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Tomb Raider review

A once-troubled series proves it has what it takes to survive

Release date: March 5 Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC

Stalking through the dry brush and over a river-worn rocky outcrop I spot my quarry: a pair of grazing deer. My first arrow connects just below the jaw of deer one, dropping her instantly, and deer two takes flight. Unfortunately for her I’m no stranger to survival, and she can’t quite move quick enough to escape my second arrow, which hits her in the neck. As I move forward to loot the animals and claim my experience point prize, I hear a familiar chime and spot something exciting in the nearby cliff face: the partially obscured entrance to a secret tomb.

I’m in Tomb Raider‘s endgame. The story of supernatural meteorological activity and creepy cults has concluded and there isn’t a bad guy to be found on the map, yet I’ve returned to track down the remaining tombs, max out my abilities and upgrade all my weapons. There’s a lot to do and see in the game’s open, sprawling, island setting, and it’s absolutely worth seeing as much as you can.

Unlike Legend and Underworld, which (while excellent) felt like a return to the ideals of the original Tomb Raider but with modern bits and bobs, the reboot is a game entirely of its own. This is an emotional, deep, refined and thoroughly satisfying experience, throughout which you’ll solve environmental puzzles, traverse varied and challenging terrain and dispatch hundreds of enemies in a pretty impressive range of combat situations, all in the narrative context of a fresh take on quite a familiar story.

Lara Croft – young daughter of a famous explorer – hits the high seas with a deliberately ethnically diverse yet predictably stereotypical group of comrades searching for a lost island of legend. Though already a recognised archaeological scholar and clearly a geek for ancient cultures and customs, Croft is far from the badass billionaire goldhunter she was in previous games. When a mysterious storm wrecks her ship and maroons her and her party on an inescapable island populated by unsavory mercenary types hell-bent on murdering her, Croft must put her theoretical knowledge into practice and become a hardened survivor.

The environments themselves are gorgeous and varied. Everything looks and sounds great and meticulous atmospheric of the island brings it to life as a character in its own right. The map is huge and can be explored at will, even allowing fast-travelling to areas you’ve previously discovered. The sheer design of the environments is stunning, especially considering everythign is streamed in the background and there are absolutely no loading screens to break your exploration and play. Throw in Metroid-style uplockable skills like your fire-starting / room-illuminating torch and mountain climbing gear, and the  entire game-world becomes a veritable playground.

Lara’s personal progression from tough rich kid to survivor is, for the most part, well handled through both mandatory and player-defined upgrades. Over the course of the game you will grow to genuinely care about her plight as trial after trial takes its toll on her both psychologically and in the form of the scars, punctures and scrapes that accumulate along the way. Combat is, for once, a standout feature in a Tomb Raider game, with a smart and functional automatic cover system that only kicks in when enemies are around and always makes sure you’re out of harm’s way when you want to be. A smart upgrade system lets you shape the exact manner of Lara’s progression, allowing you to approach combat in a way that feels tailored to you.

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As a third-person action-adventure game with an emphasis on cover-shooting and environment-traversal, Tomb Raider was bound to draw comparisons to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. While it’s fair to say the game takes inspiration from the adventures of Nathan Drake (who of course was compared to Lara Croft himself when Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune first released), this by no means is a negative stirke against the game. The absurd athletic maneuvers, dual-wielding and vehicle sequences are gone from previous Tomb Raider entries, replaced with an open world to explore, an upgradeable stable of skills, gear, and weapons, and a story that actually makes you feel something for the protagonist.

Putting the player in Lara’s shoes is something Tomb Raider does exceptionally well, owing entirely to the way Crystal Dynamics have reinvented their character. When Nathan Drake almost falls off a cliff, he’s obliged to throw out a pithy one-liner to show that he’s on top of the situation. When Lara Croft is tasked with climbing an enormous and decaying radio tower, she clings terrified to every rung and slouches against the wind on every platform. This is one of the first times a character in an action game (including all previous Tomb Raider games) has been humanised to this degree.

There have been a lot of  assertions that the reason the new Tomb Raider is such an emotionally compelling experience is because the protagonist is a young woman as opposed to the stock-standard wisecracking white guy, but I feel it actually has a lot less to do with gender and a lot more to do with the fact that Lara Croft can react to many situations in the game like a real human would and not seem to be acting out of character. This is one of the game’s greatest strengths from a narrative point of view.

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Of course one game can’t be everything, and there’s a few caveats to Tomb Raider’s new approach. First, Lara’s vulnerability is often at odds with her tendency to murder entire groups of people. Her first kill is — like many of her experiences in the game — raw, dirty and heart-wrenching. Within five minutes of that experience however, she’s shooting a group of dudes in the face with arrows and looting their corpses for supplies like a crazy person. Fortunately it’s easy to consider these two areas of the game separately, but the most emotional and suspenseful moments of Tomb Raider all happen when Lara is not directly engaged in combat.

Secondly, the pace of this game is much faster than the series has ever seen. On your way from each objective to the next you are under constant threat from crumbling rock-faces, splintering wooden structures, exploding aeroplanes and crazed mercenaries. Traversing the game is a perfect blend of open combat, organic navigation through jumping or climbing, and grand, exciting setpieces like burning buildings, crumpling structures or sinking ships.

The pace comes at a cost though: environmental puzzle solving in the style of classic Tomb Raider games simply does not fit in. Instead, the bulk of that experience is moved to optional ‘secret tombs’, which are hidden around the map. Finding a tomb gives you a break from the regular game and delivers a brilliant old-school environmental challenge. Expect physics-based puzzling, lock-and-key type deals, interesting fire-based challenges and all manner of other fun activities. The game has changed so fundamentally that it’s great to have these little bastions of throw-back to enjoy. Although if you are a diehard fan there are a few ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ moments late in the game hat will put a smile on your face too.

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The one major misstep in the whole engrossing, magnificent package is the shoe-horned multiplayer. It’s bad. Lara’s every animation and ability are so well-tuned to the environment of the single-player game that the clumsy battling of the multiplayer game’s various modes feel pretty lame and very awkward. Unfortunately for completionists a good deal of the game’s achievements / trophies are tied to the multiplayer. Fortunately for everyone though, the whole thing is easy to ignore. Once the main story of the game is over, the open-world endgame presents a much more satisfying and interesting experience than taking the game online.

Tomb Raider is exactly what this series needed. It is not simply a Tomb Raider game released in 2013, it’s a Tomb Raider game that feels like it belongs in 2013. Not everything that made the original games so revolutionary is still present, but we live in very different times now. While the original Tomb Raider made huge progress in 3D level design and environmental puzzling — the frontiers of the time— the new Tomb Raider pushes the bar for relatable, psychologically fleshed-out avatars, open-world streaming and  non-intrusive interactive scripted events, all the while taking inspiration from the very best action-adventure games of the current generation. Tomb Raider is a refined, thoroughly modern interpretation of the franchise we all know and love. It’s a triumph of emotionally-engaging game design, and a brilliant return to relevance for a series once mired in self-reflection and mediocrity.

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