Sometimes less can be more. Over the years we’ve come to know Lara Croft as one of the biggest icons in gaming (in more ways than one). Her games have stretched far and wide, explored places many people believed were myths and like the James Bond series, they were filled with endless streams of guns and over the top gadgets. However we never really knew the real Lara Croft, yes we knew a little about her past but how did she get to the confident, strong and resilient woman we see today? Well Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics have stripped away all the gadgets, all the glamour and left us with Lara’s fight for survival, how she transformed from a small frightened girl to a strong confident woman. And in the process created one of the best games available this generation.
This latest installment in the series sees a young Lara on her first expedition as she sets out to find and explore the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamati. After being shipwrecked and marooned on the island Lara soon realises that she’s all alone and will have to use all her survival training and intelligence if she is to survive and get back to civilization. Whilst also trying to figure out the mystery of the legendary shaman queen Himiko, called the ‘Sun Queen’ who is said to hold mysterious powers.
Tomb Raider’s story is certainly its stand out attraction. Lara is so beautifully narrated and explored that every little set back is easily felt. You’ll grow an emotional attachment to her that many games fail to achieve and what’s more you’ll actually want to stay up into the early hours of the morning just to see what happens next. Lara is portrayed here in a way we’ve never seen her before. Whether she is shivering and humped next to a camp fire or brutally killing her adversaries, it’s a view of Lara that the series desperately needed. Every dialogue set piece between characters and each area in the game warrants its inclusion. The game is not the longest on the market and it certainly doesn’t need to be. The ten hours or so it took to complete was the perfect amount. It was enthralling, highly entertaining and downright emotional at times.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the resemblance to Sony’s Uncharted series. Who copied who is an argument that rages even today and whilst both have similarities in the way they play, feel, and look they are actually pretty different. The Uncharted series is filled with extreme over the top action sequences and is brilliant at what it does whilst Tomb Raider plays at a more leisurely pace. The emphasis here is really about exploration and survival. You’ll earn XP points for hunting different animals and a lot more experience for carefully taking down enemies, instead of turning tombs into battlefields. That isn’t to say Tomb Raider is not an action packed ride, because at times you’ll find yourself falling out of airplanes, running over collapsing bridges and escaping from burning temples.
Tomb Raider is also far more accessible than the Uncharted series ever was. The Uncharted series was very narrow and linear allowing you to pick up treasure on the main path and didn’t really let you explore anything off the narrated track. Here you’re able to explore and find as much as you wish. Climb snow peaked mountains to find relics or tackle a number of secret tombs, each rewarding you with a hefty XP bonus. The locations in the game are pretty large and they provide you with the freedom to explore and progress in whatever way you want. Although it has to be noted that your choice of how you navigate the island isn’t as open as the likes of Assassin’s Creed 3. Lara does at times feel rigid and certain jumps or wall climbs don’t always feel natural.
If there was one thing that Tomb Raider disappoints on, it is the number of challenging puzzles. Puzzles are present in the game but they’re about as difficult as peeling a banana. For a series which has provided some of the most difficult puzzles in the past it’s a shame to see such as lack of originality here. It’s no surprise however that the game puts Lara’s story above all else. It’s designed so that you’ll concentrate on the story first and the game mechanics and puzzles second.
Weapons can be upgraded by collecting XP and also by looting and scavenging tombs and other hidden locations. Upgrading your equipment takes time and you’ll need to explore every nook, tomb and cranny on the island to find everything. Thankfully Lara has a survival mode which when pressed allows you to see where to go and also displays any collectables on the map. This makes finding everything fun rather than a chore. Along with collectables you’ll also be able to complete challenges as you explore each areas such as finding ten of something or lighting a number of statues. Each challenge will reward you with a hefty amount of XP and will require all of your exploration skills to complete. Some collectables will require you to fast travel back to previous location with new weapons in order to complete, although fast travel is easy and can be done throughout the game or after in a free roam mode.
Sadly the choice of weapons is pretty low and for the most part you’ll seldom use anything but the bow. The bow is faster, more accurate and allows you to take down enemies with stealth. Something that the rifle, shotgun and pistol don’t, and difficulty levels hardly change the difficulty of the game. Even on the harder difficulties Lara feels like a powerhouse, although given that this game is supposed to be Lara’s first step on the road to where she is today it’s hardly surprising to see her tackle numerous enemies with ease.
Tomb Raider is also one hell of a pretty game, while the locations aren’t that varied the game has its moments. Lush deep forests lead into underground blood rivers . The games artists must have been watching the film Descent while developing this as the underground blood rivers have more than resemblance to those used in that film. You’ll also be able to explore snow topped mountains and also derelict ships. Take a dip in a river or explore beautiful Japanese tombs and shantytowns. Character models also look spectacular, Lara in particular is impressive. As the game goes on her clothes become torn and her skin shows all the cuts and bruises collected throughout her journey. Every agonising moment is perfectly etched on her face with pure emotion. And if that’s not all Lara’s hair is some of the best visuals to date. Overall while not as colourful and varied as Uncharted’s scope and design, Tomb Raider in its own way is extremely impressive in what it does.
Along with the superb visuals the sound effects in here are amazing. Birds tweet from the trees, wolves howl and the lighting storms all help to produce the scary and claustrophobic atmosphere that is constantly surrounding the island. Every gunshot sounds beautifully accurate and provides you with a perfect feeling of power; honestly every gunshot echoes through the dense forests and rebounds of the high cliffs. It wouldn’t be a overstatement to say Tomb Raider has some of the best sound effects ever produced in a video game.
Tomb Raider also contains a rather engrossing multiplayer mode. With the traditional game modes of other third person action adventure titles, the multiplayer modes also use the unique gameplay mechanics found in the single player to enhance the experience. Set in two teams over five different maps you’ll be able to shoot players off zip-lines or set traps for them depending on the map you’re playing on. There is so much to unlock. Different characters and skins, load outs and much much more. Multiplayer modes can for some games feel like an add on but here you’ll easily indulge twenty to thirty hours into it in order to experience everything. Add this to the single player game and you’ll get a decent amount of game for your money.
It’s not often you’ll play a game and feel in awe at what the developers have produced, but with Tomb Raider Crystal Dynamics and Square have created a masterpiece. Lara has been stripped back and feels completely vulnerable. Every bruise, every black eye will leave you wanting to throw your arm over her and comfort her. You’ll naturally become emotionally attached to the young Lara and share in her pain. The story is beautifully created, the setting is excellently crafted and the visuals are drop dead gorgeous. Tomb Raider not only provides the trusted series with the reboot it truly deserves, but also shows just how good games can actually be.