If you played Crystal Dynamics’ excellent 2010 twin-stick shooter, Tomb Raider: Guardian of Light, you were probably among the throngs of gamers delighted to hear that the developer would be at the helm for Lara Croft’s reboot. Oh sure, GoL wasn’t as grand as many of today’s action-adventure shoot-’em-ups, but it was endlessly entertaining, full of mind-blowing puzzles and downright clever at times. These same elements make their way into the newly released Tomb Raider, and if Crystal Dynamics has proved one thing it’s that the first lady of gaming (sorry, Princess Toadstool…you just get kidnapped too damn much) still has a trick or two up her sleeve.
We join a young Lara Croft (and we’re talkin’ way before the other games in the timeline) as she and a team of doctors, researchers and various others are hot on the trail of a mythological Japanese queen who may have just had dominion over the elements. For thousands of years, scientists have attempted to find the tiny island Queen Himiko called home, but a misunderstanding handily cracked by our here Ms. Croft leads the team to the Dragon’s Triangle. It is worth noting that an NPC mentions the area is way worse than the Bermuda Triangle, but as history generally amps up these types of people, they go anyway. Big mistake. Stranded on the island, Lara and her band of homies must fight to survive and against its mysterious inhabitants. Will these people ever make it home? Who knows…who knows.
Do you like Naughty Dog’s incredible Uncharted series? Of course you do…everyone does. Lucky for you, Crystal Dynamics also enjoys this series. A lot. So much so that anyone familiar with the exploits of Nathan Drake will automatically be awesome at Tomb Raider. And whereas emulation isn’t usually as good or as interesting as the results of inspiration, this game manages to fit the mold while adding a heavy dose of its own pinache. You’ll run, climb, jump and gun just like you always have as Drake, but here we are given a much more harrowing story of survival and the evolution of one woman who, despite falling off of things more often than anyone since Chris Pine in that Star Trek reboot, becomes the iconic hero we’ve all felt weirdly amorous about for ages.
Everything in this game is downright beautiful from the facial animation and staggeringly huge environments to the lighting and water effects. Jungles and forests are complex locations with tons of verticality and secret collectibles hidden around every corner. It’s almost hard to believe this is the same development team from GoL, but these guys have really upped their game as it were.
Lara is as beautiful and kick-ass as ever, but she is now relatable and her new and improved (read, down to earth) personality is far more accessible than the wise-cracking Lara who’s been murdering wolves since before she sashayed onto consoles. We grow with her from her first harrowing moments on the island and as she faces horror after horror forcing her to become the strong and skillful woman we know she’ll grow to be.
With a subtle nod to their previous game, Crystal Dynamics has created hidden, puzzle-based tombs throughout each area. These puzzles range from head-scratcher to straight-up brain buster, but are a blast to find and even more fun to solve. Solving these areas will provide you with extra salvage with which you can upgrade and mod Lara’s ever-growing arsenal of killer weaponry. That is, you may start out with an unreliable SMG, but through collecting salvage and completing challenges, you’ll soon be wielding a savage assault rifle complete with grenade launcher. No weapon is quite as exciting and versatile as the bow. This primitive weapon allows for such exciting abilities as taking out enemies like a stealth champ to creating ziplines for different means of traversal. It’s especially badass that we can unlock even more upgrades and perks at later stages in the game (mark my words, you’re gonna love the fire arrows).
You’ll be hard-pressed to think of a game with more jaw-dropping set pieces than Tomb Raider. This is where Naughty Dog’s influence shows the most. Even Nathan Drake would probably have to give our girl Lara a hearty, “Damn, girl!” when she is faced with escaping a fire-ravaged palace or must parachute through a dense forest or is forced to take some medical steps in what is one of the most difficult moments to watch in gaming history.
Story-wise, Tomb Raider makes the previous events of the timeline seem kind of boring. This is a complex tale that reveals bits and pieces of information with such spot-on pacing that it’s incredibly hard to put down. You’ll always want to discover what’s behind the next door or why Mathias is doing what he does to the point where you will just about laugh with glee at the big reveal. Don’t worry; we’re not about spoilers in this review…but for real, it’s awesome.
Gunplay might not be Crystal Dynamics strong point even if we count the totally satisfying vibration that comes from hitting your foes. The key is to play around with sensitivity in the options, but that sweet spot that many games have through which you can pop off headshots with ease just isn’t there. You WILL get the hang of shooting after awhile, but playing on hard mode becomes more a game of frustration and memorization than gaming prowess.
Tomb Raider struggles to find its footing cinematically. Early portions of the game provide cutscenes that seem to jolt around unexpectedly and don’t really give us a sense of the over-the-top action we’re supposed to digest. We don’t wanna spoil anything (remember how we said so just up there?), but the means through which Lara and crew are stranded are nowhere near as exciting as they might have been with a more thorough cutscene.
Multiplayer is mostly a snore and resembles Uncharted so closely that you may have to remind yourself which game you’re playing and which game is better. Hint: it’s not this one. Yes, it’s functional and we understand that everybody likes something different, but atrocious respawn times coupled with maps that are nothing new mean that most will probably play a match or two before moving on to titles that provide a more fully realized online component. More and more games are tacking these modes on and more and more we can’t help but feel that his hurts the overall package.
The Bottom Line
Reboots are never easy and seem to create rifts between those thirsting for a new experience and fanboys who just can’t or won’t let go. These concerns do not apply to Tomb Raider. The campaign is one of the most fun and exciting gaming experiences in recent memory, and graphics that take advantage of every last ounce of current-gen computer power mean that every last gamer should experience this title. Certainly there will be a sequel that is even better, but if you’ve ever wondered how Lara Croft became Lara Croft and didn’t care to see the Angelina Jolie version, this is the way. Crystal Dynamics has just solidified their name as one of the best developers around these days, and given how much fun was had tearing through this game, we’re going to overlook how much they owe to Naughty Dog. You could imitate a much worse series than Uncharted, and once these guys get a crack at another, maybe next-gen game…well there’s just no telling how awesome it’s gonna be.
9.5 out of 10
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Rating: M: Some pretty serious stuff happens here that should not be seen by children. Seriously.