Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publisher: Square Enix
That’s not say it was a sure thing. Tomb Raider had some pretty rough PR in the lead up to the game’s release thanks to a notorious E3 showing last year that appeared to portray Lara getting sexually assaulted by an armed henchman and an ill-advised remark from a producer who said he hoped gamers would want to ‘protect’ Lara. This didn’t bode particularly well for a game that aspired to show the roots of one of gaming’s most beloved heroines.
Fortunately, the actual game itself has no problems conveying Lara’s transformation from a young, inexperienced adventurer into a seasoned treasure hunter. It’s refreshing to see a game actually chart a character arc in this fashion. When Lara first gets stranded on the island Yamatai, she is startled, frightened and unsure of herself. For a big budget adventure game, it’s pleasing to see the developers have some patience in charting Lara’s confidence and gradual development in her abilities. First she finds a bow and kills a deer for sustenance. Then, when the time comes, she kills a man in self defence. “It was scary,” she later tells her mentor Roth, “just how easy it was.”
No kidding. The irksome thing about Tomb Raider is that, in an otherwise excellent game, it has the same gaping ludo-narrative disonnance that plagues Uncharted, Grand Theft Auto IV and about a dozen other high profile games from the last five years. In other words, the Lara Croft in the cutscenes is portrayed as a pragmatic humanist who is looking to get off the island with her friends as quickly and painlessly as possible. The Lara Croft in the game is a blood-lusting monster who shifts quickly from self defence to pro-actively butchering people in spectacularly gruesome fashion – setting people on fire, thrusting a pick axe into their skull, stabbing their thorax with an arrow. For all our technological progress in gaming as a medium, its depressing to think that the number of humans Lara kills in the original Tomb Raider is five. In the reboot, she desimates a mind numbing four hundred people. I’m not naive enough to think that this game could get by without an increase in enemies to fight but the tonal shift between Lara’s reluctant first kill and the ‘style points’ awarded for unnecessarily killing a guy with an axe to the face is jarring to say the least.
Having said that, if the game is to follow Uncharted, Max Payne and Gears of War down the path of mass destruction, it at least does so in a punchy and empowering fashion that feels more satisfying than most of its contemporaries. Unlike Uncharted, there are very few enemies in Tomb Raider that feel like cheap bullet sponges. Usually, a single well placed shot from the bow will do the trick. Therefore its quite easy to have a satisfying jaunt through the game’s many shanty towns and temples, barrel rolling Lara from cover point to cover point, taking out enemies with finesse. The bow in Tomb Raider is one of gaming’s most satisfying weapons. I swear they made the rifle purposefully cumbersome by comparison.
Although Tomb Raider is indebted to Uncharted with its action adventure set pieces and cover-shooting mechanic, it expands upon the scope of Naughty Dog’s franchise by adding open world gameplay that allows for a much greater sense of exploration and an RPG-lite mechanic where players can gradually make their armoury more sophisticated and unlock more moves in combat. These are great additions and give the game some added heft.
Most importantly though, the core storyline here is surprisingly engaging. Tomb Raider rather unexpectedly cribs from Lost and makes the island a supernatural and possibly sentient landscape. The narrative is helped immensely by the decent voice acting performances delivered by the cast, particularly from Camilla Luddington as Lara.
In short, Tomb Raider is a fantastic reboot. Purists will be disappointed in the emphasis on combat but I found it to be well executed and great fun. I do feel that the game could still offer a lot more puzzle solving like its predecessors but I think it nails the sense of exploration by delivering an open world environment with a broad range of challenges and treasure hunts. Best of all, the game offers us a 21st Century Lara Croft who has an honest-to-God personality and ditches the ridiculous pnumatic breasts that largely defined her popularity in the Nineties. There is so much to build on with this reboot and the positive word of mouth and great reviews suggest that Lara and the Tomb Raider franchise could yet have a bright future ahead.