When you think of Lara Croft, you probably think about her trekking through the jungle, cartwheeling her way through trap-riddled tombs and gleefully picking off bad guys, twin pistols ablaze. What you probably don’t do is picture her begging for someone to come rescue her. You don’t picture her hugging her knees next to a fire, terrified and alone, or sobbing because she had to kill someone. The Lara of the new Tomb Raider isn’t the plastic princess that we’re used to, she’s an ordinary girl who, when thrown into extraordinary circumstances, makes the decision to live through them. She’s strong when the situation demands it, and fragile in the quiet moments between. She’s scared, but determined, capable but unsure. She’s marvelous.
Tomb Raider is a reboot of the Lara Croft mythology, and as such begins when Lara is still just a rookie archaeologist with a wild theory about the location of a lost city. Her mentor, Roth, thinks she might be on to something, and follows her suggestion to take the expedition into the dangerous Dragon’s Triangle. One mysterious storm later and the crew finds themselves shipwrecked on a remote island littered with wrecked planes and boats. It’s not long before everyone finds themselves in different types of mortal peril, and a guilt-wracked Lara vows to find a way to get them all home.
Your journey will take you all over the island as you track down your friends and explore various ways of getting off the island. The story is linear, but each location has plenty of historical artifacts, treasures, and collectibles hidden away, providing ample excuses to put Lara’s climbing skills to good use. Though the island is covered in a somewhat suspicious amount of convenient handholds, fallen trees, and places to tie off rope bridges, the level design prevents the platforming from looking or feeling too artificial. Sure, that plane just happened to crash in exactly the right position to let Lara reach the waterfall, but it still looks perfectly natural as it rusts away, helpfully sloping at just the right angle. Controls are always a risk with games that involve a lot of jumping and climbing – if they’re off even slightly the entire experience can be ruined. The movement of Tomb Raider is effortless, as Lara leaps, swings, slides, shimmies, and clambers across the rocks and rotting timbers of the island’s structures. You swiftly stop thinking about how to make Lara jump or climb, and can instead focus on which combination of tools and abilities you’ll need to reach that out of the way branch or hidden nook.
The island’s other residents aren’t happy to have you poking around, so you’ll have to fight your way through them as you search your surroundings. The combat is straightforward and enjoyable, but a bit at odds with the narrative of the game. Lara goes from apologizing to a deer for killing it to sniping cultists with barely a blink. The game wouldn’t be much fun if she were a terrible shot, but she handles a rifle better than most soldiers and is totally unflustered by setting people on fire. Even taking into consideration her determination to save her friends at any cost and her reluctant admission that killing was easier than she’d expected, the difference between Lara’s demeanor in combat and in the cut scenes can be jarring at times.
The Tomb Raider games have always been about exploration, platforming, combat and puzzle-solving, but Lara’s adventures had become so over the top and cartoonish that it was tough to take them, or her, very seriously. This new version of her story keeps the basics while stripping away most of the glitz, leaving an experience that’s much more focused, while still being true to the Tomb Raider spirit. Locations are crammed with hidden goodies like treasure maps, GPS caches, and journals, as well as boxes full of experience points or salvage. Collecting enough experience nets you a Skill Point that you can put towards survival or combat abilities; salvage is the currency you use to purchase upgrades for your bow, axe, pistol, rifle and shotgun. The progression of skills is relatively simple and slow-paced – you can’t suddenly do bullet time backflips and take out an entire army of enemies, or anything – but the simplified evolution of abilities works well with the stripped down nature of the game.
Even the tombs themselves have been simplified. They’re not big huge sprawling things filled with massive statues, hidden switches and deadly traps. They’re petite puzzle rooms with a very simple goal: Figure out how to get from the entrance to the treasure box using ordinary objects like gas cans, buoys, and cargo haulers. If you find yourself stumped, Lara’s Survivor Instinct ability help highlight items of interest in the room, and occasionally Lara herself will mutter a hint. It’s a great compromise, offering a helpful nudge to those who want it without forcing it on those who don’t.
Whatever the setting, however well-designed the tombs, however precise the controls, Tomb Raider wouldn’t work if you didn’t care about Lara. And at first, you don’t. When the game begins, she’s a bit of a killjoy, so obsessed with her work that she almost forgets how to deal with actual people. But once things get grim and she’s forced to face the fact that help isn’t coming, her humanity is touching to see. We see her in a way we never have before – vulnerable and real. Other Tomb Raider titles have focused on bits and pieces of Lara’s personal history, but she’s never been so truly human as she is in this latest incarnation. Her journey to get off the island is a fun adventure, but her emotional journey from student to survivor is what makes this Lara so appealing.
Bottom Line: This is the Tomb Raider you’ve wanted for years. It needs a few more puzzles, but that’s a small gripe when cast against such a marvelous adventure.
Recommendation: Whether you’re a longtime fan or have yet to join Team Croft makes no difference. Join the adventure as soon as you can.[rating=5]
Note: We were unable to try the multiplayer before this review was published.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.