Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360
Developers: Crystal Dynamics | Eidos Montreal (Multiplayer)
Publishers: Square Enix
"Are you watching porn?" my flatmate asks me, no doubt hearing the yelps, squeals, and screams coming from the television. I can't really blame him. The last half an hour has been a cavalcade of torment for young Lara Croft, who's bruised, bloodied, battered from numerous scrapes, scraps, and sorties. This is a more human Lara, perhaps even a more relatable heroine; one who gasps in exclamation with each brutal blow she is dealt, and who's latest adventure has caused this writer to wince and grimace in sympathy at the vicious gauntlet she is thrown down time and time again.
We're so used to seeing impenetrable heroic stereotypes that it's jarring at first to be in the company of a protagonist who seems so in her touch with her basic, human fragility. But then, this is the story of a Lara who's only just started raiding tombs.
Not that I want to make out that Tomb Raider presents us with anything particularly new, though that in itself is not necessarily a problem. It's stunning to behold - an absolutely beautiful game both when staring out across the horizon, and at close-quarters, in-motion, fending off adversaries - but there's precious little of the solitude that marked early Tomb Raider titles, not until you've finished the game anyway. This is Fully-Flavoured, Triple-A, Big Budget Gameplay to bring the series up to date, and therefore is liberally peppered with exceptionally tight and responsive action; slick, scripted moments of drama littered with quick time events; regenerating heath and upgradable weapons; and a large amount of collectibles to find, many of which tie into the game's story and flesh out the narrative.
We start the game in the company of a Lara "setting out to make [her] mark". A junior, academic, archeological adventurer aboard the Endurance, she finds herself in the company of a crew who knew her globetrotting father, seemingly playing second fiddle to a more senior, rather pompous professor, and hunting down Yamatai - a mythical, lost island said to have been once ruled by the powerful Sun Queen, Himiko - somewhere inside the treacherously stormy Dragon's Triangle. The thunderclaps roll, lightning strikes many times, and the Endurance is broken, with her crew scattered and washed up on the shores of Yamatai.
Lara finds herself on her own, and the island quickly reveals itself as an unwelcoming host. Evidence of ritualistic killings, disturbing messages daubed on the walls of bloodied and abandoned huts still starkly against the lush beauty of the jungle paradise. Flayed bodies in the depths of candlelit caverns and the slavering, bestial aggression of Lara's first encounters with the island's inhabitants give hints of the ordeal to come. Should Lara fall foul of her QTE interactions with the environment, death is swift and unflinching and takes the breath away.
Survival is clearly the order of the day, and there are horrors and atrocities aplenty, but Crystal Dynamics have not made a survival-horror game. This is an action-adventure after all, so survival means traversing the landscape without falling to your doom; ensuring that you've explored every nook and cranny that Yamatai has to offer for each and every XP-boosting collectible you can find in order to upgrade your weapons and max out your skills; and being able to use those weapons in clinical fashion.
Lara sobs over her first animal kill, and she retches violently after taking her first human life, but the transition from shuddering wreck to capable killer is almost hilariously clunky. After those first two scenes, that's pretty much it. Looking back on it, it perhaps seems like an opportunity missed, but you don't have time to think about that as you're going through it, and that's rather the point. Lara is killing because she has to. Later on, she does it to get even, hurling her own war cries into the explosive air, daring her adversaries to come and get her. That you get the opportunity to eavesdrop on a few conversation between guards, and hear them discussing Lara with irritation, then frustration, then fear and panic, is a wonderful thing. This in't a game that makes you feel like a badass from the very start - you and Lara have to earn it. But by the end, I was punching the air.
Much of that has to do with the admirable combat system. Crystal Dynamics have done an absolutely stupendous job when it comes to Lara's dynamic behaviour. The way she automatically adjusts to her environment - crouching and crawling through tunnels, bracing herself against the cliff face when moving along narrow escarpments - feeds into her combat behaviour. There's no button for sticky cover, because Lara will automatically try to make herself smaller in combat situations, ducking behind cover as you near it. She's no lumbering beefcake, nor an invulnerable space marine, and the game reflects her strengths in swift lethality and decisiveness. You never have to worry about unsticking from a cover position, you just move, and it makes for a wonderful marriage between run-and-gun tactics, and more cautious approaches.
Of course, half of the fun is attempting to avoid open combat completely. Lara can perform stealth kills by sneaking up behind unsuspecting foes and tapping the Y button, as well as downing enemies silently once she's acquired silencers for her firearms. However, we'll be honest, even when we were packing a shotgun that spat fiery death, and a scoped combat rifle with a grenade launcher strapped to the underside of its barrel, we always went back to the bow.
The simplicity of the bow is magnificent. It's good for silent kills - thinning out a herd of guards by picking off the stragglers at opportune moments before darting away from the scene of the crime is gloriously empowering. Then, later on, you can tape a Zippo to the front, and set your enemies on fire, forcing them out from behind cover. When you've unlocked the ability to fire off rope arrows, you'll be able to yank that cover away, or simply pull enemies from high ledges. Fans might decry the raised focus on action elements in this game, but 2013's Tomb Raider manages to do action better than all of its series predecessors, and most of its peers too. Naughty Dog borrowed huge leaves from Lara's book when they placed Nathan Drake at the top of the action-adventure food chain. But Nate's been outdone here, and rather emphatically too.
It's perhaps natural, given the above, that Crystal Dynamics might want to leverage that rather superb combat system into multiplayer. But they didn't have time, so a small team from Thief devs Eidos Montreal stepped in and crafted a bolt-on. Sadly, however, it feels completely superfluous and anathema to what Tomb Raider embodies. It's incredibly competent, certainly, the same way Bioshock 2's multiplayer was competent - progressions, deathmatches, CTF, unlocks, they're all in there. But it feels utterly apart from the main game, and it's all too easy to see that the only reason that this multiplayer mode exists is to tick a content box for the publisher.
You could be forgiven for thinking thus far that Tomb Raider is all breakneck action at a high tempo pace, but you'd be wrong. You see, the true star of the show is Yamatai itself, with a number of larger mini-sandboxes in amongst the tight tunnels, interior battlegrounds, and supposedly abandoned bunkers and temples. It's here that the series' soul and spirit makes a return, with the beautifully detailed environments encouraging you to engage and explore. Once you've clocked the game's main story and unlocked all of Lara's key equipment, it's almost as if the 'real' Tomb Raider begins. Unfettered by the narrative, you're left to enjoy Crystal Dynamics' dynamic traversal system, free to roam and explore to your heart's content, as the game gives you the opportunity to return to the island and finish everything that you started - every little challenge, every collectible you missed, and every tomb left uncovered.
Yes, that's right. I said tomb.
It feels odd to have reached 1300 words without mentioning tombs, but then again they are completely optional. Seven little puzzle chambers lie tucked away across the game's map, and they emerge like pockets of history: relic-stuffed cavern halls with a physics-based conundrum or two to solve before you can reach the treasure. Interestingly, that loot never comes in the form of a relatively meaningless artefact, but rather delivers a fat bundle of salvage points for upgrades, or large weapon parts for enhancing your personal armoury. The tombs are exactly what we want from a game such as this, and make for the perfect little diversion from the exhausting action of the plot; we just wish that they were bigger, and greater in number.
And that's the thing. As excellent as the parts of this game all are, I'm left craving more. Lara's survivalist baptism of fire is an immaculate, high-octane thrill-fest that rivals the best genre games of this generation. It makes sense for this game to be a heavily action-oriented affair, and the combat is always engrossing and never feels cheap, but the real exhilaration comes from the exploratory side elements that hark back to Tomb Raider's foundations. With Lara established firmly as a butt-kicking heroine (she even has her all own little musical theme, as all heroes should), we can't wait for a sequel that explores that character in her adventuring prime.
Perhaps that's the greatest endorsement, really. For the first time in years, the name on our lips as we clamour for an encore will be "Lara" rather than "Drake". The torch has been handed back to its rightful owner.
- Superb production values - the level of detail in visual and sound design is exceptional
- Excellent, rollicking action-adventure story
- Combat is the some of the best we've seen from the genre, let alone the series
- Yamatai is fantastically realised, exploration encouraged to a huge degree
- Less action, more adventuring please next time
- Multiplayer feels tacked on and superfluous in spite of its solidity
The Short Version: Boasting a dynamic platforming playground that reveals itself slowly but surely, the entire Tomb Raider experience is built around the (re)birthing of an icon in terms of action-adventuring. Deliciously tight mechanics, combined with a fine balance between scripted setpieces and player-driven action deliver an immaculately paced piece that grabs hold and never let's go. It might not prove transcendental, but it points towards a future of great promise for the franchise. Simply outstanding.