Lara Croft was the pin-up girl for nineties video game chic. She represented a new era of titles for young adults that were cool and socially relevant. She appeared on the front cover of lifestyle magazine The Face – the first fictional sex symbol to do so. She starred in three well-reviewed games and inspired multiple press articles about whether she was or wasn’t a feminist role model. But then things went wrong. It seemed like publisher Eidos Entertainment thought Lara Croft the character was bigger then the Tomb Raider franchise that begat her. There were spin-off movies, comics and officially licensed action figures. Uninspired game sequels were released that estranged fans and damaged the brand. Square-Enix bought Eidos in 2009 and decided they wanted to start again with a brand new game.
Tomb Raider (2013) is a reboot of the legendary series and an origin story for a younger, more innocent, Lara Croft revealing how she becomes a tough adventure-seeking archaeologist.
Lara is travelling with the crew of the Endurance to find the legendary Japanese island of Yamatai. The ship is caught in a ferocious storm that rips the vessel apart. As she struggles to reach the shore she is knocked out and captured. As the player you are introduced to the new Lara as she regains consciousness and becomes aware of her horrendous surroundings. She is hanging upside down her legs tied and arms bound in a cave that has an altar, decaying human carcasses and hundreds of skulls. A blood-covered Lara realises the danger of her predicament and feels the painful wound on her side her breathing is panicked and we hear her frightened cries. There is no cute little cut scene with Lara casually strolling around her mansion in her Manolo shoes and Wang dress setting up her adventure. She is in serious danger and you have to get her out. And it’s here that your relationship with the new Lara begins.
Lara is voiced by Anglo-American actress Camilla Luddington who also performs the motion-capture for the game. The blend of her voice and body movements lends her portrayal a naturalness that previous games lacked. The high-class English accent is strong although some words sound a little over-pronounced. It’s important for the acting to be done right because so much of Lara’s state of mind in this game is communicated to the player through the noises she makes. As a young aristocrat who has found herself in the middle of a nightmare, she screams in fear, she whelps in pain in a hundred different ways and it’s a credit to Luddington that she sounds authentic throughout and has the player invest their emotions with concern for Lara’s well-being. You will want to get her out alive. This is not the same superhero-like Lara of the previous games. This is a young frightened woman just trying to survive. She gets so hungry she has to eat so she shoots a deer. Then apologises to it as it lies dying before striking it with a final blow. This is a studious University rich girl Lara who becomes tougher by necessity.
The game deftly eases you into the controls so you don’t have to study the manual before playing. Push the left stick to move and the right stick for camera. Swing the camera around and you can see Lara clutching her left side of her upper body whilst covered in dried blood. Your first steps as Lara are completely linear, sometimes you’re not even able to turn around as you are led through the environment. However it is emotionally involving and you get a real sense of panic and claustrophobia.
Early in the game Lara automatically ducks when approaching nearby enemies and the game feels overly-simplified to protect the player from being hurt, but it shouldn’t be made so easy. If the player doesn’t manually duck why not punish them with death as it will teach them to duck next time? Thankfully this level of handholding does not permeate the whole game.
There are times where you anticipate danger but you’re not allowed to draw a weapon because the game wants to create dramatic tension, like when you are in a cave and you know there is a wolf nearby but you can’t arm yourself. Once it attacks you then have to button mash a Quick Time Event to kill it. In fact QTEs are sprinkled throughout at pivotal moments to give Tomb Raider variety and create a sense of cinematic atmosphere. Plane crashing down and you want to avoid it? Then frantically press the buttons.
As the game world opens up you can pick up a variety of weapons to help in your quest to find your friends and get off the mysterious island. There’s a bow and arrow, old Lara’s trademark pistol and even a shotgun. You come across one at a time, the game skillfully teaching you the skills you need to play so you are not overwhelmed with buttons and can get on with the business of playing.
Kills and treasure reward you with XP that you can use to upgrade your weapons and you receive Skill Points for achieving set objectives which you use to upgrade Lara’s personal skills. Games with a strong narrative sometimes take you on a rollercoaster ride where you feel like a passenger but the XP and Skill Points give the player enough customisation so you feel involved and Tomb Raider feels like a game that you are in control of.
You can find locations with a tent symbol where you can set up camp allowing you to save your game and upgrade your skills. If this is at the end of a ‘chapter’ you will hear Lara speak a couple of sentences on what has just happened. It’s plot exposition done in a natural way and gives a further glimpse into her state of mind.
Enemies demonstrate intelligence. When you shoot at them they run for cover instead of standing around waiting to get shot.
Combat with any weapon is reassuringly responsive and even in a big shootout you never feel the reins are slipping out of your hands. You point, you shoot, you kill. Although I found some enemies are made of sponge, whilst playing on normal difficulty they were able to take four or five shotgun shots to the chest before dying. I found headshoting an enemy with an arrow to be reassuringly pleasurable.
What is good is that when you kill enemies, even from afar, the bodies wont immediately disappear, but will stay there so you can loot them.
At one point you come across an excellently designed Shanty Town and get caught up in a shootout with a large pack of enemies. I tried to get through it a few different ways. I ran into the town blasting down doorways, hiding, shooting and running on to rooftops to escape fire, it was quite brilliant! It felt like a real cat and mouse chase across this fantastic scenery before I was cornered and succumbed to death. Ultimately the way I beat it was by hardly moving and just waiting for every enemy to come near before I shot them. Not as much fun but more effective.
So you never feel unsure of what to do next the game has a Survival Instinct mode similar to Arkham Asylum’s Dectective Mode. Press the L2 or LT button and the screen will turn black and white but any items, enemies or environment that you can interact with will be highlighted in gold.
In comparison to the old games the new Tomb Raider has less emphasis on puzzles. It’s not to say that there aren’t any, just that they are infrequent and overly simple. An early one has you trying to find a source of fire to light a torch which you can then travel to the location of a hanging bag to burn it so it releases the salvage inside to get the XP. This is kinda cool the first time but then throughout the game are hanging net bags which you have to burn and it gets old pretty quicky. The more cerebral puzzles involve you trying to figure out how to cross an electrified pool and get a broken lift to start working.
But how about the actual business that gave the game its moniker? Just in case people would have complained there are no tombs – there are tombs to be raided! They do not form an essential part of the game but often on your travels across the island you will find yourself in the vicinity of one seamlessly integrated into the fauna. Just in case you miss it the game will tell you when you’re near one with a little pop-up message. Some have a puzzle that you have to complete before you get to the treasure chest at the end whilst others feel like development rush jobs because you can walk in straight over to the chest!
So new Tomb Raider is a different more action-orientated game then it’s predecessors but the big fat elephant in the room is that the development studio Crystal Dynamics have clearly modeled this reboot on PlayStation 3 exclusive Uncharted. Uncharted’s concept was not original it was inspired by the globe-trotting treasure hunting antics of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. However developer’s Naughty Dog made the game distinct by defining signature gameplay mechanics and their own creative flourishes.
It is these unique touches that proliferate Tomb Raider. It uses the same action cover system as Uncharted. Where you have Nathan Drake run across a high cliff and just about catch it with one hand, Lara does this too. Where you have treasure collectibles with a unique history that glisten from the distance Tomb Raider has them too and GPS caches that glisten the same way. Where Nathan picks up a gas canister or grenade and you see a visual indicator of the throwing trajectory before throwing and shooting it Lara can do this too. Even down to specific scenes like Nathan hanging on to an abandoned airplane whilst it precariously hangs over a chasm – Lara does that too! The experiences that Tomb Raider presents are enjoyable, it’s just a shame that Crystal Dynamics couldn’t visualise their own events and mechanics.
The old Tomb Raider games health packs and health bar for Lara have been have been removed and replaced with Uncharted’s fade to black and white as a visual indicator of being wounded. However this causes a minor problem, when the screen fades to black and white it can either mean you are wounded or are using Survival Instinct mode. It was a poor design decision to allow it to mean two different things and is indicative of the developers ‘borrowing’ features from other games without thinking about how it affects the logic of their own game.
Sure there can be fashions in gameplay but so much of Tomb Raider is unoriginal and imitated. It’s almost as if they have stolen the Uncharted playbook and substituted any mention of Nathan for Lara. In fact when I completed the game I found it rude that the credits had no thank you message to Naughty Dog.
Yamatai island itself is rich with detail. It’s an island that has Bermuda Triangle like weather conditions that bring lost travellers crashing to shore. The coast is full of shipwrecked boats and crashed planes. There are buildings bunkers and communication towers that date back to World War 2 and the backstory is reminiscent of TV series Lost with a mystery that encompasses the supernatural.
But whilst the island is a constant threat there are also moments of startling beauty like when Lara first steps out into daylight and see’s a dark clouds behind a red setting sun with nothing but the sound of the waves hitting rocks. Or when seagulls fly across the beach and you see the red lens flare effect of the sun behind them. But then I’m a sucker for a beautiful sunset.
The assorted island locations that give the game setting variety including vertigo inducing climbs and vistas and a camp with windmills reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic Mad Max.
As you traverse the environment and try and perform leaps and bounds you will inevitably fail and Lara will die in a unique and very grisly way. Try landing a parachute wrong and see a branch pierce Lara’s throat. Fail to fight of an attacker and see him strangle the last gasp of air out her throat. Fail to jump across a ship’s deck and see Lara smash her head against an underwater rock. Fail to see that a Guardian is coming and see Lara’s head crushed by a giant mace. Fail to escape whilst tied upside down and see Lara’s throat slit open. Or watch a cutscene where Lara’s face is punched in by a gang of men. You get the idea. I found myself making “errggghhh” sounds in reaction to the grossness (give me another game with this and I’m sure I’ll become desensitised). In age of political correctness maybe I will be called old fashioned for finding this gratuitous violence over the top but I suspect I would mind equally if it was done to Nathan Drake.
Some areas are inaccessible to you until you find the right tool for the job. You won’t be able to cross chasms until you have a bow with rope. You won’t be able to climb up a cliff face until you have a pickaxe. But the game hands you every tool you need on a linear play through the game. Tomb Raider has hub design so you can use the map to fast-travel to areas you have previously visited. In my playthrough I didn’t do this once so it’s not necessary to complete the game. There is no requirement at all to retread old steps unless you want to find all salvage and treasure collectibles which provides a longevity after you complete the story. The hub is a nice feature but it is not as intricately designed as a Zelda game where you must retrieve an object from one area to open up another in to complete the game.
There’s some thoughtful touches like when using a pickaxe to try and force open a locker. Lara who is holding a torch puts it down, opens the locker, takes the salvage, then picks up the torch again. It gives the scene continuity and keeps you immersed.
Whilst a combination of voice acting and a measured script ensure Lara is realistic and relatable, sadly the supporting cast and crew-mates of Lara are two-dimensional and forgettable. Amongst them are an adult Harry Potter lookalike with a crush on Lara, a slimey TV anthropologist and a sassy black woman who yells nonsensical lines like “Right now crazy is all we got.” It seems like the scriptwriter learnt how African-American women speak by watching US cop movies. Likewise Lara’s antagonist is a very bad man. Later in the games he share with Lara his motivations but it doesn’t explain the reason for the level of his evil deeds.
The music is different. Sometimes I thought I heard echoes of original Tomb Raider theme but sadly not. The reasoning is clear, to separate this from the previous games. 343 Industries did this with Halo 4 and left out Frank O’Donnell’s epic composition and quite frankly the game felt like it was missing its right arm. Tomb Raider fairs better. It has a new theme that is moody. The score kicks in at dramatic moments then subtly goes silent again. There is a unique use of ambient sound effects such as when running through fuselage of crashed plane you hear a sound like a swarm of bees. The effect is chilling.
When running in panic the in-game camera shakes. When you kill a deer maroon blood sprays on the screen. When you step in a puddle a couple of drops hit the camera, so subtle is the effect you will want to go over and wipe the drops away from your TV. There are also some phenomenal wind effects that makes you feel you are right in the midst of a gale force storm. I can honestly say that Lara does wind better than anybody else!
The imaginative graphics are not just used to make a pretty background picture, this is a game that carefully blends camera angles, gameplay, effects and graphics. Tomb Raider makes you feel you the elements, so you feel right in the thick of it.
What this game tries hard to do is make you share with Lara her feelings, her emotions and her physical journey. At one point she makes a dangerous climbs to the top of a communications tower on the summit of a snow covered mountain to send a distress call. Successful she pauses and the camera pans around her she is relieved and proud. It is a subtle effect but demonstrates the measured portrayal of Lara. It’s a triumph of spirit.
Near the end of the game there is huge battle with a daunting amount of enemies. Evidently too much for the console to handle as there was an unforgivable amount of slowdown that the screen started stuttering. I died a few times. Then when I got the gist and almost defeated them all the game crashed and I had a frozen screen with the same few seconds of sound effects looping.
I also found a bug in an area with electrified water and you have to solve how to make it save. But for the fun of it I jumped in the water but nothing happened, no electrical death. I had to restart it for it to work.
And another bug in a tomb with two metal cages. I was trying to jump of on to a rock wall, but a bug kept me trapped behind an invisible wall. So I had to reload.
A franchise reborn
Crystal Dynamics have successfully reinvented the Tomb Raider franchise into a compelling action orientated adventure. The grounded characterisation of Lara Croft is excellent and is a big factor in helping the player invest emotionally in the game. It has heavily borrowed mechanics from Uncharted and story from the Lost TV series but it melds them into a, mostly, coherent story that has many moments of high-octane spectacle. The hub level design is unfulfilled because there is no requirement to revisit previous areas and the early sense of menace is squandered as the game turns into a series of shoot-outs. Despite this Tomb Raider is a polished game that is a non-stop, sometimes frightening, thrill-ride.
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Formats: PC, Xbox 360, PS3,
Version tested: PS3 + Xbox 360