Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider reboot is a resounding success.
Tomb Raider‘s origins began on the PlayStation way back in 1996. Since that time, series heroine Lara Croft has become a household name, and certainly the most popular female lead in video games. With over ten games in the series, as well as two movies featuring Angelina Jolie, Tomb Raider has endured much longer than some of its detractors could ever have believed. However, with age comes the need for reinvention. Gaming has matured since the dawn of the franchise – clunky tank controls and impossibly proportioned female protagonists just won’t cut it any more.
And so, Crystal Dynamics have decided to shape an origin tale for Lara. Embarking on her first real adventure, calamity soon ensues as she’s shipwrecked on a mysterious island with possibly supernatural powers. Lara will be forced to fight for her survival, to hunt for food, and to kill in order to save herself and her friends- who she blames herself for bringing along on this ill-fated journey. Over the course of the game’s 8-to-12-hour campaign (depending on how sidetracked you get with Tomb Raider’s myriad side missions), Lara will transform from an innocent-yet-strong-willed girl to something closer resembling the hardened heroine we know and love. It’s a stunningly beautiful (especially on PC), exciting, well-told and successful origin story that feels equal parts Indiana Jones, Uncharted and Lost.
Tomb Raider does a fantastic job of developing the character of Lara Croft, and making the player feel for her. Throughout the game, Lara will endure terrible things- taking a huge toll on her body and mind- and you’ll feel compelled to help her survive the island. Her transition feels realistic, though expedited by necessity in both gameplay and narrative terms. The first time she kills a human, it’s emotional for Lara. She’s sickened by what she’s done, but it was utterly necessary – it was them or her. The body count rises quickly afterwards, but it feels justified – the island’s crazed inhabitants have her friends, and god knows what they plan on doing to them. Camilla Luddington’s genuine performance goes a long way towards instilling players with an emotional connection to the game.
One you take control of Lara, the first thing you’ll notice is how drop-dead gorgeous the game is. I played on a rather high-end PC, on Ultra settings with the all-new AMD TressFX tech enabled. The environments, weather/ fire effects, lighting, and especially the TressFX technology simply blew me away. It might seem like a trivial thing, but the difference between Lara’s default locks and the TressFX-enhanced version is truly night and day. Watching the enhanced hair blow in the wind, react properly during jumps, and self-shadow properly drastically increases the realism of Lara’s character model, and indeed, my immersion in the game itself. It even has its own physics system in place to stop strands from falling through her head or body. It looks so damn good that it’s a bit shocking to see the standard “helmet hair” utilized on almost all the other characters. To clarify, the TressFX tech is not exclusive to AMD cards- I played using an Nvidia GeForce GTX 660Ti, and for the most part, the game ran pretty great. I did experience a few crashes at certain sections, but Nvidia has already issued a patch to address this.
In fact, the graphics are so beautiful as to cause distraction. There were a few times where I was marveling at all the visual flair, and taking screenshots in Steam, when a sudden quick-time event would trigger. Failing these events in Tomb Raider leads to one of seemingly hundreds of grisly death animations. While these death sequences add to the serious tone of the game, they are not for the feint of heart.
With this reboot, Crystal Dynamics has finally gotten combat right. Fighting enemies is fun and engaging, and the game does a great job of supplying you with new weapons, combat moves and upgrades throughout the proceedings. You’ll find salvage all over the island, and by looting corpses, which can be utilized at base camps to improve your arsenal. Similarly, you’ll gain XP throughout, unlocking Skill Points that can be put towards survival or hunter-based upgrades. Though all the weapons feel great, I stuck with Lara’s awesome crossbow for most of the game. Its upgradeable flaming arrows were especially useful for crowd management, and igniting assailants with it. By the game’s third act, though, you’ll need to quickly switch between your entire collection in order to survive. You’ll encounter more seasoned enemies with armored suits impervious to flames, armed with riot shields, and even gigantic, supernatural foes near the game’s end.
Tomb Raider also features a very Batman: Arkham City-style progression system. While the game is somewhat open-world, there will be areas that you can see but can’t get to until you find that one conveniently-placed tool you needed. By the end, Lara will be able to easily traverse the landscape: zip-lining, parachuting, and rock-climbing with a pick-axe.
One thing that I was a bit disappointed with was the abandonment of the hunting/ survival aspects introduced in the game’s opening moments. Though you can kill and gut any animal you see in Tomb Raider, there’s really no point besides a small amount of XP and some achievements. I thought this would be a central component to the gameplay, as it was in Metal Gear Solid 3, but I suppose it could’ve gotten in the way of all the action.
Overall, Tomb Raider is a gorgeously rendered, well-told story with incredibly high production values. The game contains clever nods to the series’ past while simultaneously driving it forward for a modern audience. It accomplishes everything that a reboot strives for- redefining a gaming icon, reinvigorating a franchise, and making us excited for what’s next.