Lara Croft and I have a long, ongoing relationship. I still remember the day we met. She was a polygonal mess on the original PlayStation back in 1996, and I was a young, hungry gamer in my prime. We raided tombs together, I accidentally impaled her on spikes and we took impossible to survive swan dives off of absurdly high cliffs. It was a simpler time, and I loved it (even taking into account the tank controls). Games have grown up, and so has Lara. Crystal Dynamics has taken the franchise in an exciting new direction, and the end results left me convinced that the series has, in fact, returned.
You can always tell a series has been rebooted when the numbers and subtitles disappear. Crystal Dynamics latest entry is simply called Tomb Raider, placing a very young Lara Croft in the spotlight. This is not the seasoned veteran with short-shorts and dual pistols. This is a fragile girl on her first big adventure. In the introduction, she makes a decision to head into the dangerous waters known as the Dragon’s Triangle, and her entire crew is shipwrecked on an island, fighting for their very survival.
Tomb Raider twists and turns through its narrative with an array of emotions. Lara starts off soft and caring—even apologetic—to enemies and animals when she first kills them. Over time though, she hardens and becomes more comfortable with what she has to do. This is where I felt things become disconnected. Lara never enjoys the mass murder she is committing, in fact she still acts hesitant until the end, but it never stops her from mowing down entire camps of enemies. It is a weird dichotomy that I only overcame by suspending my disbelief.
Outside of that, the story is told exceptionally well. I actually cared what happened to Lara, and her journey became my own. I felt that her growth over the course of the game was well told, though I wish the same narrative care were extended to the other characters. The central villain started off well, but was never fleshed out, and Lara’s crew was forgettable outside of Jonah, the ship’s cook, who I couldn’t help but really like.
What makes Tomb Raider so special is that it nails the most important part of gaming, the actual gameplay. Everything feels exactly the way it should. The combat is pure bliss; better than almost any other third-person shooter on the market. The platforming feels great, and I never had trouble traversing across chasms or up the side of cliffs. The controls simply fall into place on every level. It is worth noting that I played the entire game with an Xbox 360 controller on my PC, and it was flawless. Crystal Dynamics has fine-tuned every aspect of the game to feel just right, and their work has paid off.
The mixture of combat, platforming and puzzle solving has definitely shifted for this entry in the series. In previous installments, it was always more about exploration and platforming, but now the combat takes the driver’s seat. It is a bit disappointing that there aren’t more sequences of actual “tomb raiding”, but since the combat is so satisfying, it is hard to complain about it.
Aside from the combat, Lara has quite a few tricks up her sleeve. The bow and arrow are used to kill animals and defend against enemies. Outside of the tutorial, I found little use for hunting animals besides harvesting salvage and XP. Lara has a “survival instinct” enabled by tapping the left bumper to turn the screen monochrome, while also highlighting enemies, animals and items in the environment. It’s similar in application to Batman’s “detective vision.” Once upgraded, this makes finding collectibles almost too easy, removing some of the fun of stumbling across them.
What I did love was the Metroid-style progression the game delivers. Progression through the story unlocks additional gear that opens up new ways to explore the environment. For example, the rope arrow is used on specific wooden posts, creating pathways across chasms and into new areas. This continues throughout the duration of the game, and constantly drove my sense of exploration and excitement for new equipment.
Lara also now levels with a traditional XP and skill point system. Skill points can be used to purchase new abilities in three areas. The first is survival, and consists of letting you earn more XP and salvage from enemies and animals, as well as being able to see items using your survival vision. The second set of upgrades involves things like increased ammunition carrying capacity, while the last one focuses on combat and finishing moves. There are some truly brutal finishers Lara can execute. This isn’t your father’s Tomb Raider. You will also find weapon parts littered about that are used to upgrade weapons from standard killing machines, to more efficient ones. This also unlocks new upgrades that can be purchased with salvage.
The main game is a solid eight to ten hours if you skip out on a large portion of the collectibles, but there is certainly plenty that kept me coming back. The amount of collectibles in the game borders on excessive. Each area has a specific challenge like lighting statues or burning posters, and completion translates into XP. There are also GPS stashes, documents that detail the island’s history and, of course, relics. There are also short, non-combat tombs to complete that unlock treasure maps, which reveal all the collectibles in that area. Finding all of the hidden items adds another five to seven hours to the experience.
Tomb Raider is one of those games that I couldn’t help but enjoy. It does so much so well, that I found myself completely immersed. It is only when I stepped back and looked at it from a logical standpoint that the cracks began to show. As I mentioned, the excessive killing feels contradictory to the Lara’s character. She frequently expresses remorse, even after slamming her pickaxe into an aggressor’s skull. The game is also linear, despite Crystal Dynamics’ efforts to evoke the feeling of open-world design. Again, these are issues I never noticed while playing, and even now they don’t diminish my desire to jump right back in to collect the rest of the goodies and max out Lara’s skills.
A lot has been said about the fact that this Tomb Raider comes packaged with an online multiplayer mode, which is a first for the series. I want to stress that even if you never touch it, the game is still worth owning. The competitive modes are merely serviceable. There are traditional loadouts and perks like any other third-person online offering. The selection of maps is decent, and the fantastic shooting from the single player carries over. I just don’t see myself ever playing this online again. It just doesn’t have any hooks that make me want to dive back in. There are a few cool things carried over from single player that make it somewhat unique, but for the most part it is indistinguishable in the sea of multiplayer offerings.
We reviewed Tomb Raider on PC, and the visuals are undeniably impressive. You can check out the specs of the PC I ran it on in the tab above, but let’s start with the basics. I ran the game on Ultimate settings at first and ran into some issues. Apparently, there is a glitch with NVIDIA cards that causes crashes with tessellation turned on. Once I shut it off, things ran as smooth as silk. The game looks fabulous running on high settings. The textures on the characters look amazing, and the frame rate is rock solid nearly all the time. The new TressFX that creates realistic hair is cool to look at, but it created some truly awkward looks on Lara from time to time.
This is certainly one amazing looking game, but it also sounds great. The score is brilliant, delivering that big-budget orchestral sound that accompanies a lot of Hollywood movies. Camilla Luddington does an outstanding job voicing Lara, and the rest of the cast compliments her extremely well. The effects are also top-notch when listened to through a solid setup.
Tomb Raider is an exceptionally well-made game that delivers yet another rebirth of a beloved series this year. It is always exciting to see old franchises that feel new again, and Crystal Dynamics has truly made Lara and her adventures their own. I am excited to see where they go from here, and hope they flesh out the survival aspect a bit more in the sequel. I would also love to see them bring back more of the unique puzzle designs featured in past games, but as a starting point, Tomb Raider is easily one of my favorite games of the year so far, and one I think deserves to be experienced by everyone. If you have a love for the series or third-person adventure games, this is a must play. Lara is back and better than ever.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on PC.
- Motherboard: ASUS P8Z77I Deluxe
- Liquid Cooling: Origin Frostbyte 120 Liquid Cooling
- Processor: Intel i7 3770K with Professional Origin PC Overclocking
- Memory: Corsair 8GB 1600 Mghz Vengeance
- Graphics Card: EVGA NVIDIA GeForce GTX 670