Tomb Raider from Crystal Dynamics is the long awaited reboot of one of the most enduring icons in modern gaming. Things have moved on a lot in the gaming world since 1996 when Lara Croft first introduced herself to the gaming community with a combination of puzzle solving, gunplay, platforming and the occasional T-Rex.
A lengthy hands on prologue plays out showing how the young Lara’s ship becomes wrecked upon the strange island of Yamatai and a scared Lara has to fend for herself and try to find her shipmates.
The emphasis this time around is to show what happened to turn Lara Croft into a hardened adventurer that takes everything in her stride and fears nothing. There’s a profound added sense of realism which really helps sell this idea. The Lara Croft here isn’t some fearless Indiana Jones type but rather a young woman from a monied family with an interest in archaeology, a high level of fitness and a sense of adventure.
Rhianna Pratchett’s writing really helps sell the character of Lara and makes her completely believeable as a real person, this impressive multi-layered writing is aided by a real emphasis on a grounding in reality and some excellent voice work from Camilla Luddington (who also provided motion capture for Lara’s movements as well), not since T.C. Carson’s portrayal of Kratos has a voice matched a character so well.
Surrogate father figure Roth is another main character and the two communicate via radio early on and it’s Roth’s ressurance in Lara’s ability that spurs her on at the beginning and when the two finally meet up again the relief that Lara feels is tangible but this is rapidly followed by the realisation that Roth is injured and isn’t going to be taking charge so things are up to Lara.
Other characters feature as seen via a video recorder that Lara finds which fills in the backstory as to how they ended up where they are but the other characters are rendered unmemorable thanks to the development of Lara’s character, with only Roth having any weight as the Lara’s companion for a time. Although James an archaeologist who comes across as condescending and later on proves to be a coward too features as well as a friend Sam amongst others. Although the video camera is a neat device for showing how Lara was ignored by James when debating the ships course and it wasn’t until Roth got involved that things changed which explains the dynamic between Lara and Roth.
The world of Yamatai is impressively rendered from the start, with lucious forest complete with animals, ramshackle huts, caves, waterfalls, ancient ruins and the rusting wrecks of old planes just a few of the things to be seen.
There are numerous cinematic scenes, emphasis on the cinematic you won’t be wanting to skip any of this, which often bleed seamlessly into gameplay which can actually catch players out due to not actually knowing you’ve regained control as Lara is falling down a waterfall or sliding down a hillside.
Weapons are found items which look convincingly worn and realistic and can be upgraded at campfires which serve as hubs saving progress and allowing gear to be upgraded using salvaged parts and skill points to be spent on numerous skills which can be learnt as the game progresses.
The gameplay itself is broken down into a balance of platforming with various other options opening up as the game progresses, one example being a climbing axe which allows access to other areas, and combat with the inhabitants of Yamataii. Whether it’s wolves in a nod to the games past or scavengers out for blood. The balance between these is just right and prolonged gun battles are rare and justifiably so as this isn’t Gears of War. Gamers that have played the older Tomb Raider games will be pleased with the Hidden Tombs that are scattered about. These are self contained areas without enemies that feature puzzles to solve and are a welcome diversion from the main story.
There are numerous collectables scattered throughout from journals from various characters giving the history of the island from their perspective and various archaeological relics which Lara gets endearingly excited about.
This realistic approach has both its postives and its negatives. Early on Lara finds a makeshift bow and arrows (shades of Katniss Everdeen) which will become a fundamental tool in her adventure (used for both silent ranged kills and stealth kills on nearby enemies) but at first is used to hunt deer which in one of the many great character moments she apologises to after killing, it’s quite some time before Lara stumbles across her first gun. Other endearing character moments include her reassuring herself as things progess with sayings like “Okay you can do this Lara”. The first time Lara has to kill someone it’s a harrowing experience and provokes a reaction the likes of which is never seen in gaming, with Lara retching and shaking at the visceral and moral line she’s just crossed and breaking down into tears.
One of the negatives is it’s so realistic and well rendered that there’s arguably an element of voyeuristic exploitation as Lara’s struggles continue. The early stages have Lara clearly shivering in the cold and rain whilst struggling to light a fire and that’s the least of her problems as the story unfolds. Before long she’s covered in grime and blood a mixture of her own and from other sources. It’s a credit to the work done in crafting Lara’s character to actually evoke an emotional response to these situations but things get surprisingly brutal at certain points and some of the death scenes could be straight out of a horror film, especially given their nature of playing out for a few seconds before fading to black. The first time you see Lara impaled through the neck on a tree branch or crushed by a boulder and twitching with the last remnants of life it’s definitely a shock and there’s worse than that.
There’s an argument as to whether fans would want a hero rendered into the form of just a ‘regular person’ who makes mistakes and is vulnerable, since after all avatars in gaming are arguably supposed represent what the gamer could never do or be and this to an extent takes that escape away.
Then there’s the ‘sex symbol’ vs ‘feminist icon’ argument which has gone on and on as long as the character has been around. There has been a deliberate move on the part of Crystal Dynamics to get away from this by jettisoning the hotpants of old and replacing them with far more practical cargo pants. Ofcourse there will be those that will argue that Lara is still wearing a skimpy low cut top as though this is part of some patriarchal plan to perpetuate the sexualisation and exploitation of female characters in games. Although logically speaking I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch for a young woman relaxing in a warm environment to be wearing a skimpy top which is exactly what Lara is doing at the start of the prologue.
Despite these points there’s no denying that Tomb Raider is an excellent example of how to relaunch franchise and will be hard to beat when it comes to Game of the Year polls.