The Will to Survive
It’s hard to ignore the deep impression that the Tomb Raider series and its rough-and-tumble protagonist have made on gaming, but it must be admitted that Lara and her adventures seem closely bound to a bygone era of excess crate puzzles and comparatively rudimentary characters and environments. The series carried on long after its original reign during the Playstation One generation, but it’s felt like it’s never quite managed to find its footing as part of the modern action-adventure genre. This game changes all that. Acting as a reboot for the franchise, 2013’s Tomb Raider depicts Lara Croft as an eager, young explorer looking to investigate the island of Yamatai, once home to an ancient civilisation who worshipped a holy queen known as Himiko. When violent storms cause Lara to shipwreck on the island she is separated from her crew, and at the mercy of the island and its mysterious but hostile inhabitants must learn to fend for herself if she wishes to return home.
Most of your time in Tomb Raider is spent utilising Lara’s abilities in either combat, puzzle-solving, or traversal. The game doesn’t aim for intense depth with any one of these systems, but instead for variety, switching focus between each of them with careful timing to keep things fresh and make sure no one area of the gameplay ever becomes worn out. The combat in itself takes a similar tact, offering a fairly modest arsenal of weapons with which to take on opponents, but aiming to make each weapon distinctly different from the next, and frequently giving you the opportunity to take on threats either via stealth or sheer firepower, even though you’ll probably end up making considerable use of both by the end of the game. The enemies are no slouches though. You’ll find that especially in the back half of the game, they won’t be content to let you stick in one piece of cover for too long, using explosives and melee attacks to keep you moving as you try to take them down.
Among the selection of tools you have to dispatch the islanders the bow really takes pride of place, being versatile enough to act as both a stealth and non-stealth weapon and helping break up combat that would otherwise be an all-out gunfest. When you’re lurking in the bushes, trying to line up the perfect shot with it there’s a moment of tension as you pull back and take aim, and then providing everything goes well a small spark of triumph as you drop your target in a single shot. If I had to pick a dud amongst the weapons though, it would definitely be the pistol. I got some mileage out of it earlier on in the game, but once I’d found all the weapons there didn’t seem to be one job the pistol could do that couldn’t be done more effectively with something else from my collection of shooty things.
Puzzling is kept fairly light, eschewing the classic series convention of more involved and lengthy environmental conundrums in favour of simpler, snappier challenges like just working out the right tool to help you cross a chasm or concocting a basic plan to exploit the mechanism of a nearby lift, and it all works pretty well. If at any point you become stuck, you can tap the left bumper to highlight the interactive objects around you and get a hint from Lara. It works to both the game’s and your advantage to have this means of keeping things moving without robbing you of the joy of the actual solving.
The experience of scaling the island’s environments obviously takes a lot from Assassin’s Creed, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. The steady, methodical leaps, climbs, and jumps you must use to overcome impasses on your exploration of Yamatai make you feel like you’re genuinely conquering the island, and some attentive placement of the camera makes much of the traversal a platform for the game to show off its gorgeous environments. Tomb Raider’s art style does leave it pretty firmly in the already bloated camp of modern, grim, gritty reboots, but its an idea that fits with the game’s sensibilities as it manages to convey a striking sense of Lara being stuck in an uncaring and remote corner of the planet. The world is a canvas of dark greens, browns, whites, and grays, and from the windswept beaches to the inhospitable mountains, it’s all rendered with impressive quality. One of the many games it feels instinctive to compare Tomb Raider to is the famous Uncharted, and while there are undoubtedly strong parallels between the two, Uncharted is left feeling more Indiana Jones, while Tomb Raider is decidedly more Robinson Crusoe. Story however, is not one of the game’s strong points.
Much has been made of the game acting as a coming of age narrative for Lara; an emotionally impacting portrayal of the character in which we see her desperate struggles and the way she moves beyond them to become something closer to the heroic Lara we know. I have to say, while the story is by no means abysmal, I’m just not feeling it here. Tomb Raider does a much better job than the majority of games at depicting a normal, vulnerable person at the mercy of ruthless circumstances, but that’s not an especially high bar, and it still suffers from the problems most games in this vein do. Because combat is a component Tomb Raider can only go so long without, it’s a jarringly brief amount of time between Lara empathetically crying over the body of a dying animal and murdering hundreds of people without compunction. In fact any new and dangerous task she sets herself to, she miraculously masters in a matter of seconds. Alongside Miss Croft are a selection of side characters the game gives us barely any time with or reasons to root for, and yet apparently expects us to develop some deep attachment to, and collectively the cast go through a series of twists which can be seen coming a mile off. Without spoiling anything, the plot also periodically dips into more fantastical themes that don’t feel like they belong in a game that spends most of its time trying to be a down-to-earth survivalist tale of one shipwrecked young woman.
In a slightly odd addition the game also includes multiplayer, and to its credit it provides more fun than you’d think a Tomb Raider multiplayer might, largely due to the solid handling of the game’s weapons, but it takes combat that only ever feels like it was meant to be one portion of the game and stretches it thin by having it dominate almost the entire experience. It leaves the multiplayer mode unfortunately feeling like a corporately-planned, tacked-on element of the game as opposed to something that was properly considered in the initial design stages of the mechanics.
As an attempt to establish a distinct identity for Lara and the Tomb Raider series in modern gaming, 2013’s Tomb Raider feels like it dilutes itself a little too much with the way it borrows so much from similar games. It also shipped with a multiplayer that there’s little reason to try and a story that’s not everything it was hyped up to be, but in spite of these flaws it’s an exciting and varied experience. From climbing great radio towers, to uncovering ancient riddles, to staring down the barrel of an islander’s gun, Tomb Raider is a whirlwind ride that deserves your attention.