Review: Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider’s 2013 reboot from Crystal Dynamics comes with a lot of expectations up front. Lara Croft and Tomb Raider have been a huge part of gaming and pop culture since the first game was released in 1996. The original series spans a total of nine(!) games including the Anniversary remake, all of which stick to a fairly standard formula: rich, buxom Croft runs around underdressed in ancient tombs, shooting things and solving puzzles.
That formula combined with total media saturation in the late 90s and early ‘aughts meant that Tomb Raider slowly but surely slid into the realm of disappointing sales and irrelevance. If any game franchise was due for a complete overhaul, Tomb Raider is it. Gritty reboots are fashionable these days, but does that mean you should give Tomb Raider the time of day?
Right out of the gate, Tomb Raider impresses with its storytelling. PR blunders aside, the opening hours of the game are an intense, harrowing and absolutely stunning ride. Lara survives a shipwreck only to get separated from her crew-mates by mysterious men who kidnap and try to kill her. The pacing throughout Lara’s heart-pounding escape and fight for survival is pitch-perfect. Once Lara becomes more accustomed to her surroundings, the game opens up and settles into a groove.
At its heart, Tomb Raider tells the story of Lara’s growth from an insecure, inexperienced young archaeologist to a brave, formidable adventurer. Violence and the threat of death are an important part of her trial by fire. Although the violence is oftentimes gruesome, it doesn’t feel gratuitous; the first time Lara kills a man, the camera doesn’t shy away from the bloody results, but it’s because Lara is feeling every bit of what she’s done. Even when Lara was pitched against dozens of enemies late in the game, I never got the impression that she took pleasure in killing.
If you’ve played the Uncharted series, Tomb Raider will definitely scratch that itch. It’s clear that the classic Tomb Raider games influenced Uncharted, so it’s only natural that a modern Tomb Raider builds on the same gameplay style. Most of your time in the game is spent platforming, exploring forests, cliffs and bunkers and fighting the cultists who inhabit the island. Tombs are still present, but instead of huge, complicated rooms with dozens of moving parts, each tomb is an optional puzzle, usually with a single mechanical obstacle.
The best part of Tomb Raider’s gameplay is that no one aspect overstays its welcome. Stealth is required when your arsenal is limited or when you have to approach groups of soldiers, but the game doesn’t punish you too harshly for failing to sneak properly. Tombs are short but never frustrating. Enemy battles can be challenging, but I never felt like I was pitted against armies of invincible soldiers like I sometimes did in Uncharted. The bow is a fun, satisfying weapon that I used throughout, occasionally even when I had more powerful weapons available.
Tomb Raider is absolutely a game to play on the PC, especially if you have a system that supports running it with the settings cranked to ultimate. The hair effects are definitely impressive, but more impressive is the stunningly detailed, gorgeous world of the island. Previous Tomb Raider games, even the more modern entries of the series, felt cartoony and unrealistic. Here we get a more realistically proportioned Lara Croft on an island that also feels far more real.
The island is full of collectible relics and journals, but unlike other games where tracking down random items feels like arbitrary achievement-hunting, the items you find fill in little details of the world around you. Every document is read aloud, and the texts deepen the game’s backstory and characterizations. As soon as I was given the chance to go exploring, I started hunting out hidden tombs and other secrets.
Even if Tomb Raider occasionally reminded me of Uncharted, I’d argue that it is deeper and more consistently written than the Nathan Drake games. The gameplay is fun, and I highly enjoyed exploring the world. As soon as I finished the game, I started looking forward to the inevitable sequel. My only real disappointment is that the developers have no current plans for single-player DLC. I would buy more tombs to raid in a heartbeat.
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