Hello, my name is Peter, and I’ve finally played a Tomb Raider game.
I know. It’s taken so many years for me to do so, and I’ve been out of touch with one of the most prominent video game franchises of the last 15+ years. Honestly, I never really had much of an interest before now… but there was something remarkable about this rebooted Tomb Raider that caught my interest. It wasn’t yet another sequel. It wasn’t based on the movies. It almost seemed perfect for a series novice like me to jump in for the first time, given that it was to be a story about how Lara Croft became who she is. I was happy to accept this review assignment, given that an unfamiliar perspective could be telling in terms of the overall quality of the game. I wasn’t prepared for how impactful the experience was; in fact, Tomb Raider is one of the best games that I’ve played in a quite some time.
You’ve probably heard the setup for the story by now, but the idea is that Lara is an aspiring archaeologist, living in the shadow of her deceased father. She sets out on an expedition to find Yamatai, a lost kingdom. The vessel that Lara and her team is on gets scuttled by a freak storm, washing Lara up on a beautiful but treacherous island. While trying to meet up with her team, Lara must defend herself from wildlife, crazed cult survivors, and even the undead as she grows and matures before the player’s very eyes. She starts out meek and timid, with very low self-confidence. She almost sounds like The Little Engine That Could for a time, willing herself to survival and towards accomplishing incredible feats. At times, it also seems as though Lara has a cloud of bad luck over her head; whatever can go wrong for Lara often does. As Lara transitions from a scared archaeologist into a battle-tested adventurer with the fate of her expedition party in her hands, it’s a fascinating thing to see. I found myself fist-pumping every now and again at Lara’s accomplishments, often sharing the same level of satisfaction and growing confidence in my own abilities as a player.
For many actions that Lara executes during Tomb Raider, she is rewarded with experience points, or XP. Collecting salvage, finding treasures, killing enemies, and locating new areas all pay dividends in XP, which are then used to accumulate Skill Points. These Skill Points are then applied to learning various skills in survival, hunting and brawling at various camps that Lara discovers on her journey. Players can customize Lara’s growth based on playing style. I’m more of a tank when I play, for example, so I focused on upgrading damage resistance and scavenging early on. There are also three tiers of growth that Lara can achieve, and certain skills are locked away until she reaches those levels by having accumulated enough skill points. Reaching “Specialist” level unlocks the best skills, including bonuses for combat and easily locating secret areas and tombs. Most players should be able to reach that top tier without too much out-of-story exploration, though it’s recommended to make the game a bit easier.
Tomb Raider can’t escape comparisons to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, but this is not a bad thing. Like Nathan Drake, Lara Croft will exhibit proficiency in platforming and gunplay. Both skills are needed for survival, and both are relatively easy to learn. Lara will hang from ledges, use a climbing axe to scale icy or jagged cliffs, and run for her life through collapsing or burning areas. Lara also uses a bow and arrow quite consistently throughout her adventure, and this weapon has multiple uses. It’s great for stealth attacks since there’s little noise and no muzzle flash to alert others. It’s also invaluable for combat at a distance. Perhaps the most important use of the bow and arrow is the ability to create rope travel between areas later in the game. There will be areas where Lara will have to count on her “survival instinct” – which highlights important items and areas – to find certain things that the rope arrow can latch onto for safe travel across pits and chasms.
For those who prefer bigger guns, a pistol, rifle, and shotgun become available as the game progresses. Each can be upgraded using salvage, which is the currency of the island. In addition, parts can be found through exploration and via the course of the game which also upgrades each weapon. When firefights occur, the similarities to Uncharted are obvious. Lots of cover shooting is at play here, and if players don’t use cover effectively, they’ll be torn to shreds in short order. Unlike Nathan Drake, though, Lara has more limited melee ability. Fisticuffs aren’t really recommended.
Unlike Uncharted, however, Lara has opportunities to explore tombs both during and aside from the story arc. Exploring these tombs fully uncovers special items like weapon parts, secret texts, and other goodies. Some tombs are fairly straightforward while others require solving certain environmental puzzles in order to uncover what’s inside. Exploring these tombs adds a fair amount of playing time to Tomb Raider, and many are optional… so if players wish to keep the story moving, they can skip the tombs and come back another time or even after the story has been completed. In addition to these tombs, Lara can also complete a variety of challenges on each area of the island that she explores. Tasks like blowing up mines, burning down posters, or lighting flames at idols are just some examples of what can be done, if desired. These extras set Tomb Raider apart from Uncharted and give it more depth.
The Tomb Raider solo adventure took about nine hours for me to complete, including deaths and puzzle-solving. I didn’t do a lot of extraneous exploration because I was so enthralled with the story. The story is paced pretty well, with some laughter, some heartbreak, and some double-crossing. There’s also a theme of sacrifice communicated throughout. I did have trouble with a few puzzles in the course of the game, but was able to find solutions with a little online help. I’m more of a straightforward action kind of player, and puzzles tend to wreck pacing a little bit for me, but at least the puzzles here weren’t overly unfair or unclear. I did play the multiplayer mode briefly, and it’s got some technical issues… including crashes, glitches, and fairly long loading and respawn times. It’s a diversion, kind of like what the multiplayer mode in Bioshock 2 was for me, but it’s the story mode that earns the asking price for this game.
Visually, Tomb Raider is beautiful. The island that the game takes place on is full of life, from the gritty enemies to the varied weather effects to the lushness of the flora. Excellent lighting and particle effects are on display here, and if it wasn’t for some framerate issues (on the PS3 version, anyway), this would qualify as one of the most stunning games that I’ve ever seen. There’s one sequence in particular which stands out in terms of the visuals as Lara makes her way up an old radio tower to try and establish communications for a rescue. As she makes her ascent, some breathtaking cinematography reminds players just how high up that Lara is; in fact, my own fear of heights kicked in and I felt a bit unsteady looking down. When she reaches the top and pauses to collect herself, the camera swings 360 degrees around Lara. Snow flies in the face of the sun and sun-splashed mountaintops, creating a visually striking image that I’ve rarely seen. Aside from the framerate issues on the PS3, the only other minor quibble I have with the game’s visuals would be the limited enemy character models that are represented. It felt like I dispatched the same guy 100 times, which just doesn’t make sense.
The sound and music in Tomb Raider are really top-notch, highlighted by excellent voice acting and crisp sound effects. Camilla Luddington delivers an emotional and down-to-earth Lara Croft, and the supporting cast is equally strong. The sound effects here are sampled very well, from gunfire echoing in the distance to cracks of thunder to the sounds of varied wildlife. Wrapping up the sound package is a fantastic soundtrack composed by Jason Graves, which is heavy on percussion and tension but a perfect complement overall to Lara’s journey.
It’s pretty easy to recommend Tomb Raider as a purchase. I was drawn in by Lara’s character and her gradual maturation, and the story itself moved at a really good pace to hold my interest pretty much from start to finish. Whether players choose to play rapidly for the story and then backtrack for the hidden tombs and areas, or whether they wish to comb through from the start through careful and fine exploration, this game offers a fantastic experience that’s one of Crystal Dynamics’ best efforts to date. I’m now a Lara Croft fan, and am hopeful that we’ll see a new Tomb Raider adventure as this emerging console generation moves forward.