The first thing I did to Lara Croft in this game was set her on fire.
Then I had to watch as she fell down and impaled herself on an iron bar. Not only was it painful to watch, it was also necessary to help her escape the cave in which she’d been imprisoned and get the game rolling.
So let’s make it clear right from the start – this game is mercilessly brutal to Lara Croft, putting her (and by proxy, you the player) through gruelling torment in her quest for survival.
It’s a change of pace from the previous globetrotting adventure-seeking quests of the previous games, where Lara is impossibly capable and always ready with a quip. The new game is an origin story reboot, going back to a fresh-out-of-uni Lara who’s going on her first expedition, with proper planning and guidance from another archaeologist, as well as a TV crew to make it into a reality show.
They’re hunting down Yamatai, land of the legendary Queen Himiko, a powerful ruler from Ancient Japan, famed to be able to control the elements and the weather and making her a formidable foe. The ship they’re on is then caught in a violent storm, becoming shipwrecked and stranding Lara on her own, and at the mercy of an island full of scavengers.
She wakes up in a cage, strung up in a bag upside down, and the only way to break her free is to set her on fire, and we’re now back where I started this review.
This game is excellent.
It marks the second reboot of the series since the arrival of Tomb Raider: Legend in 2006, and I was not expecting good things given how recent that seemed, but good lord have the fine folk at Square Enix delivered on this one.
The change in tone from adventurous to survivalist is a welcome one, and it means that we get to track Lara’s progression from inexperienced novice to the hardened expert we know – and if adversity builds character, then Lara’s character is a mansion.
The first few hours of gameplay have Lara getting to understand her new surroundings, and have her put through the ringer, both physically and emotionally, as she tries to regroup with her crew but keeps getting pushed and beaten back down. It’s almost comical how much bad stuff keeps happening to her, but the story and gameplay are designed so well that rather than it seeming ludicrous, it makes you all the more determined to get her through it. And once it does ease off, the game quickly moves into shaping the character into the fearless woman that defined Lara Croft in her previous games.
The setting of the game, all on the one mysterious island, overrun by cultists and scavengers (all of whom are determined to kill Lara of course) is brilliantly realised, giving you time to cover nearly all of its terrain and using said terrain to vary its environment constantly. One minute it’s jagged rocks near an unforgiving shoreline, the next it’s a jungle wilderness, before moving right along to snowy peaks.
The way Lara traverses these environments has also been given a treatment for the more realistically minded, as she now has to make do with rigging ropes, using pick-axes to climb rocky surfaces and even just blasting her way through barricaded doors, rather than spending half a level hunting down a single key.
Combat has also been reworked, and designed to favour the arrival of Lara’s new signature weapon, the bow-and-arrow. There’s also a handgun, shotgun and combat rifle thrown in for good measure. But rather than it being a series of increasingly powerful weapons that are picked up on the way (as all previous games have toyed with) they’re all gathered relatively quickly, and the player is encouraged to upgrade them throughout the game, using skill points earned to improve the abilities, and “salvage” to actually improve the weapons themselves.
It leads to a real sense of Lara gaining more experience through her trials and tribulations on the island, and as a result, really reinforces the entire “origins story” aspect of the plot. It’s also something of a deconstructionist video game – it really measures the physical extremes that a video game character would go through if it was real life, and the gamemakers have even thought to add in the heft and weight of the physical force it would actually take to kill someone using a small pick-axe, or the fact that merely adding a rope to something doesn’t mean a small 21-year-old girl is going to be able to pull it without some help, or that being shipwrecked in jeans and a tank-top means that come nightfall, you’re not gonna be able to just keep soldiering on.
Furthermore, the story is well paced and leads in nicely to all the necessary points in the game – and it’s long. Recent Tomb Raider games have been sorely hampered by being too short, usually as a result of the games being forced out for release). But the beats of the story are kept nice and tight, the story moves realistically (a character gets rescued, doesn’t mean the saga on the island is over yet though!) and it all leads up to a very satisfying game that took me around about 15 – 17 hours to finish.
Upon completion of the game, the island opens back up to you so that you can revisit areas and collect all the lost treasures you missed first time around – normally I feel like this is a ppart where game-designers say “no there’s heaps of gameplay” but it turns out to just be padding – not so here. In addition to hunting for relics, which Lara will give a bit of an insight into, there’s also the hunt for documents which expand on the games storyline, a whole bunch of mini-side-quests but the most fun of all would be the tombs. These are separate challenges that harken back to the puzzle-solving/exploration side of the early Tomb Raider games, and are entirely optional but an absolute delight to play through, especially for long-time fans.
There are, however, some flaws that should be discussed for the sake of fairness. First and foremost is a bit of a disconnect from the story and the gameplay. The major theme of the game is “a survivor is born,” as in “this is what happens when someone is put through this much and makes it through” and as such, much of the thematic weight of the story is centred on the emotional toll it takes on Lara. For the most part this plays out well, except for one of the high-tension-points of the games’ first half, wherein Lara takes her first human life (this is the scene that created the “attempted rape” controversy of the game – for the record, there’s no sexual assault even mentioned in the game).
When the scene plays out, Lara is in shock and tears, and it’s a huge moment where she breaks down – but the game quickly makes you pick up your bow and axe and start killing left right and centre, with only a throwaway piece of dialogue later on mentioning “how easy it became.” It’s not entirely distracting, but it means the great character development work that’s done in the story is undone a bit in the gameplay.
I’ve also heard less-than-amazing things about the game’s multiplayer, but haven’t played it myself to comment.
The only other complaint I have is a minor one, and that’s how many times a difficult fight sequence would be set up but checkpointed just before a cutscene, meaning every time you died the scene would repeat itself, but really, it’s a tiny thing.
If the only major complaint I have for the game is that the thematic angle of the story doesn’t quite measure up to the way the gameplay plays out, I think it’s safe to give the game a pass given how brilliantly put together everything else is.
I’ve been a Tomb Raider fan for many years, and while I had my doubts about this game, I was entirely wrong. This is exactly what the franchise has needed to bring new energy to the games, and open up the character to new generation of gamers.
All images courtesy of http://www.tombraider.com
For those who need to know, I completed the game on its PS3 version.