Lara Croft returns in a harrowing, surprisingly thoughtful survival adventure
Launching at the just the right time to capitalize on the growing teen and adult audience of the PlayStation, the 1996 action-adventure game Tomb Raider became a worldwide sensation, spawning a whopping ten (now eleven and a half) titles and two movies starring Angelina Jolie. Usually in media, when something goes on that long it's time for a reboot, and Crystal Dynamics' announcement of a darker, grittier take on adventurer/video game sex symbol Lara Croft has been met with plenty of controversy.
Thankfully, the recent Tomb Raider reboot managed to not only alleviate my early concerns, but ended up being a whole hell of a lot of fun. By focusing on character and atmosphere, the game manages to tell a strong, memorable story, presenting a fresh spin on one of video gaming's most familiar faces.
Originally, Tomb Raider followed the adventures of sexy, experienced treasure hunter Lara Croft, who travelled the world seeking fame and fortune, taking down everything from deranged cultists to terrorist leaders to a freakin' tyrannosaurus rex with her signature twin pistols. Lara was confident, fearless, larger than life, and rarely lost her composure.
The reboot does something that the originals failed miserably at: making Lara a believable person. Promo material has constantly focused on the "survival" aspect of this game, how Lara is just an ordinary person constantly thrown into extraordinary circumstances. While half the falls she takes in-game would shatter every joint in a normal twentysomething girl's body, the new Lara grits her teeth, sucks it up, and earns the title of "heroine" more so than most video game characters.
This extends to Lara's design as well--while she is a very typically pretty British girl, Lara is now slimmer, with only the tiniest bit of focus given to her looks. She wears actual pants, the camera isn't focused on her ass, her shirts show only the vaguest hint of cleavage, and she isn't wearing a whole lot of makeup. Neither willful nor submissive, Lara is an interesting character who's forced to grow and learn and change, shifting from terrified victim (because wouldn't you be afraid on a not-so-deserted island?) to terrifyingly empowered avenger.
Don't think this means Tomb Raider is an action-filled shoot-'em-up, though--smart players will take the literal high road, getting a good view of surroundings and quietly disposing of enemies in out-of-the-way corners. As tough as she is against thirty-foot-drops and tumbling down raging rapids, Lara is actually quite fragile in the face of automatic gunfire, so fighting enemies head-on is often a pretty stupid idea, especially early-on in the game when you're lacking in skills and upgrades. Seriously, if you hear gunfire, you either did something wrong or it's one of the rare white-knuckle moments when the game forces you to fight.
And fight you will--while I'm not a big fan of the near-universal "left stick moves, right stick looks" control scheme that's in just about every game these days, Lara is a fast and agile character with a variety of helpful moves at her disposal. Early in the game, you'll only be able to shove enemies away and create some breathing room, but you'll soon be able to close distance and fight toe-to-toe with much larger, stronger enemies, taking advantage of Lara's speed, accuracy, and climbing axe. I make a real point about the climbing axe, because no matter how many times I've seen The Descent (which this game is heavily influenced by), every scene where a climbing axe is used as a weapon sends a chill up my spine.
The bulk of the game is spent exploring, platforming, and solving environmental puzzles. There are tombs to raid, of course, but they're all optional and contain puzzles that are pretty easy to solve--thankfully, the variety of the puzzles and how difficult it can be to find some of the tombs and relics add to the growing desire to comb every inch of the island. To illustrate, I got my review copy of this game on Monday, just before launch. I lived off the game from Monday all the way through to Wednesday, spending almost an entire day retracing my path across the island to see if there was anything I missed, basically steeling myself and levelling up before the final confrontation.
Yes, I did just say "levelling up." Completing objectives, defeating enemies and hunting for food all earn experience, which convert into skill points that Lara can spend on various upgrades, such as higher melee damage, timing-based counters, or revealing treasures or supplies hidden in the environment. Salvage--either found in crates and chests or picked off of dead enemies--can be used to upgrade Lara's small-yet-effective arsenal.
During the game's early promotion, there was a lot of concern about how Tomb Raider's "sexy side" had veered off into torture porn territory. There's something to be said for that--if you mess up, Lara does get killed in some brutally creative ways, but I never felt that the camera lingered too long on her screaming as she's devoured by a wolf, or feebly clawing at the broken pipe that had run her through. As a longtime fan of especially gory horror movies, I can say that Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space spent far more time gleefully showing every detail of your deaths, while Tomb Raider's fast, vicious "bad end" scenes are there to drive home how serious Lara's situation is on the island.
Another issue has to do with this scene, where I'm not going to make any jokes about one of the most despicable acts you can perform on another human being. Yes, it is an uncomfortable scene where a hardened killer is delicately caressing the face and shoulder of his would-be victim. I'm just gonna be blunt about this because it's not really a spoiler: Lara Croft does not get sexually assaulted if you fail this QTE. Like every other QTE, a quick and vicious death awaits if your reaction speed sucks, but it does something more important: it gives good reasoning behind this game's savage violence. These are bad people. They will do bad things to you if you aren't quick enough, or smart enough, or strong enough. It isn't about some misguided moé feeling of wanting to protect Lara, either--you don't want to be in this situation, and this henchman's advances are as unwelcome and discomfiting to a man as they would be to a woman.
I really feel like I should say something about this game's multiplayer mode, but... it's really hard to. It's not really good, but it's not at all bad either--in fact, it commits a cardinal sin by being forgettable. The four multiplayer modes (a Capture the Flag clone, a King of the Hill-alike, free-for-all, and team deathmatch) bring absolutely nothing new to the table, even taking the game's out-and-out fun platforming and making it completely impractical in a third-person shootout. Mass Effect 3 was able to take its single-player mode's already-solid action and place it within a sensible context for multiplayer, while Tomb Raider's literally feels tacked-on.
The real meat of the game is the single-player, but even it's not without flaws. Some characters only feel like window dressing, some of the voice acting can be uneven and really pulls you out of the game's atmosphere, and I am really, honestly and truly getting sick and tired of "vision" abilities and painfully obvious pointers and hand-holding in games. Batman has his Detective Vision in the Arkham games, Agent 47 has Instinct in Hitman: Absolution, Isaac Clarke can automatically orient himself in the Dead Space games, Nathan Drake will always climb on blue or yellow ledges in Uncharted, and now Lara Croft has "Survival Instinct," a quick ability that automatically highlights surfaces and items you can interact with. Climbable ledges and surfaces are also all colored white, which in some instances means that they're covered in seagull shit. I get that not all gamers like a challenge and have to have everything shown to them lest they get frustrated and quit playing, but you'd think in a "survival adventure," you'd actually have to glean these clues from your environment and through experience. All said, that's a very personal gripe in a game that still offers a lot.
By modern standards, the game is pretty long, too--give or take a few deaths and retries, I spent almost 25 hours and ended up with a 92% completion rate (after, of course, living off the game for three days straight). Tomb Raider feels complete, offering a solid single-player adventure that remembers the original's roots while taking the series in a gripping new direction, with a few sly winks and nods to earlier games for longtime fans. Lara Croft is back, and--just for a change--she's a strong, determined female lead that I would happily let my future daughters emulate.
Minus the whole "murdering dudes with a climbing axe" bit, of course.
+ Lara Croft is an interesting, fleshed-out character now, with next to no pandering
+ No longer a light and fun globetrotting romp, this game is a brutal survival adventure with great atmosphere
+ While combat is exciting and fun, the game strongly urges you to play smart and stealthy
+/- The violence is sudden and shocking, which really drives home how grave Lara's situation is... but it can be a bit much for some
+/- "Survival Instinct" helps lost or less-experienced players find their way, but it can dampen the challenge for longtime gamers
- Multiplayer is forgettable and bland