Tomb Raider Review

A reboot can be a dangerous thing for a franchise, as was handily demonstrated during Tomb Raider's marketing campaign. From certain jilted fans complaining of the more streamlined nature of the game to PR blunders and pointed accustations of sexism, it's been a bumpy ride for Lara Croft both in and outside of the fiction. It's reassuring for the future of the series, then, that the Tomb Raider we've ended up with is as smooth an experience as it is. 

The new Lara is one of gaming's most compelling, human protagonists

Lara's gritty reboot borrows heavily from the musty playbook of Naughty Dog's Uncharted games, yes, but let's not forget where that series first found much of its own inspiration. In the end, Lara's adventures are still more Tomb Raider than Uncharted thanks to an emphasis on exploration and puzzle solving. Sure, the puzzles have been made bite-sized so as to be more digestible, but down the line that honestly helps a lot with the game's pacing, which stutters some towards the beginning thanks to an overabundance of collectables.

Those with a completionist mentality towards gaming collectables beware; Tomb Raider's full of them, to the extent that it can really kill the pacing of a scene. Many of the items you'll be grabbing are legitimately interesting - ancient tribal masks with clues as to their owner's fate hidden on them and letters from explorers past tinged with subtle menace really flesh out the world - but the GPS caches and berry plants are a little overkill. 

Looking past the game's vast suite of collectables, the pacing of the story itself is spot on. This is genre fiction at the height of its gaming career, tossing gamers violently into a mysterious world and barely giving them the time to regain their bearings before releasing the wolves. It's a little too violent and thematically disturbing to call it a true popcorn experience, but that summer blockbuster mentality drives a decent chunk of the late game as Lara sneaks, shimmies and shoots her way across the game's beautiful island.

Sneaking in Tomb Raider

Of course, the one-(wo)man-army mentality that drives most video games presents an interesting counterpoint to the story and themes of the game. Mowing down a dozen bad guys with a bow and arrow is fun, but Tomb Raider paints such an intimate picture of life and death in its opening moments that proceeding to kill a few hundred pirates in the following hours feels cheap when it comes free of consequence.

Lara's first kill, a deer in the forest, is a moving and incredibly human moment. The first time she turns a gun on a human being is just as gruesome and shocking as it should be. But there's a certain noncholance to the violence that follows, and one gets the sense that the developers eventually gave in to what have become established genre mechanics and norms. The intimacy of those early kills is missing in the admittedly fun firefights that follow, and in the end a smaller, more personal scale to battle would have been preferable to what ends up another series of bombastic gaming gun battles. 

This forward-moving action puts the game's mature moments of character building in odd perspective. Lara is a believable, flawed character, and mo-cap actress/voice actress Camilla Luddington delivers a totally engrossing performance. She deserves as much credit as anyone for making Tomb Raider into the game it is. Her expert delivery sees Lara transform from scared fish out of water to skilled, if emotionally dulled, tomb raider. The bulk of Lara's metamorphasis is delivered through the cutscenes, which paint a more subtle, subdued picture of the island. It is, again, an odd counter to the thrilling gun battles, but at least the game attempts to tackle mature subject matter instead of skirting around it entirely. 

The juxtaposition of pulpy action against human drama can sometimes feel forced

Lara's internal battling is painted right on her face thanks to some stellar visuals and mostly solid mo-cap work. Character faces and limb movements are still a little stiff when compared to the heights of Uncharted or Heavy Rain, but the subtle eye movements in particular go a long way towards selling the performances where the mouth and arm movements can't. Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the game's base camps, which offer optional monologues that give greater insight into Lara's psyche during the mission.

These base camps make up the central points of a series of large hub worlds. These worlds are strung together to form the majority of the game, and are open enough to allow for plenty of exploration potential. Secret challenge tombs are sometimes hidden in the nooks and crannies of the game's base camps, albeit not too carefully, and these singular rooms represent both a great chance to get away from the story with an unrelated puzzle and a knowing callback to older Tomb Raider games and their environmental room puzzles.

There's a mild hint of Metroid in the way that the game structures its camps, as players can fast travel from camp to camp and are encouraged to utilize new items to open up older areas. This isn't really core to the game's central progression, but if you're keen on finding all of the game's hidden tombs and collectables, you'll want to go over older maps with a fine-toothed comb. Miscalculate a jump or get carried away during your exploration, and you'll likely be treated to one of the game's giddily gross death animations. 

Death comes a lot more frequently in the game's multiplayer modes, which integrate single player concepts to a varying degree of success. It's neat that you can set environmental traps for your enemies by, say, erecting a lightning rod to shock nearby foes, but since most of these are location-based they become somewhat predictable and easy to avoid. It's often better to go with straight-up running and gunning, which when mixed with the platforming offer up some really satisfying situational kills. 

Camilla Luddington is stellar as Lara, and both she and her world are beautifully rendered

The game's cover mechanics were perhaps not best suited for a competitive environment, as there is no sticky cover in place to guide you. Instead, simply approaching cover will make Lara crouch down behind it. It's a concept that works okay in the single player, but the precision of being able to quickly transition from one piece of cover to another that a sticky cover system offers is missed online. 

Tomb Raider has its hands in many snake-infested pots, with the bombast of Uncharted, the exploration of Metroid, and the multiplayer progression systems of Call of Duty all contributing to the final game. Even with its disparate influences on clear display, Crystal Dynamics' reboot has its own distinct personality and charm that make it an essential play for fans of snappy action gaming. It's just a shame that personality is so conflicted, caught as it is between the spectacle of a summer blockbuster and the subtle gravitas of one of this generation's more compelling tales of survival. 

Score: 8/10

This game was reviewed on PC

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