“It’s time to fall in love with Lara all over again.”
Once upon a time a daring adventuress led gamers into a new era, Lara Croft brought us puzzles, gun play, platforming and a jaggy female temptress. The result became a phenomenon and the Tomb Raider brand became a household name with many iterations on many different platforms. It is a franchise that has always stuck to its core nature, but a few of the more recent outings have fallen flat, personally one of my favourite recent games was the co-op isometric puzzler Guardian of Light which is still worth a few hours of anybody’s time. Leaping forward over the chasm of the past and precariously grasping 2013 we find ourselves confronted with Tomb Raider, a reboot worthy of the name and a cracking start to a franchise that will surely end in the next generation of consoles.
Tomb Raider, its dark, the presentation is brooding, the menus and general atmosphere offer a foreboding sense of doom. If you saw the trailer that came out of E3 in 2011 you will know the opening scene, a young Lara Croft amongst a team of mixed adventurers, archaeologists and media types all aboard a ship bound for a treasure seeking quest. The ship hits trouble, breaks apart and after some breathtaking hijinks Lara is washed up on a Bermuda Triangle style beach, cold, hungry and wounded, this is where the adventure begins.
The narrative unfolds as you progress through beautifully mapped areas, each of which is big enough to keep you busy as you poke around and there are are enough collectibles to make you want to poke around, especially if you stumble across the area map to locate them. The first sequence gets you onboard with Lara, intuitive controls and some fluid cinematic action gets you moving along with the pace of the game. Its also not long before quicktime events start popping up, but they are forgivable as they are both telegraphed and satisfying to get through. There is also an openness to the levels that never feel as funnelled as previous instalments, too often in old Tomb Raider beautiful locations have been let down by rigid and dictated paths. Here there is at least the illusion of choice and it is convincing enough to make you just enjoy the ride.
The game also sets out its gory stall pretty early on too, as noted previously it is a dark and gritty adventure, causing an admittedly ‘accidental’ death to a nameless pursuer is both an opener and a matter of survival. From there onwards you start learning to cope with murder, that said even with the legion of bad guys falling prey to the weapons you can pick up there is enough thought and emotion played out by Lara to appreciate how she feels and about the situation. This is no aloof instant action monster that has been created, she is suffering mentally and surviving by brutality, after all she is, as we are repeatedly reminded “a Croft”.
For a title that could have been easily discounted and left off many radars, Tomb Raider oozes class, the little moments that have been built into the engine offer treats and help to maintain the illusion. They way Lara will put a torch on the ground as she forces a door, the way it will go out if you wander through a waterfall. The way she reacts to the world around her, wind and heat pushing her hands up, rain splashing on her shoulders or the way she instinctively touches walls that come close. It’s beautiful, plain and simple, all these things could have been ignored, but they add so much more to the depth of the experience.
Similarly the way the camera switches smoothly on the fly, dropping into a mini cinematic as you squeeze under a fallen log or flicks around to keep you on your toes in threatening situations. The controls are sublime, easy to pick up and quickly become second nature. A tap of a button adds a survival themed ‘Detective Mode’ which makes scanning the room for collectibles so much easier, it is a handy addition when you are seeking out the next objective.
You could argue the game has borrowed heavily from other franchises, but in this case it is greater than the sum of its parts. The cinema of Uncharted, gritty and gory action that could be at home with Gears of War, along with animal hunting in the woods that feels better than Assassins Creed. It works incredibly well and the personal touches delivered by the voice acting give you some sympathy for her predicament, as do her physical tells reacting to wounds and ending up a scruffy shadow of herself. Reminds me of how refreshing it was to see Bruce Willis so beat up at the end of Die Hard the very first time.
Tomb Raider also has an online competitive mode, which is all well and good, but online gaming has to be something special to maintain a user base, besides the meat in this sandwich is all about the single player game. A single player game that is one of those most enjoyable, accessible and well paced albeit fairly short campaigns in a long time.