Lara's new adventure, while gravely steelier than usual, is perhaps her best yet.
Lara Croft's been through some shit in her storied career as a beloved video game character. Angel of Darkness, sure, but I also mean figuratively. The newest Tomb Raider game, from studio Crystal Dynamics who have been developing for the series since its last reboot, has chosen to retell her origin story with this in mind: How the archeologist heroine acquired her ruthless survival streak that's been at the core of her character from the offset, along with her sardonic sense of humor and back-flipping pistol acrobatics. Scrapping the two latter traits for a more focused and serious game might seem like an exercise in diminishing the series' core appeal, something that was a chief concern of fans of a certain other frenetic established franchise, but apropos given the seriousness of Lara's plight in her newest adventure. Some may decry the lack of levity, but for the story Tomb Raider wants to tell it feels right. It's often hard to commingle a video game character's gameplay-directed, mass-murdering psychopathic side with that of the character's narrative-directed wounded, sympathetic side, but the game does its best with a very serious Lara that seems to be on the cusp of losing her nerves at any given moment. Whether figuratively, during quiet moments when she's absorbing all that's happened to her and her crewmates, or literally when struggling to make it up the side of a dilapidated ruin before it falls apart, you get the sense at all times that she's barely hanging on. It's a human performance that's not diminished too much by her gunning down of hundreds of feral goons.
Lara's newest adventure, though technically her first, concerns the lost island nation of Yamatai, situated in the center of a Bermuda Triangle-like forbidden zone of the type to engender an interesting mystery or two. The game's story ably upholds the franchise's proclivity towards balancing supernatural elements with that of Lara's rational academic, a format the series borrowed from the Indiana Jones movies. Though there are plenty of ancillary characters, they don't have much significance to the plot beyond helping to shape Lara into the person she will eventually become: We have her heroic mentor, a group of likable though ultimately disposable crew members that serve her mentor's ship, a vainglorious celebrity, a deranged antagonist in the form of a scholarly survivor driven to insanity by years spent trying to solve the island's inscrutable secrets and the long-deceased Queen of the region's erstwhile nation who appears to be central to the enigmatic storms that destroy any craft that approaches the isle. Even so, this is Lara's journey through-and-through and the game is wise enough to give her the center stage throughout. Remarkably, while Lara's friend Sam serves as a fairly reductive damsel-in-distress, this story - written by a woman (the superlative Rhianna Pratchett, channeling her famous father's flair for storytelling) for a female protagonist - is one of the more socially progressive examples in this medium, the inadvertent efforts of a tone-deaf marketing team and a few unfortunately chosen words from the project's executive producer Ron Rosenberg to sabotage it notwithstanding. Though Lara Croft spends some time as a vulnerable naïf in this game, that innocence doesn't last long.
The game looks incredible. The debris-strewn island is equal parts grimy and picturesque, the character models all look great without falling into unfortunate uncanny valley territory and there's some seriously nice lighting and wind effects giving the eerie island and its tumultuous weather a depth of character. The game is far more subdued with its music, choosing instead to focus on ambient sound and the occasional diegetic track or two. What music there is is superbly composed by Jason Graves.
Because this is a modern action-adventure game, there's a combination of third-person action shooting and exploration enhanced with a multitude of traversal-enabling abilities and equipment. The key to a satisfying one of these is to balance the two halves without focusing on too much of one or the other, preferably with the two sides alternating. The game's fairly good about this, creating tense shoot-outs that are over relatively quickly and allowing the player to roam a bit further before the next batch of waist-high walls and inexplicably ubiquitous explosive barrels. There's no point arguing about how every shooter game is the same these days, since it's usually best to stick with what works in that regard. If you're a fan of the format, there's enough of it here to interest you. If you prefer Lara solving puzzles and climbing across precarious footholds, there's plenty of that to enjoy as well. A lot of the game is centered around Lara's bow, which provides various exploratory benefits as well as being an absurdly powerful weapon in comparison to the trio of guns Lara finds. Indeed, the one major fault with the combat is how indestructible some enemies feel, with them shrugging off shotgun blasts to the face and the QTe-enabled insta-kill counters being anything but until the third or fourth successive quick-time event has weakened them sufficiently to pull off the coup-de-grace. Presumably this issue is exacerbated further on higher difficulty modes (this reviewer played through the game on the medium setting) and it's an issue shared with its closest contemporary Uncharted 3: As is the enemies' annoying knack of sneaking up around you in enclosed arenas that offer little in defensive options. Nothing too off-putting, but it's not breaking new ground in this sphere either. Ditto with the climbing and acrobatics, since Tomb Raider is apparently happy to ape the Uncharted series' cinematic "oh hell" moments of peril; though given Uncharted's own overt influences, I suppose turnabout is fair play.
A chief concern of mine with any new Tomb Raider are the quality of the collectibles: Why raid tombs otherwise? Tomb Raider throws a bone to completionists in this regard by making it fairly easy to acquire maps that in turn provide the locations of all the game's various collectibles. Furthermore, once the icon is on your map, you can assign it as a waypoint and the game is happy to divulge its precise resting point. It's a little dispiriting, frankly, since the ease at which you can run around collecting these items kind of makes them feel like superfluous busywork; more so than how collectibles usually feel in other games. Take something like Batman: Arkham City for a better modern example, where finding the location of one of its Riddler Trophies is secondary to figuring out how to actually acquire it. It's an element in general that either needs to evolve or be scrapped entirely, because it's starting to feel inane, and I say this as someone who is unabashedly a fan of collecting arbitrary knick-knacks for an ultimately immaterial 100% completion rating. At the very least, I will say that there are some nice touches with the relics that have hidden details that the player can turn the model viewer around to find, as well as a sequel hook hidden subtly within a completed set of GPS beacon pick-ups.
Overall, Tomb Raider feels like a massive step forward for the franchise - while not particularly innovative, it is an expertly crafted game in all respects: It has an affecting central protagonist, glorious visuals, an incredible sense of style and cinematic tension and a solid action game at the core of it all. In essence, it purloins only the best from those that have gone before, including but not limited to Lara's earlier adventures, and the symbolism of such a practice from a game named Tomb Raider isn't lost on me.