In the wake of the movement known henceforth as ChristopherNolanism it seems that every man and his dog wants to make a dark and gritty reboot of their IP. It most cases this turns out to be poorly-written pulp fiction neo-noir rubbish with subdued, muddy graphics and the art direction of a 14-year old emo kid. Tomb Raider is a franchise is dire need of revitalisation and after 2008’s Tomb Raider: Underworld the franchise really needed a shot in the arm. Thankfully Crystal Dynamics gave themselves a kick up the bum and really pulled a decent game out of their tuckus.
Tomb Raider is a prequel of sorts, establishing Lara Crofts origins but rebooting the series, making Tomb Raider: Legend retroactively non-canon. After setting out on her virgin voyage, Lara’s ship Endurance comes a-cropper when she enters the Dragon’s Triangle off the coast of Japan and is swiftly smashed in twain by violent storms. Lara survives the shipwreck and is washed up on the shore of the island of Yamatai; which is frightfully convenient as the purpose of the expedition was to find this mysterious island, so take the small victories where you can find them.
The game proper jumps off from this point with Lara attempting to reunite with any other survivors and ultimately find a way off, but along the way she uncovers the shadowy truth to this dangerous island and discovers a shocking revelation spanning thousands of years of magic and intrigue. The story itself is pretty decent, using existing Japanese and Chinese folklore to ground the story in a kind of mythological verisimilitude whilst simultaneously crafting a brand new set of myths, complete with demons, gods, monsters and cults. It’s all rather Lovecraftian in some points, where Lara finds herself crawling through wet subterranean caves to observe monks in tattered robes worshipping a long-dead goddess deep in the bowels of the earth. I don’t want to give too much away but if you like mythology, specifically Asian mythology you’ll like this – it has a bit of that formulaic an old God wants to blow up stuff but you have to stop them in time kind of vibe to it, but it’s original enough that the player will find themselves drawn through the narrative, eager to find out where the next twist or turn will take them.
Gameplay is smashing. Crystal Dynamics seem to have taken more than a few pages out of the Naughty Dog book here with quite a few parts seemingly lifted wholesale from the Uncharted franchise. Rather than plagiarising wholly however, the game gives everything a unique Tomb Raider edge. Gunplay in particular has been ramped up beyond the levels of Nathan Drake with Lara eventually owning four rock-sold weapons, each with a well-rounded but defined role in her arsenal. Yamatai is a dangerous place and before long players will see themselves using their bow, pistol, rifle and shotgun against a great many foes, both human and beast. The combat is wonderfully varied and tense enough to play a note on; stealthy opportunities present themselves often, tasking the player with sneaking, performing silent kills and utilising Lara’s inaudible compound bow. Firing the bow into walls or rocks will cause a distracting sound, often tempting enemies from their patrol routes – shepherding guards into secluded corners means gamers can take them out unnoticed to get the stealthiest experience. Much like last year’s Farcry 3 the stealth is just right, with enemies smart enough to punish you for your errors, yet stupid enough to allow you a little leeway when encountering them. Lara’s ability to switch the tables on her pursuers, turning prey into predator twinned with the brutally satisfying counter and takedown system has a ring of the Arkham series to it and that’s never a bad thing. If you’re not interested in stealth then that’s suited for entirely – much like Farcry if you fancy ringing off a few rifle rounds before closing with the shotgun that playstyle is catered for as much as the sneaky-sneaky approach. Be warned though, enemies are cunning, daring and very aggressive. Superior numbers and advanced gear will spur your enemies on to flanking tactics, grenades and molotovs will see them trying to flush you from cover where the front guard shotgunners will be waiting with two barrels of hurt. Some enemies will hang back and take pops with longer-range weapons where others will close in with automatics or melee weapons. This is nothing we haven’t seen before of course but it’s nice to have some of that frantic, on-your-toes action in a game traditionally known for dual-wielding Desert Eagles firing at big cats.
Exploring the immense map with her climbing tools and nifty gadgets, Lara finds side-quests, bonus tombs to explore and collects scrap found in chests, loot boxes and the bodies of your fallen adversaries. This scrap can be used to jimmy together upgrades for your various weapons, making your shotgun recoil less or increasing the magazine capacity of your pistol for instance. Lara also generates XP by achieving quest tasks, exploring those bonus tombs or by taking out her foes – XP which can be spent on shiny new skills. Again, neither of these things are revolutionary and have all been used to good effect in the past but Tomb Raider seems to be a master class in observing emergent or tested trends in games design and collaborating them altogether onto one cohesive canvas.
Production quality is very high – we would expect nothing less from the developers of my favourite game of all time – the game looks flawless and is meticulously crafted. Both the outdoor jungle environments and the caves, tombs and underground bunkers Lara finds herself in all have distinct personality and a slimy, grimy charm. World War Two dugouts nestle bizarrely against ancient structures and bone-riddled shrines and candlelit temples are scattered between shipwrecks, wrinkly-tin favelas and weathered listening posts. Everything is rusty, everything is crumbling. It’s a beautiful mishmash of centuries-old ruins and utilitarian, urban decay. The whole island feels real, lived-in and very dangerous. The outdoors vistas are breath-taking, from the billowing snow drifts to the acres of rainforest; juxtaposed against the slick and claustrophobic caves and subterranean tunnels there’s a world for Lara to explore and every inch of it is perfectly realised. Sound design is brilliant with the resonant crack of Lara’s pistol reverberating around a 3,000 year old tomb or the thrashing rain against unrelenting stone; overhearing conversations between the NPCs helps to make the world here feel all the more real, giving each peon a seemingly purposeful existence, rather than just faceless goons spawning on a hillside. Lara herself is voiced by Camilla Luddington who our American readers may recognise as the lady who played Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge in the TV film, William and Kate and the remainder of the voice cast are strong and believable.
Lara’s animation is largely provided by the use of painstaking performance capture and the final presentation is absolutely gorgeous. The hair dynamics provided by TressFX is really something to behold – such an inoccuous-seeming thing as a realistic multi-strand hair solution truly adds depth and realism to the game, especially when the hair is wet where it takes on new, clumpy characteristics. Whether jumping from a platform, climbing a sheer rock face or performing any other activities the quality is always top-notch and this is a good thing as the player is constantly treated to angelic leaps and death-defying shimmies across precipitous rock faces. These sections are made all the more enjoyable by a rock-solid set of controls, something which other games in this ilk have suffered from of late. The game does appear to help Lara make a few jumps every now and then, the odd botched jump often miraculously ending in triumph. That’s not to say climbing sections are easy – if the gamer seriously messes up their timing they’ll be treated to watching Lara plummet to her doom. All told the controls are as tight as a Scotsman’s purse strings, everything from exploration to combat is a breeze and a true pleasure to play with only one exception; Quick Time Events. Game Show readers will know my opinion on these often-lamented sections in games. There are several moments in this game (trying not to give anything away here) where the player is expected to press a certain button with precise timing to aid Lara through a perilous section. Sections like this are supposed to invoke a sense of spectacle but all I’m ever watching for is the next QTE rather than enjoying whatever climactic event is occurring on-screen. In this day and age if designers want gamers to feel pressure and stress whilst their character is getting out of a jam – let those gamers perform the actions themselves. QTEs are a constant annoyance and their presence in Tomb Raider really spoiled the near-perfect presentation of this title.
There is an enjoyable multiplayer element developed by Eidos Montreal which sees opponents using Lara’s skills across deathmatch arenas and objective-based scenarios. Whilst clearly not the main appeal it’s a satisfying and entertaining affair and is better in all respects than Uncharted’s multiplayer, to draw an obvious allusion.
In closing, Tomb Raider is the top of its class. In no way have Crystal Dynamics tried to re-invent the wheel here – every facet of design and gameplay have been lovingly borrowed from somewhere else. What it does do though is take all those disparate strands and weave them into a beautifully-presented, engaging product. A strong central character, original setting and rock-solid controls will provide hours of entertainment. Everything is done so right, I don’t think you’ll mind that it’s been done before.