Tomb Raider plays like the bastard child of Far Cry 3 and the Uncharted series, two games that unashamedly drew some of their own DNA from the amber of Lara Croft’s earliest adventures. This revised take on the nimble treasure hunter’s establishing story may lack the originality of her prototypical outings, but the technical excellence of Crystal Dynamics’ efforts is impossible to deny. For anything else you might say about the game, Tomb Raider is one of the most expertly crafted and finely tuned interactive experiences of this generation.
You’re A Croft
Tomb Raider wastes little time before plunging players into deadly situations, opening with a montage depicting a series of events that ends with Lara shipwrecked on an uncharted jungle island. She’s alone. She’s exhausted. A tragically positioned bit of rebar pokes a hole straight through her midsection. With no food, no supplies, no friends to help her, and a serious injury to contend with, Lara’s instincts take over.
It’s a stumbling series of first steps for the untested adventurer, a fiery trial that forces Lara to quickly develop her latent talent for surviving in impossible situations. Success is all but assured – she’s a Croft, a key character later reminds her – but only after some brutal lessons have been imparted. The early progression isn’t so different from Jason Brody’s own Rook Islands nightmare in Far Cry 3, though Lara’s journey feels more grounded. It’s not long before this woman who has never before taken a life starts mowing down baddies by the dozens, but the unfolding story never lets players forget the desperate circumstances driving this situation.
You pick up on what brought Lara to the stormy waters of the Dragon’s Triangle in the first place gradually, via cutscenes played on the screen of a small, handheld camcorder recovered early on in the adventure. The young explorer set out to establish herself in the world, signing on with a small research team focused on uncovering history and artifacts related to an ancient Japanese shaman queen. It was Lara who convinced her shipmates to deviate from the trail followed by previous researchers, a course that led the team directly into the Dragon’s Triangle, and disaster.
The opening hours of Tomb Raider establish the constant life-or-death struggle that this survival situation unfolds in. Attending to basic needs such as food and shelter quickly become secondary concerns as an unfriendly tribe of island-dwelling scavengers turns up to threaten the safety of Lara and her reunited friends. The “natives” are shipwreck survivors as well, trapped on the island by the unusual properties of the Dragon’s Triangle. They eke out an existence by preying on subsequent victims of the ocean region’s dangerous weather patterns; Lara and her people are the focus of their latest hunt.
Tomb Raider is structured around a series of freely explorable, interconnected hubs that are teeming with wildlife to hunt, collectibles to gather, and critical path mission threads to tug at. Fast travel between discovered base camps is possible, and tools picked up later in the game make for fruitful return trips as Lara’s pool of traversal options deepens. Unfriendly scavengers pop up frequently as well, providing a regular diet of shooty shooty action that leans heavily on the game’s exceptionally well-executed combat mechanics.
Lara isn’t an ace shot; there’s a certain amount of unsteadiness to both her handling of firearms and to the weapons themselves. This improves over time as you spend XP-unlocked skill points on improved abilities and scavenged materials on upgraded weapon parts. The tightly drawn in camera brings a sense of immediacy, and occasionally desperation as sustained damage paints the screen red, to every combat encounter. The challenge level ramps up nicely too, with the scavenger tribe trotting out an increasingly varied array of foes to challenge Lara as she progresses.
Traversing the island environments is a joyful experience as well, especially as additional mobility options come into play. The dev team deserves big credit for the pacing here, with new tools and toys unlocking regularly as you proceed through the story. Each new piece of gear typically requires some small amount of backtracking as Lara returns to previously inaccessible locations, though there’s value as well in revisiting older hubs to snatch up missed collectibles and resources.
The bulk of the game’s 20+ hours is devoted to traversal challenges and combat, though the series’ penchant for puzzles remains as true today as it was 10 years ago. The main story path does an excellent job of weaving in believable and increasingly challenging puzzles, many of which require clever use of your full toolset. There are also discrete challenge tombs scattered all around the island that provide more series-traditional puzzle solving, along with some of the titular tomb raiding.
Wrapping around all of this is a stunningly excellent presentation. From the gorgeous island vistas to the stylized QTE button prompts, Tomb Raider‘s artistic execution never disappoints. Even Lara herself is a delight to watch, with impressively lifelike animations that respond intelligently to context. Whether she’s clutching at her injured side and hobbling slightly after a painful fall, crouching down behind cover as she reaches a hand out to maintain balance, or slipping between a tightly packed network of steaming hot water pipes, the illusion never wavers.
Criticizing this rebooted Tomb Raider is not so much a matter of pointing out flaws and shortcomings as it about finding what could have been done better. Skipping an on-screen minimap makes sense from the perspective of creating a more realistic and immersive game – it isn’t like Lara is carting around a handheld radar – but the Survival Instinct overlay that points out the general direction you should be moving in is a sometimes-poor substitute. It’s easy to lose track of where you are and where you’re headed in the elaborate island surroundings, and Survival Instinct doesn’t always paint the clearest path.
It’s also somewhat disappointing to see action taking precedence over puzzle-solving for much of the adventure. It’s the direction that the Tomb Raider series has been moving in for some time, and while this reboot’s puzzles are all well-designed and cleverly woven into the context of the story, it would have been nice to see more of them. That said, it’s hard to build an argument in favor of stripping down the combat when it’s so much fun to play with in the game’s open, multi-path environments.
Survivors Vs. Scavengers
Crystal Dynamics adds an adversarial multiplayer mode to Tomb Raider for the first time in the series’ history. This 2-8 player versus mode spans four different match types, with standards like Free-For-All and Team Deathmatch joined by two Raider-specific options. Rescue tasks survivors with finding medical supplies and carrying the cases back to a base location while scavengers work to stop them. Cry For Help sees survivors fighting to activate a series of radio transmitters, while preventing scavengers from collecting batteries dropped by their downed teammates.
It’s not the modes that make Tomb Raider‘s multiplayer stand out; it’s the commitment to carrying over the key elements from the single-player portion of the game. In addition to both teams being equipped with basic traversal tools, you’ve also got complex environments that place a heavy emphasis on verticality. Each location is littered with traps that anyone can set, ranging from progress-slowing rope nooses to lightning rods that bring down the thunder, literally. Strategically placed exploding barrels can be used to wreak havoc on the environment while simultaneously creating new paths to travel or destroying ones that had been there before.
Holding everything together is a progression system that rewards players with new unlocks – from purely cosmetic character models, to weapons and upgrades, to perk-like Offensive and Survival skills – as they rise through the ranks. XP rewards are doled out generously, with big boosts coming from success and failure alike. Finishing a match on the losing team, for example, carries a 1,500 XP bonus, while being killed by a trap or becoming a favorite target for one player on the opposing team brings smaller yet equally valuable bonus rewards. High level players get access to the best gear, but Tomb Raider‘s multiplayer smartly keeps the rewards coming in steadily for the losers as well.
Tomb Raider is living proof that reboots don’t have to be terrible. The team at Crystal Dynamics has been sharpening its skills on the series for most of the past decade, and the extended break between this reboot and its 2008 predecessor created the breathing room necessary to deliver something truly special. This is the rare early-year release that is even now all but guaranteed a place of honor in year-end round-ups. It’s an exceptional game from a talented team of developers, delivering quality play that should appeal to longtime fans and series newcomers alike.
Score 9.5 out of 10
(Tomb Raider was reviewed using an Xbox 360 version of the game that was provided by publisher Square Enix.)