OverviewPlatform: Xbox 360
Lara’s origins make for a fantastic action game, but is it a great Tomb Raider game?
When it comes to gaming icons, they don’t come much more famous than Lara Croft. Her archaeological adventures have been thrilling players for years, but in the era of Nathan Drake she had lost some of her appeal. Now though, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics have gone back to the beginning to tell Lara’s origin story and make her relevant for a new audience.
Tomb Raider tells the story of a young Croft on an expedition which goes horribly wrong. Along with her academic companions she is shipwrecked on a mysterious island whose inhabitants are unable to escape, trapped by storms which destroy any vessel attempting to leave. It’s a typical story of myth and legend, though perhaps not as well told as the King Arthur tales of the previous two Tomb Raider titles.
The story also serves to explain Lara’s strength and bravery. In theory, it shows the heroine experiencing terrible horrors while learning to survive against insurmountable odds in the harshest of environments. Unfortunately, the game’s opening cut-scenes establish that Lara is pretty much invincible, throwing her down ravines and impaling her on branches with little consequence. This actually removes any feeling of vulnerability and tension from Lara’s journey, because you know she will get up and carry on regardless of any injury she receives. This is established far too early on in the game. It would have much more engaging to have her struggle through these early injuries and come strong later in the game. Instead, she goes from scared stiff, to murderous killer in about five minutes.
Instead of learning to survive, she seems to be learning how to murder a lot of people with any weapon she can get her hands on. There are hints of more emphasis on survival early in the game, with a hunting section which hints at MGS3 –like survival skills, forcing a need to live off the environment. However, this is quickly forgotten and never really comes to anything. There are animals which can be killed throughout the game for extra experience and upgrade points, but after the hunting mission you never again need to kill to feed yourself or maintain your stamina.
Controlling Lara has improved significantly over previous games in the series and this is probably where Tomb Raider has taken the most influence from Uncharted. For much of the game you will be battling other stranded islanders using a typical variety of video game firearms. The shooting feels solid and very impactful, especially when using the bow or the shotgun. Platforming is smooth and fluid too. There are some new traversal techniques, most notably the use of a climbing axe which allows Lara to climb vertical surfaces without handholds. The platforming and shooting is broken up with plenty of quick-time-events, but as with previous Tomb Raider games, these sequences are pretty well implemented and don’t intrude too much on the action.
The vast majority of Tomb Raider is split between the brutal shooting action and the platforming areas, so the game is severely lacking in some of the mechanics that the series is most known for. There are very few sections which take place in ancient ruins or tombs and an almost total lack of the franchise’s trademark complex puzzle solving. Puzzles are mostly limited to optional hidden tombs, tiny rooms which barely take ten or fifteen minutes to solve if you spot the trick to the puzzle quickly. There are one or two puzzles in the main story towards the end, but they’re even less difficult than the hidden tombs. There isn’t a single swimming section either, despite the fact that these were often the tensest moments of previous Tomb Raider titles.
That said this Tomb Raider features some astounding set-pieces, from dodging huge plane crashes in the mountains to some spectacular traversal across massive outdoor areas. The game is a little slow to start, but the second half is a spectacular journey through the island’s astonishing landscape, filled with varied environments from military bunkers to swamps. The views are gorgeous and the combat scenarios feature lots of different enemies and approaches. Tomb Raider is just tremendous fun to play, even if it does stray from the series’ roots.
A large part of the entertainment comes from the beautiful visuals, which include some of the most amazing landscapes ever seen in a video game. When you reach the top of a cliff you can’t help but stop for a few seconds to admire the detail in the world. Characters are wonderfully animated as well. This is clearly a game which pushes the Xbox 360 to its absolute limits. One could even argue that, at times, Tomb Raider is more visually impressive than the Uncharted series.
There are plenty of new mechanics for the franchise as well. Lara can scavenge the environment for “salvage” which allows you to upgrade her weapons with new parts to increase damage and accuracy or add alternate firing modes. There is an extensive skill tree too, with upgrade points earned by gaining experience through story actions, combat and collecting hidden objects. There are loads of things to find, from relics to books and GPS caches left by other explorers. There’s plenty of reason to come back and explore the island and there’s also online multiplayer – a first for Tomb Raider – but this is fairly generic shooter gameplay with unlockable weapons and appearances based on experience earned in matches.
To get the most out of the new Tomb Raider you need to manage your expectations. If you come to this expecting the puzzles and forgotten cities of Lara’s previous adventures, you will be sorely disappointed. If you come in expecting emphasis on surviving a harsh environment like Naked Snake in the jungles of Russia, you will also be let down. However, if you come in looking for a phenomenal action game with some of the best graphics, set-pieces and combat of this generation then you will absolutely love this reboot of one of gaming’s most successful and beloved characters. Though it strays from the series’ roots and the narrative is all over the place at times, Tomb Raider is still tremendous fun to play. It brings Lara right up-to-date and powerfully sets her up for many more adventures to come.