The lights are on
Note: I did not purchase the game today, but instead pre-ordered it. For you normal pre-orderers though, I did not received my copy midnight of the previous day before the normal release window, but instead managed to secure a copy of the Australian version of the game, which officially released as of March 1st instead. For this reason, although I have not noticed any major differences in the game (or beginning at least), since I now also own the American version, I will update this review should I realize that there are any vast differences between the two games. There will probably not be, however I saw fit to warn you in case. Now, shall I begin?
I'll admit, I was certainly just as skeptical or more so than the rest of you when Crystal Dynamics and Game Informer announced the publication of the newest Tomb Raider game, which also just so happens to be a reboot. This was back in 2010 admittedly, so I was a little depressed after the (don't get me wrong) not so uplifting release of Tomb Raider: Underworld. Sure, between the prior three Tomb Raider games- Legend, Anniversary, and Underworld, things were actually looking okay for the series for the first time in a long while (in my mind, everything went downhill after Revelations and Chronicles), but they simply didn't seem to be up to the snuff of the first two games, which will always be the strongest in my own honest opinion. (And then there was 3, which was a bit meh.) So, I guess you could say, while I was easily open to a reboot, I was of the opinion that not much would actually change, and that we would forever be stuck in the weaker, more feminine stages of Lara's video game career. Boy, am I ever so glad that I was mistaken. Not only is this the strongest Tomb Raider game since it's conception, but it also drops the "indestructible super-heroine" act in favor of a much more believable and exciting "wary adventurer" one. No longer is Lara untouchable, and for that great change, I thank you crystal Dynamics, truly, I do.
Most of the time, we, as gamers, are incredibly skeptical about whether or not a reboot will actually breathe new life into a series, or whether it is too far gone, and deserves to be unplugged from the life support machines keeping it alive. With this particular fresh start however, I am doubly impressed, and it also gives me hope for another reboot of sorts (well, prequel really)- that being Gears of War: Judgment. Seeing as it could potentially complete the trio of well-done reboots for these past few months, (DMC, TR, and possibly GOW) I would be happily ecstatic indeed. However, let me turn your attention back to the here and now, for the remainder of my complementary review of this particular Tomb Raider game, and not let it falter or waver any more than necessary.
The biggest focus in this reboot is on narrative, atmosphere, and cinematic sequences. The gameplay is top notch as well, and miles above most of its predecessors- however, it is not the main driving force or focus any longer, whereas it used to be the only thing that could carry the games. Even more surprising, is the fact that the game keeps up its cards for hours on end, instead of allowing its narrative train to derail and cause calamity as with Legend and partially in Underworld. Gone is the Lara Croft we thought we knew, and in her place is an inexperienced researcher/adventurer who, through an unfortunate set of circumstances, finds herself- as well as what remains of her ship's crew, on a strange island almost as crazy and hellbent on her destruction as the islands and the inhabitants of Far Cry 3. Like something out of Lost, Lara encounters mad cultists, odd abominations, and 'The Day After Tomorrow'-like weather patterns on this deadly little island, and fights for her life every step of the way (unless you're Conan, who manages to kill her a surprising amount of times n one of the easier sequences in the game). In a forgivable turn of events, the narrative, as strong as it is, does take some well-worn plot points along the way, but continues to trundle along at a smooth pace, and overall perfectly fits the game's enjoyable survival-action clique/routine as well.
Seeing as this game has garnered a 'Mature' rating from the local ESRB, as well as a '16+' from the PEGI (I believe it was 16 and not 18, merely because of violence and deaths), you'll certainly be in for a much wilder and rougher ride than many Tomb Raider fans are accustomed to. This is no thing to be afraid of. Change is good in video gaming folks, or at least, it is in this particular instance of course. Anyway, whether you find yourself dangling precariously over that one wooden spike, leaping over an entire pit of them, flying from the cockpit of the plane a la Legend's frozen sequence, or tumbling into sharp driftwood a la Conan in that whitewater rapids sequence, just know that for every action there is an equally unforgiving reaction- namely: your death and the gruesome demise of Lara if you screw things up. Death may not be permanent, but even without permadeath, as Conan's reactions showed in his own video- you'll care about seeing Lara hurt and thus try to avoid that as much as possible, making her adventure reflective of your play style: cautious and proactive.
As with the narrative, a lot more effort went into making Lara a much more believable, lovable, and enjoyable character this time around. Far from the stoic beauty that she possessed in previous entries, she now has a subtle, innocent and unwary overtone to replace her brashness and gunslinging adventurer-syndrome from her other adventures. Since this is of course, her origin story for a whole slew of games to come (I hope), she is obviously expected to be inexperienced and far from the hardy heiress she was before. The talented voice-work, amazing animation and movements, and the semi-realistic approach that the game takes, at least in comparison to other entries, make her all the more authentic and believable in this new world as well. Sure, she still somehow survives gunshots, stab wounds, preying animals, and you name it- but at least we see some epic cosmetic damage and gruesome death tolls now as well. Imagine the blades from Tomb Raider 1's infamous first Great Wall level chopping Lara's legs off and you only seeing her crumple, as it has been all the way up until Legend and Underworld. Yeah, well, that would be a little more gruesome in this game...and it is, seriously so. While she isn't the cocky Indiana Jones-like protagonist that Nathan Drake is, who does get hurt, but continues on unstoppably, Lara is both likeable and can carry on with the hurts shes taken- making a strong case for females in lead roles for gaming as well.
On a gameplay side of things, since I've been mostly focusing on the amazing characteristics of the player and narrative plot, the balancing is fine tuned to how the player wants to progress. The game still holds all of the cards we held dear in every other Tomb Raider game, such as exploration, collection, combat, and platforming- however, it is now more fluid, open, and up to your desirable interpretation on how you wish to progress. Since Lara is far from the unstoppable tank that she used to be, now you'll always be approaching situations with at least some degree of caution or stealth, but maybe instead of charging in guns blazing you'd like to try strategically taking out your foes, or simply avoiding them altogether instead? Well, Crystal Dynamics allows you to play as you wish now, although there is of course, always the linear objective-based path for you to follow as well, for added measure. Stealth is heavily influenced with melee sneak-kills and excellent weaponry such as the bow and arrows you can use a la Far Cry 3 for a combination of goodies and kills, although you are also open to choose the action-oriented approach as well. Aiming works like charm, making for some of the most beautiful headshots ever, and you'll constantly want to keep moving between cover to blow the next thing up, or stay one step ahead of the intelligent AI. However, true to it's name, when you aren't simply exploring or fighting your way out of madhouses and tombs, you'll want to try your hand at the brilliant puzzles that you are tasked with completing throughout the game- whether environmentally, or with inventory-based items. They sure are a welcome break from the flow of platforming and shooting.
This Tomb Raider game further distinguishes itself from the others it shares a name and select characters with, as well as from other games of the same genre, by offering a deeply invested experience and upgrades system, as well as the ability to essentially 'fast-travel' to any location you've previously visited to search for gear and upgrades you might have missed the first time through. This not only encourages discovery and exploration, but also a profound interest in the game, as, if you aren't paying enough attention- you will surely either fall to your doom, be ambushed, or miss nooks and crannies with all sorts of hidden goodies just waiting to be claimed by an adventurous soul. While she doesn't start off as one, you can turn Lara into a virtually indestructible adventurer just as she once was...in a galaxy far, far away. The experience system with often encourage going out and taking risks, such as hunting down salvage pieces, enemies requiring special kills, and piecing together your best upgrades early on in order to cash in on them later. It's not just the island itself that is open to you, the player, but Lara's very character as well. You can shape her and mold her in as many ways as you want, and make her your own adventurer, suited to your playing style, much unlike any previous Tomb Raider game.
Now, we come to the one part of the game that I was incredibly skeptical of, and seemingly with good reason to be...the multiplayer. The multiplayer is not awful, or even bad by any means, however, in comparison to the single player offering that this game wonderfully touts, it is easily the weaker of the two modes- although I am sure many of you will enjoy playing it anyway. The environments are of course, much more limited than in the open world of the single player, and feel less realistic as well by default, and the action just never quite seems to reach its climatic points as in the tense scenarios facing Lara within the main game itself. In many of the few modes offered, (mainly survival and 'deathmatch'-like modes, or objective based ones) the objectives are balanced quite well, which is quite a godsend for once, in the multiplayer realm here. Animations are a bit less believable, as usually rings true in multiplayer, because of the morbid amount of glitches and bugs bound to crop up over time- such as the extremely ill-fitting lack of recognition for explosions here, as also noted by Miller I saw. You'll be running along and suddenly realize your ragdoll-like body is being flung out of the map or into a ravine because something around you exploded, and you didn't even know unless you were looking at it...until you were dead. As I would have expected anyway, and is hard to do in any multiplayer setting (though I give Crystal Dynamics props for trying to retain vertical elements), any time you try to climb or platform, you pretty much open yourself up to extreme retribution from any enemies, from which escape is not an option. The weapons and upgrades are certainly interested, but don't make this a destination or must-play competitive choice.
All things said, and while you nuts out there might think my review score isn't high enough for this game to merit a glance or playthrough simply because it isn't a 9.50 or above, you should really check Tomb Raider out- otherwise you'll be missing all the fun. Not just out of the Tomb Raider games themselves, but even comparatively to other action-epics such as Uncharted, the game is really a blast, and you should really come experience Lara's new past for yourself- minus any Terminator-like paradox. I think Crystal Dynamics has really done an excellent job with their re-imagination of the series, and also pretty much ensured that it will live for several years yet to come, if they can manage to churn out just as fresh elements in any sequels... A phenomenal job, and a great refacing effort for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Concept: Reboot a story which we thought we all knew, and give it a fresh coat of paint, some new characters, locations, and take away the invulnerability for added measure.
Graphics: The animations and scenery look stunning, even if they are brought down a bit for various reasons during multiplayer sessions.
Sound: Lara's voice-work is downright beautiful, as is that of the majority of other characters and cultists, and the musical score leaves little more to be desired with its haunting melodies and odes.
Playability: Whether you are platforming, taking down enemies by stealth or from afar with a weapon, or exploring the world- the controls are fine tuned and very responsive.
Entertainment: The single player is top notch, and an adventure rife with action and one that I wouldn't dare miss if I were you.
Replay Value: High.
Overall Score: 9.0