Whilst joining Miss Croft on her journey around the crazy cult infested island in the Dragon’s Triangle, I couldn’t decide if Crystal Dynamics love Lara or absolutely loathe her. Whilst the devs have breathed new life into the character and the series, they seem to have included every opportunity to leave Lara battered and bruised.
The game begins with Lara Croft and her crew onboard the ship Endurance with a rag tag group of misfits made up of Conrad Roth, an old friend of the Croft family and former Royal Marine; Joslyn Reyes, the cold and calculated ship’s mechanic; Alex, a light-hearted computer specialist; Jonah Maiava, a fisherman and ships cook; Angus “Grim” Grimaldi, the grizzly Scottish helmsman; Samantha ‘Sam’ Nishimura, documentarian and Lara’s bezzie; and celeb archaeologist Dr. James Whitman who’s all-in-all, a bit of a dick.
Struck by a violent storm, the not so aptly named ship Endurance rips apart like a digestive left in a cup of tea for too long and the crew is scattered around an island inhabited with some disturbed individuals who possibly had too much kahlua at the Club 18 to 30 mixer the night before. A young Lara Croft is left stranded and tasked with reuniting her shipmates – becoming a total badass in the process.
Crystal Dynamics have put the power of Lara’s transformation in the players hands as it’s up to you to help her level up and learn new skills by scrounging salvage, locating hidden trinkets and shooting men and beasts in the head with this years hottest accessory for action game protagonists – the bow.
In addition to unlocking new skills and abilities for Lara, split into Survivor, Hunter and Brawler skill trees, players will also be able to upgrade the weapons Lara uses and finds around the island. This is achieved by using salvage and weapon parts found around the island to upgrade your core weapons at base camps – a core and fantastic mechanic in the game.
Varying enemy types force your hand towards different weapons, machete wielders bear down upon you and grenadiers litter the back lines, forcing you away from precious chest high walls. When the guys with the riot shields show up, you’ll be glad to have something a little faster firing, but try not to underestimate Lara’s skills in hand to hand combat. The weapon upgrade system is pretty diverse, allowing you to pick and choose upgrades that appeal to your playstyle.
Furthermore, Tomb Raider rewards you for not directly looking for trouble. Rather than go in all-gun blazing (it’s a while before you find another gun that isn’t the pistol), the game gives you the option to sneak up for stealth kills or use the bow to silently take down an enemy. This is typically rewarded with a bigger XP payout than you would have gotten if you started popping caps in all available arses.
It’s not all bows and bullets however as Lara can still throwdown brawler style, once you’ve levelled up enough. To begin with Lara will merely nudge her opponents out of the way with a shoulder barge, giving a stun effect. After reaching the second tier of skills however, Lara unlocks the ability to go batshit crazy with her makeshift axe. There’s even potential to unlock skills to dodge and insta-kill enemies by stabbing them in the knee or cracking them in the head with a rock.
Characterisation throughout is excellent and the opening of the game makes you a spectator to the shattering of the human condition, breaking the codes and values society has set for us. In an attempt to preserve her life, Lara made her first kill and a guilt ridden woman broke down in tears. It’s a world away from the confident killer berating those who would halt her progress towards to climactic finale.
Combat aside, the Tomb Raider franchise is also well noted for it’s puzzles which in the past were often a complete ballache to complete. Unfortunately this isn’t really the case in this latest title (unless you’re Jamie as he showed in his recent edition of Achievement Punter) and the puzzles to be found can generally be completed relatively quickly with little thought required.
Puzzles are typically found in the forms of optional tombs which can be discovered around the island and are generally completed with a series of timed jumps and using the upgraded features that are unlocked as you progress throughout the game. What confused me the most though is that rewards are often weapon parts for specific guns which made me wonder how these things found themselves stashed in ancient chests that are difficult to reach.
It could be argued that with this Lara being much younger and less experienced than she is in earlier games, the complexity of the puzzles has been adjusted to cater to the narrative. Whether or not this is actually the case though is something that only the development team will know.
In addition to the optional tombs, the island is littered with challenges, relics and GPS caches to locate which offer their own rewards and XP boosts. These are by far the most challenging part of the game as many are hidden away and even with Lara’s Survival Instincts highlighting their location if you’re nearby, it will take a lot of extra hours to nab them all.
Thankfully though, the base camps will offer the ability to fast travel to other previously unlocked base camps around the island to complete each areas set challenge. The environment in Tomb Raider is stunning and very open and abilities that you unlock along the way, such as the climbing axe, will allow you to get to previously inaccessible areas and traverse new paths to get to set locations.
In regards to the stunning environment, Tomb Raider really does look absolutely spectacular. Of course the PC version of the game is always going to graphically blow away it’s console counterparts but even so, it’s hard not to get lost in the beauty of the furnishings, character models and the superb use of lighting that is a prevalent theme throughout.
Overall, it’s hard to truly find any real flaws with Crystal Dynamics reboot of Lara and the Tomb Raider franchise. We’ve seen a lot of HD re-releases and reboots of popular franchises over the past few years and the development team have truly produced an example of how it can be done right. Variety is the spice of life and Tomb Raider serves up a blend of platforming, action heavy set pieces and engaging third person combat.
The new game has plenty of appeal for those new to series without completely alienating it’s hardcore following and has set a blueprint for what will hopefully be many more games to come.
Tomb Raider is out now for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.