Review: Tomb Raider is a fantastic start to a bold, new direction for the franchise
Reboots can be risky. On one hand, you run the risk of alienating long-time fans of the original franchise by changing it too much, only to appeal to a larger audience. However, if you don't change the game enough, you're left with the same crowd who enjoyed the previous games, but also criticized it for the lack of innovation. Luckily, Tomb Raider does everything right. It changes up the gameplay to fit in with the current gen shooters, which will please naysayers of the original games, but still retains the Croft DNA to keep Raider fans at bay. It's amazing to see just how much the Tomb Raider franchise has matured with this latest origin story, even though our lovely protagonist has gotten younger.
Tomb Raider focuses on a young Lara -- one who isn't experienced in raiding tombs, collecting relics and wielding weapons to save her life. Though adventurous, it's apparent that Lara has never really ventured out on her own before. It's her inexperience that makes the entire game feel so genuine. Even Jason Brody (Far Cry 3), who at first was just an inexperienced frat boy, turns into a seasoned killer very early on. Tomb Raider manages to feel authentic the whole way through, because no matter how many people Lara takes down with her impressive bow skills, she's still very much distressed, panicked, and ultimately broken. Having such a vulnerable, yet capable main character certainly helps us gamers connect with her on a personal level.
Tomb Raider's biggest problem is that it's too easy to compare it to the Uncharted series. It's a problem because it begs to be its own entity. Like Uncharted, its foundations are based on actual myths, though it does delve into some supernatural elements, as well. It also follows the Uncharted formula very closely. Watch a cutscene, explore an environment, survive an onslaught of soldiers in a gunfight, rinse and repeat. However, in most cases, Tomb Raider actually does these things better than Uncharted. Let's break them all down.
Lara isn't stuck on the island of Yamatai by herself. The entire crew of the Endurance is split apart, and aside from staying alive, Lara's mission is to bring everyone back together and get off the island safe and sound. The exchanges between Lara and the crew -- specifically Roth, her mentor -- are all completely heartfelt. Seeing Roth for the first time after the initial separation will make you feel like you just reunited with a friend you haven't seen in years. The characters and their relationships are all so believable, that you'll forget that you just 'met' them a few hours ago when you started playing. Instead, they make you feel like you've been a part of their crew for some time.
The game masterfully depicts the events surrounding Lara's time on the island through gorgeous cutscenes and some spot-on voice work from Camilla Luddington; she does an incredible job as the new Lara. To call this the most cinematic Tomb Raider would certainly be an understatement.
The true show-stopper in Tomb Raider is undeniably the environment design. The island of Yamatai is a sight to behold -- from the various caverns and tombs you'll be raiding, to the incredible outdoor set pieces that absolutely beg to be traversed. Many times, you'll just stand along a cliff, marveling at the scenery in front of you and glancing over at that conveniently placed zip line, only to gleefully hop on just to start navigating the environment.
The set pieces themselves are absolutely incredible. Crumbling bridges, collapsing buildings and rusted ships that fall apart all result in some fantastic platforming that make them exhilarating to experience. One gripe, however, is that the platforming was too easy. Unless you made a miscalculated jump, the game generally ensures you always make your jumps and never lose your balance. This could be slightly off-putting, especially given the fact that it somewhat lessens the impact of survival. It's still a spectacle, however, making the hand-holding a little more forgiving.
Gunplay is by far the lowest point of the game, unless you're strictly using the bow. Throughout the game, Lara gets access to other weapons, such as a pistol, rifle and shotgun. All of these certainly pack a punch, but for some reason don't feel right. Lara's bow really brings the survival elements to the forefront and makes each shootout that much more exciting. If you dedicate enough time to it, you'll be getting killer headshots in no time.
Surviving in the wild means you have to be resourceful. Salvaging parts plays a crucial role in upgrading Lara's equipment. Each weapon has numerous upgrades,like increased damage, quicker reload times, increased zoom and a faster fire rate, and require a certain amount of salvage per upgrade. Weapon parts can also be found scattered throughout, which will turn each weapon into a completely new, upgraded model, also with more essential upgrades.
Lara also gets her own upgrades in the form of skill trees. The game rewards you EXP for almost everything you do, whether it's discovering a new area, killing enemies, or finding relics and other collectibles. Each level nets Lara a skill point you can put into one of three trees. Some of these skills allow you to carry more ammo, finding more salvage, dodge and counter attack. While specializing in a tree might sound like a good idea, you're eventually going to have enough points to spec yourself with everything.
Lara has a special instinct skill, which works very similarly to Hitman: Absolution's skill. By pressing a button, the environment will go black and white; points of interests will light up in yellow, while enemies will light up in red or white. This skill is especially handy in puzzle sequences. The game doesn't throw extremely-tough-to-figure-out puzzles at you, but you can find yourself scratching your head more than a few times. The instinct skill will highlight usable items in the environment, allowing you to solve them with much less frustration.
Lastly, the game includes multiplayer, if you care for that sort of thing. Tomb Raider could have gone without it and received the same exact score, meaning it does absolutely nothing to the overall enjoyment of the game. The standout modes are 'Rescue' and 'Cry for Help,' which are just slight variations of Capture the Flag. Kill people online, get EXP, gain levels, get access to new loadouts and new characters, and that's Tomb Raider's multiplayer in a nutshell. Uncharted certainly didn't need multiplayer, and neither does Tomb Raider.
After all the cuts and bruises and the enemies killed in self defense, this wasn't the same Lara. This was a Lara who wasn't afraid anymore -- one who would continue the pursuit of adventure and answers, no matter the risks. As someone who previously had little to no interest in any Tomb Raider game before this, I walked away changed too. This brilliantly designed adventure had me captivated from start to finish, and I can't wait to see what the future holds for this Lara Croft.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]