Early on in the game, Conrad Roth, the captain of Lara’s shipwrecked expedition remarks how hard it must have been for her to take a life. To which Lara said, “It’s scary how simple it was”.
It is an attempt to address the dichotomy most action-adventure video games face, especially when they invest a lot of time in building deep, multi-faceted characters. How does one inject humanity into a character who must single-handedly and often brutally murder scores of people through his or her journey?
It’s a question that will nag some players on many occasions through the game, but that’s just one way to look at it. The other facet, which Crystal Dynamics has pushed through quite remarkably, both through narrative and gameplay, is survival. What does it take to survive? What does one gain and lose for it? By the end of the journey, the game does a great job at building up Lara Croft as the hero we have known and grown up with.
The game does a great job at building up Lara Croft as the hero we have known and grown up with.
You start off on an expedition in search the lost kingdom of Yamatai, which was ruled by an enigmatic and powerful queen named Himiko. Things quickly go south for Lara’s crew when they find themselves shipwrecked on a mysterious island, with the crazy cultists who inhabit it baying for their blood. The circumstances force a reluctant Lara Croft to explore and uncover the island’s many secrets in order to save her crew members and find a way to escape the Island.
The progression of Lara Croft from an unsure, unwilling and scared victim to a courageous survivor has been handled particularly well. For most of the initial third of the game, Lara finds herself barely surviving one incident after the other, and is often reduced to tears and despair at their conclusion. However, as she discovers better tools and more of the island’s secrets, she starts showing glimpses of the Lara we have known for years. You see shades of quiet determination and resilience as she gets ready for the next battle.
This is largely due to the excellent and engaging story that Crystal Dynamics has conceived for the game. The other hero of the game is the Island itself. Immersed in rich history, you discover various stories spanning from the time when Yamatai was at its peak of civilisation, to the horrible downfall of the kingdom that brought about an ancient curse, to the attempts of various factions to uncover and harness the Island’s secrets during World War II.
The confidence of Crystal Dynamics in its core platforming is most evident when they build explosive set pieces around it.
The other characters in the story, while not as carefully handled as Lara, still hold up their threads in the narrative adequately. Their lack of depth is hardly a concern in the face of some impressive action, brilliant set pieces and the visual treat that the game is. From underground tombs to ancient caves to the tropical forest and the shantytown that serves as the cultist base, the game benefits from outstanding art direction and incredible detailing in the each of its environments.
The previous Tomb Raider games, especially the ones by Core Design, were often criticised for poor execution of gameplay elements. With Crystal Dynamics at the helm, most of these concerns were alleviated, but the series has never played as well as it does with this game. As you jump, climb and grapple across increasingly trickier platforming segments, you will never think twice before making the next leap. The confidence of Crystal Dynamics in its core platforming is most evident when they build explosive set pieces around it, such as a memorable escape from a burning building in the middle of the game and the stunning ascent towards the finale of the game.
The combat does not lag behind either. The level design in the game gives the players the freedom to approach any situation how they see fit, rather than forcing any one style upon them. Your bow is the weapon for stealth, and you are free to quietly and silently hunt down your enemies one by one, blast your way across using the three guns at your disposal, or in some cases, even sneak past without inviting any trouble. The enemies, for their part, do their best to make things difficult for you. The AI is aggressive and brutal, making smart use of cover, while never allowing you to settle in one place by constantly charging you or making use of fire arrows and explosives, ensuring that each encounter is an intense affair.
The level design gives the players the freedom to approach any situation how they see fit.
My only complaint with the combat is the inclusion of regenerative health, which takes some challenge out of the proceedings. Given the emphasis on the theme of survival in the game, it would have been nice to see the added tension of ensuring that Lara does not run out of health. This, however, is only a minor issue, as many battles are extremely challenging and fierce where even regenerative health won’t help if the situation is not handled well.
You earn experience points and salvage by progressing through the game, collecting various objects such as the numerous artefacts and documents scattered over the Island. Using these resources, you can expand Lara’s repertoire of moves, as well as upgrade weapons to make them even more deadly. The bow, for example, can become quite a formidable weapon once you collect all its parts and upgrade it to use fire arrows, explosive arrows and armour piercing arrows.
The game also features optional tombs, which require you to solve an environmental puzzle to reach the treasure that the tomb houses. These puzzles are never overbearing or frustrating, but challenging and engaging enough to make you seek them out at every opportunity. They also never feature any combat, and are reminiscent of the quiet moments of exploration that is the hallmark of the series.
The one place where the game does falter, however, is in its inclusion of multiplayer. In stark contrast to the single player, the multiplayer component of the game, which pits the survivors against the cultist across four game modes, is never quite as engaging. It comes with all the features such as level progression, multiple loadouts, and perks, but plays out mostly the way things do in the Uncharted series, and doesn’t bring anything new to hold players to it for a long time.
Tomb Raider is not just the reimagining of Lara Croft, but also the series as a whole. This is Tomb Raider like you have never seen before – confident and bold and capable of holding its head high among the best of the genre. From moments of acute helplessness of a young Lara Croft, to glorious vistas and buried secrets, to the most breathtaking action set pieces, this is Tomb Raider how it should be. How it should always have been.