyment once I set aside those preconceptions and let the game sweep me along.

Reboots are often points of contention among a franchise’s fan base, but followers of Tomb Raider shouldn’t worry. Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix have re-imagined Lara Croft for a new generation, and in doing so have made her more believable a character. If you’re a fan of the series, or good action games in general, you shouldn’t miss Tomb Raider.

Final Score: 9/10

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