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Lara Croft may be one of gaming's most influential female protagonists, but even her dual pistols and snappy dialogue weren't enough to save her from the impeding staleness the series has experienced in recent titles. Yes, it's time for a reboot.
Reboots are sort of a wild card in the gaming industry - they're either a blessing or a curse. Developer Crystal Dynamics hopes to bless this waning franchise by returning Lara to her roots. She is now a young, inexperienced archeologist looking to make her mark on the world. Of course, restarting a series anew isn't a painless matter, and throughout Tomb Raider you'll be forced to watch Lara get stabbed, shot, mauled, and broken (if things are going well). The game sets a focus on realism, crafts a solid genesis for Lara Croft, and provides an excellent launch for the rebirth of a legend.
Lara Croft starts aboard a research ship called the Endurance with a documentary film crew searching for the lost Kingdom of Yamati. Their journey meets an abrupt and unfortunate end when a storm tears the ship apart and leaves the surviving crew shipwrecked on a mysterious island. Lara and her crew are left to survive in a harsh climate filled with deranged cultists and a seemingly inexplicable weather system. It is in her journey to find way off the island and discover its dark secrets, Lara transforms into the intelligent, headstrong, and capable Lara Croft we all know.
In the beginning, you'll quickly realize that this isn't going to be a walk in the park - Lara is already badly injured and near death when you first meet her. The first hour or so is solely dedicated to Lara's character development. She will frantically escape a cult's deranged hideout, search for her crew, avoid enemy detection, and begin to survive on her own. These few early scenes highlight Lara's inexperience and vulnerability and effectively establish an emotional connection for the player - it's hard not to feel sorry for Lara when she's shivering next to a makeshift fire and her entire world is falling apart around her.
In fact, Tomb Raider is at its best when it focuses on realism in scenes such as this. Lara is unwillingly thrust into a brutally realistic world where everything wants to kill her. You'll be forced to adapt quickly, and failure do so will result in Lara getting crushed, impaled, and mutilated in devastating ways. Throughout the game, you will be desperate to keep Lara alive because she is excellently portrayed by smart writing and emotional voice acting, and you'll never want to watch her meet a dark and lonely end.
To elude death, Lara turns from prey to predator - she learns to kill because of necessity, not because she wants to. At first, Lara is uneasy about taking the life of another, but she slowly transforms into a battle hardened survivor willing to do what's necessary. It's this transition that also turns Tomb Raider from a survival focused game into an action epic about one-third of the way through the campaign.
Tomb Raider wisely focuses on emotion, narrative, and atmosphere. The game's island setting is both bleak and beautiful - you're going to be simultaneously terrified and in awe of it throughout the duration of the game. You'll visit tropical forests, ancient ruins, sandy beaches, sun-dried deserts, and snowy mountain peaks. All of this manages to blow you away visually without becoming too familiar. In a rare feat, Tomb Raider maintains its mysterious undertones throughout the entire game.
This sense of mystery and impending danger radiated by the island is what helps to propel Tomb Raider's narrative so far. Yes, the plot can feel a little predictable and cliché at times, but even when it does fall back on action game stereotypes, (such as escaping a burning building, sliding down a waterfall at high speeds, or surviving a collapsing bridge, etc.) Tomb Raider pulls off these events with such stylistic flair that you won't really mind the fact that you've seen that scene a million times before. The narrative does move a little slowly at first - there's very little plot development in the first third of the game. What really impedes progress is Tomb Raider's massive overuse of the notorious, button-smashing quick-time events. Whether or not these "Mash Y to not die!" moments have a place in video games is your opinion, but Tomb Raider's uses them so much it puts Call of Duty's QTE use to shame.
Fortunately, Tomb Raider moves beyond this in the second half. There are many epic events throughout the game and the plot develops nicely. All of this gets even more interesting as Lara becomes more confident in her abilities and develops into an intelligent leader for her crewmates. The game also transitions into more platform-style locations, and moving about these fluidly brings a lot of enjoyment.
Unfortunately, Tomb Raider's biggest shortcomings in some areas are a result of its strength in others. For example, Lara is such a strong lead that most of the game's supporting cast can seem a little bit stale at times. It's just really hard to feel for them as much as you do for Lara. Additionally, the game's narrative and action sequences can seem to contrast each other too much at times - it's hard to believe that Lara was okay when she slid down that thousand-foot cliff, but she was violently impaled by that small metal rod when she fell on it. Its points where Tomb Raider tries to mix water and oil, or realism and over-the-top action sequences, when the narrative feels the most flawed.
The gameplay is one of Tomb Raider's strongest points. Though it's a while before you first pick up a gun, the combat system opens up and turns into one of the most memorable parts of the game. Lara acquires a bow and a pistol early on. The bow acts as the bread and butter of Lara's combat arsenal - it allows for long range shots and rapid fire for close range encounters. Eventually, Lara picks up a shotgun and assault rifle, both of which help to supplement the combat system. What's nice is that all of these weapons fill their own little niche, and you will need to switch around to survive.
All of Lara's weapons can be upgraded as the game progresses to include flaming arrows, incendiary ammo, silencers, or many other various attachments and modifications. What's cool is that these new enhancements will change the way you approach combat or handle different situations. You can use your new incendiary bolts to light that pool of oil your enemies are standing in, or use your new grenade launcher attachment to take out enemy machine gunners.
Unfortunately, Tomb Raider's perk progression system is not quite as game changing. These perks, which can be unlocked frequently throughout the game, don't really work, and they only add most of them only provide minor active and passive abilities that you won't really use throughout the game. The exception to this is the perk that allows Lara to use a dodge mechanic to escape melee attacks and perks that increase ammo capacity. I wouldn't expect a very deep character progression system going into Tomb Raider.
However, Tomb Raider makes up for this shortcoming with its variety in combat. Enemies can easily be faced directly, but a large amount of fun comes from the stealth gameplay. Lara can perform stealth takedowns to silence enemies or use her archery expertise to eliminate enemies silently from a distance. The cover system is easy to use and fluid, and this only helps to enhance the stealth gameplay into Tomb Raider's greatest combat feature.
For all of the completionists out there, Tomb Raider has a lot of various artifacts, collectables, and hidden notes scattered across the island. Many of them are extremely well hidden and will require a good amount of time and exploration to track down. The various artifacts and notes provide insight to the island's mysteries, and it's quite fun to see Lara get wide-eyed over a five-hundred year old Japanese vase. However, the best of these side tasks is exploring the hidden tombs scattered throughout the island. These tombs offer more traditional puzzles that can be solved to earn rewards. They are easily one of my favorite parts of Tomb Raider, but given the series' legacy with tombs, I feel like they were underutilized.
Tomb Raider is the perfect example of why developers shouldn't add a multiplayer to every game in sight. To put it simply, the multiplayer is terrible. I would just avoid it. The game's combat system works brilliantly in single-player campaign but it feels too frantic and unstable to work well in multiplayer. The maps try to blend platforming and combat, but this doesn't work too well in multiplayer and it just leaves you open to attack. Tomb Raider does feature an interesting progression and character customization system, but there's nothing really unique or amazing here. If you're looking for a good multiplayer, your time is better spent with more dedicated multiplayer experiences.
Despite the lackluster multiplayer and a few missteps in the campaign, Tomb Raider pulls off an impressive feat - It creates a new vision for one of gaming's most iconic series with a new focus on narrative and likeable characters. With a compelling story and setting, Tomb Raider has sparked new life into Lara Croft and given the series a promising outlook for the future. Even if you haven't played any previous titles of the series, you should definitely take a look at this game. Crystal Dynamics has delivered a simple message - Tomb Raider is back, and once again Lara Croft is gaming's greatest action hero.
Tomb Raider - 9.25/10
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