Reboots have been a pretty big thing in recent years. They have a singular purpose; taking an established property that is well known—and perhaps a tad too familiar to audiences by this point—and going back to the start. Reboots tinker with origins, change details and subsequently perceptions of the property, hopefully also changing the attitude of the audience, making a stale character seem new, fresh and exciting. It’s worked for Batman, it’s worked for James Bond and now it seems, it’s worked for Lara Croft as well.
Coming Of Age In Blood & Fire
This is an origin story, a tale of a young, recently graduated student by the name of Lara Croft. She’s on a ship bound for the seas east of Japan in search of the fabled lost island kingdom of Yamatai, somewhere in a region known as the Dragon’s Triangle. This isn’t a single expedition funded by the considerable wealth of a titled lady, but a reality TV project with which Lara is attached as a researcher and assistant. She’s not a highly trained killer or member of the British upper class. Instead she’s an orphan of wealthy parents who refuses to touch the family money, working to put herself through University College London rather than be a trust fund baby that sailed through Cambridge or Oxford. She’s smart, brave, capable and in no way prepared for the shipwreck and crazed cult that terrorize her first serious archaeological expedition. And it is this flawed, vulnerable, terrified, completely out of her depth character that makes Tomb Raider such a gripping story as she rises to the challenge anyway. Characters—at least the crew of the Endurance—are nuanced and believable, dialog is natural and there’s a definite arc of character development that makes players feel like they’ve been through a harrowing journey along with Lara, and come out the better for it.
When you get into the visuals, it’s difficult to believe that this is still the same developer that released Tomb Raider: Underworld back in 2008. Aside from the more realistically proportioned Lara, the environments and level of detail have received such dramatic improvement it feels like it came from an entirely different studio. Tomb Raider moves away from the exotic, more fantastical elements of the franchise for a much more grounded, intensely realized setting. Rather than the traditional globetrotting to various locales, the action is focused on the island of Yamatai with its forests and medieval Japanese ruins, as well as the detritus of many shipwrecks over the centuries. This makes for a variety of different environments with an impressive amount of detail as well as atmospheric lighting, from gloomy torch lit caves to spectacular island sunsets. It’s a winning endorsement for Square-Enix that their Crystal Engine holds up so well outside of Final Fantasy. The animation also deserves special mention. The art team has shamelessly aped Naughty Dog with the Uncharted series, creating a suite of convincing “average” animations to show the player that this isn’t some high society ubermensche with guns, but a scared young woman chilled to the bone from exposure to the elements, or walking uncertainly on a cliff’s edge, always keeping her hand on the wall for support. Like Nathan Drake her jumps are awkward, with a breath holding moment as she may—or may not—successfully grip onto a ledge, and like Nathan Drake, all these animations showing how flawed and vulnerable she is merely make her more relatable to players, as we’d probably do the same thing. Unfortunately, the talent on display here is marred slightly by a few technical issues. The massive jump in visuals comes at a hit to performance. There are slight but regular drops in the framerate as the hardware struggles to keep pace with the details on show, particularly during cut scenes. Some graphic glitches also regularly occur such as walking into a room and “falling into the world,” where the engine fails to properly load in the next piece of environment. There’s also the occasional encounter with “floating” objects such as weapons or barrels hovering in the air. None of this is game breaking, but it’s apparent that the consoles of this generation are at their upper limit.
The sound is also good, though it doesn’t quite soar to the same heights as the visuals. Camilla Luddington steps into the shoes vacated by Keeley Hawes, and does a convincing job of presenting a younger, more uncertain Lara Croft. Her performance is actually one of the highlights of the game, bolstered by a cast of capable voice actors with no real weak links. The music is similarly competent, though the iconic theme of the Tomb Raider—while teasingly evoked from time to time—is absent. Gunfire is punchy, with presence and because of the occasional stealth nature of the gameplay, directional audio plays a role too. One consistent irritation is the audio effect for the “survival instinct,” the Tomb Raider equivalent to Assassin’s Creed’s “Eagle Vision.” The sound effect is a big, rich, sub-woofer laden “boom” that sounds like distant heavy artillery fire. It can grate on the nerves when searching for hidden items throughout a level, and feels like Lara is running around in the trenches in WWI.
This is a very different Tomb Raider from the games of the past. Traditionalists who enjoyed the slower paced, exploratory gameplay of environmental puzzles to solve and just figuring out how to get from point A to point B are in for disappointment. It’s ironic that in many ways the Tomb Raider franchise is what inspired Uncharted and now for this latest sequel, it’s Uncharted that has clearly inspired much of Tomb Raider. This is not about raiding tombs so much as it is just getting through the next firefight, or incredibly cinematic set-piece action sequence. Lara isn’t trying to plumb any mysteries here, she’s just trying to stay alive and that’s a theme that carries on throughout the entire game.
Gone is the clunky dual wielding pistol combat, replaced with a snappy, responsive cover-based shooter and melee engine that is probably the highlight of the game. Combat is now a thrilling joy rather than an awkward interval to break up the pace of exploration. And it’s a good thing that it’s so finely tuned, since it now makes up the bulk of the experience. Lara controls more tightly and responsively than ever before, a critical necessity with this more combat based iteration. This combat is supplemented with RPG-lite mechanics, with Lara collecting XP for kills that she can use to purchase new skills, as well as an in-game currency, “salvage” which she acquires from looting bodies and collecting salvage scattered around Yamatai. When she has enough, she can use this to upgrade her weapons, which run the usual gamut from pistols to shot guns and, perhaps in a nod to The Hunger Games, the bow. XP is awarded for kills, but more of it is awarded for headshots and the more stylish kills implemented through moves like moving into melee range, dodging and moving in for a counter-attack/death blow. Risk is always rewarded in combat here if you can actually pull it off.
Perhaps it’s because this is not the calm, cool, collected Lara Croft of yore that the more sedate pleasures of puzzle solving and exploration have been marginalized in this new version. In this regard, the game takes a hybrid route between Uncharted and its predecessors. Rather than rely entirely on massive levels with fiendish lock mechanisms of past games, or the tightly scripted shooting galleries of Uncharted, the game moves between large open environments filled with secret items to discover, and more linear environments that push the story forward. These areas are punctuated by campfires which act as hubs, allowing Lara to fast travel between points to clean up any items or challenges left in a particular level. When players do have the freedom to explore, Tomb Raider takes a cue from Mirror’s Edge with white, color coded boards, rails and other climbing implements easily visible to indicate possible routes to take. With the exception of the final quarter, the majority of the tombs that will be raided in the game are optional, and usually only require solving some physics puzzle in order to plunder them. The essence of Tomb Raider is still here, technically, but the ratio has been dramatically shifted, with the exploration and puzzle solving being streamlined, perhaps even dumbed down, in favor of the high adrenaline combat and easy to navigate traversal. At a rough estimate, it’s probably about 65% Uncharted in flavor, with 35% of the old Tomb Raider intact. There won’t be any hours spent navigating Saint Francis’ Folly and its diabolical death traps in this game.
There’s also a multi-player component, and while competent, it’s largely unnecessary. Once again Uncharted leads the way, with modes like Team Deathmatch, and variations of King of the Hill. RPG elements are in full effect, with XP given for kills, surviving the round and completing various achievements during the round. The XP can then be used to upgrade character traits and weapons. Nothing new here, and hardly a challenge to the multi-player of Assassin’s Creed which is still probably the most unique take on 3rd person competitive multi-player around.
In the end, Tomb Raider is a reboot that both succeeds and at the same time saddens a little bit. There’s no end of fun to be had in the gripping story that is genuinely the best the series has ever seen. The combat is an amazing step forward for the franchise and the action sequences are breathlessly exciting and will be talked about all year. However, for old fans that enjoyed the pleasures of solving a tricky puzzle, or clambering around cliffs and dusky tombs, there’s considerably less of that here. Perhaps the sequel—and it’s guaranteed to happen—with a more assured, less backed-into-the-corner Lara Croft will bring back some of the joy to be had in raiding—rather than surviving—a tomb. That aside, this is a game that the Uncharted and Gears of War crowds—of which there are millions—can safely enjoy, and likely one of the early hits of 2013.