Reviewed by: Jamaal Ryan
Big boobs and an impossible figure don't make great games, they make great porn. We've reached an age where such chauvinistic character marketing is no longer needed, which allows us to have a younger, more physically and emotionally relatable Lara Croft. Enter our 21 year old. She weeps, gets beaten, gets soaked in muck and corpses, and she's in pain. Crystal Dynamics has rewritten the confident seductive caricature theme into a form of an origin story. But it's the trials and tribulations that she goes through, and how we push her through it which amazes.
Croft has always been a historical explorer, a raider of tombs of you will. But the Lara that we're introduced to is a survivor, and Tomb Raider pounds that description into every facet of the game.
It begins this by insuring to abolish any fantasy one may have about weathering Mother Nature alone on a desolate island. The appropriate setting is wet, occasionally cold with reactively convincing foliage and stone formations often occupying space, leaving little room left for anyone not fit to survive. It’s a display of thorny beauty, with an immense amount of detail rising above its dullish color scheme. Even in some of its more delightful locals such as shipwrecked beaches and snow bleached mountains, there's a consistent rugged edge that exhumes hostility.
This rough and tumble is both inflicted on and demonstrated by Lara. Her wilderness skills justify her progression, even though they’re largely meaningless to gameplay (I’m looking at you felled deer). Much like Rocksteady's Batman, her appearance transforms. She begins as just a freshly injured stranded ship passenger. Over time, these scars harden as she accumulates one after the other. The visceral injuries she sustains are brutal and never-ending, yet her struggle is believable despite her impossible video game stamina.
This development is independent of the story, which can be an offender of rushing to its point without expositional build up. Booting up the game will present you with an opening cinematic worth just as much as a sizzle reel; things go to hell really fast. This is what Lara looks like, then your boat gets fucked, now you're stranded. It begins to dabble in the idea flashbacks, lending us a perspective of a more peaceful life, and journals make an attempt to fill in character gaps. But it’s merely an experiment, soon to be abandoned. The lore that exists outside of this desperate predicament is numbingly detached from what unfolds on the island.
The same goes for Lara's behavioral transformation. One second she's struggling with an emotional breakdown after her first gruesome kill, the next she's masterfully assassinating enemies like a navy seal. I find little wrong with this, as a flight response in this situation is hardly an option. Lara is forced to fight, and that's a powerful message. But the utterly disgusted Lara we see only seconds prior shouldn't just be replaced with a trained killer unless she's some sort of sociopath. If Lara was given a more significant moment to process the trauma she's been through -- more so than the fireside monologues -- even after killing multiple squads of men, as a character, she would have been more believable.
Tomb Raider does an impeccable job of defining Lara as a developing survivor. Camilla Luddington channels her desperation, her aggressive battle sass, and her stubborn will very well (though at no fault of the actress, I can't get over her lifeless eyes). But Crystal Dynamics tries a little too hard by juxtaposing her with her fellow crew. It's painfully clear that the intent is to paint Lara as the practical, passionate, and methodically thought survivor, leaving the rest playing as little more than a bunch of Dragon Ball Z backup singers, hitting their notes to solely elevate her lead. Nonetheless, the story does a fine job in at least illustrating the meaning of the effortless skill set we've come to know, right down to the game’s final act.
Tomb Raider is familiar by design, combining the layered retract-ability of the Arkham franchise, and the acute combat and acrobatic scaling of Uncharted. The island itself isn't fully traversable, as each section of the area is linked by linear and impressive Uncharted-set-piece like transitions that have you tumble from a concentrated test of reflexes to an elaborate trail of observation. Within each quick-travel accessible space lie secrets, upgrading and just-for-fun collectibles, and optional tombs, all which can be accessed by Lara's acquired equipment once revisited. Any Metroid and/or Zelda comparison would be appropriate here.
Kudos to the development team in introducing new equipment and environment ready weapon augments in a grounded fashion. Each new ability awarded took me by surprise, making me more excited to explore with more of a "Huh, this can be useful" introduction instead of leaning towards a gamey glowing item sitting on an alter.
As for the optional tombs, the titular chambers aren't part of the main quest and will have to be uncovered on your own time. Each tomb is self-contained puzzles, mixing physics and timing in a creative yet practical way. You'll be greatly rewarded for your raiding, acquiring a lump sum of additional gear currency and experience points to harden our survivor.
Raid (Image source: digitalhippos.com)
While Lara may feel acceptably sluggish while exploring, she’s an animal in battle. Fire fights feel chunky and frequently smart, with the heavy clack-chack of every bullet fired from the little Croft tossing and punching large frumpy men with violent response animations, and the rewarding use of the numerous combustibles littered within your surroundings. Lara can also position herself very rapidly, moving from cover to cover, and closing the gap for gruesomely fantastic executions.
The combat maintains a healthy juggle, making meaningful use of Lara's few but essential weapons. Pull off soundless kills with the bow, handle enemies at medium to long distances with the rifle, and keep rushers at bay with the shotgun. This may all sound like gunplay fundamentals, but among many shooters where different weapons classes are often interchangeable, Tomb Raider encourages you to use the right firearm for the correct situation. Just like the Arkham games, selected weapons have dual usage in and out of battle, and their Swiss-army characteristics make up for the fact that only four exist in the entire game. With all of Lara's maxed out weapon modifications, one of its final fights is Tomb Raider's best showcase of combat.
Come at me!
Then there's that thing you do with other people over an internet connection. Now I'm not one to complain about menu design, but online character and loadout selection screens look laughably silly, with main story characters fixed in goofy action figure poses like they're placed in a Hasbro toy commercial and large displayed custom options that do nothing to entice further invested play. Playing the game itself, however, is near nauseating.
Beware of painful eye rolling. (Image source: edgecastcdn.net)
Your avatar's mobility is painfully robotic, with maneuvers that hold near meaningless purpose that beyond of jugging. You know that your mechanics are busted if you have to resort to jumping as means of evasion. Tomb Raider's campaign utilized an automated cover system which was odd, but easily overlooked. Clearly the issue that could impose in competitive play wasn't a priority. Running around in third person without a snap-to cover system turns firefights into a muddled mess at times. Let’s not forget that close range combat is about as tactful as flailing your arms in self-defense. Maps are an utter showcase of offensive design, with some thoughtless traversal options and a painfully obvious "My team spawns here" build.
The multiplayer component screams, "We had to put SOMETHING here"; an unwilling effort that shows. You'll be struck by poor presentation and baron play options; hell, I couldn't even believe it when I picked up a 60 lbs. minigun, I wielded it at no expense of my movement speed. This was clearly a rushed project, with many unfulfilled ideas. Only usage of the bow and arrow feels smart, offering a change of pace beyond the gross gameplay. It's a shame that Crystal Dynamics and/or (but likely was) Square felt the need that this was necessary.
Tomb Raider feels relevant again, which is something that Crystal Dynamics has tried for years. It’s adopted some of the finest game design fundamentals that buoy its modern presence that make it familiar and right for today’s gamers. Tomb Raider’s story arch won’t likely impress you, but its survivalist nature is a captivating test of Lara’s endurance that holds firmly onto your attention. Don’t bother fucking with the multiplayer, it’ll only smear the image of one of the most beautiful and badass heroines in past and present gaming.
+ Believable albeit unrealistic depiction of survival
+ Excellent gunplay design
+ Always-favorite Metriodian exploration
- Lackluster character and plot script
- As I said, don't even bother with the multiplayer