The Tomb Raider franchise means a lot of things to a lot of people. Some associate her with their original love of PlayStation. Others adore her for being a pioneer of girl power in video games. There might be one or two people for whom Lara was their first crush on a video game character. For me, she didn’t mean much. As a diehard Nintendo fanboy during her heyday, I wanted nothing to do with that series. Nor did I feel I was missing much, as the series never won me over during the few times I actually played a Tomb Raider title. This reboot may have rubbed some purists the wrong way, but this is definitely more up my alley.
This is Lara’s coming of age story. On her first expedition as an archaeologist, the ship she’s on capsizes, leaving her and her crew stranded on an island in the Dragon’s Triangle. Getting off this island proves difficult, as you’re left with virtually nothing, there’s a weird cult of dudes out to kill you and the island itself is full of mystery.
Story-wise, this is not going to set the world on fire, though it does what it sets out to do very well. In particular, the new take on Lara is pretty great. If you can get over how quickly she transitions from a rookie archaeologist to an acrobatic killing machine, then there isn’t really much to complain about for a game of this style.
Historically, there probably was a bit too much mystery for me in past titles. The few previous entries I’ve played quickly turned me off with their extensive use of obtuse spatial puzzles, open-ended worlds that were difficult to navigate and clunky combat. This time, the developers have clearly ripped off the Uncharted playbook, which I think is for the best. If anything, I think Lara beat Nathan Drake at his own game.
For one, this game looks phenomenal. I generally hate writing about graphics, but this is easily one of the prettiest and most graphically intensive games on the Xbox 360. Characters are modeled in great detail, jungles look lively, and every moment of the game is beautifully framed. It’s no surprise that it goes out of its way to provide the perfect camera angles for intense action sequences, but it even takes great care in executing more mundane scenes, such as crawling through dark tunnels. Even with all of the crazy things happening on screen, I never noticed a dip in frame rate.
Thrills in Tomb Raider come in many forms. Firefights are wildly fun thanks to great level design, fun weapons and an emphasis on movement. You’re never sitting in one place and shooting behind cover for too long, as you’re oftentimes either forced to run-and-gun, or press forward by running, jumping or zip lining to the next battleground. Other times, you’re given the opportunity to take a group of foes out stealthily. I wasn’t much of a fan of sneaking up behind guys and taking them out, but I adore the bow and arrow for that. Sneaking from one spot to the next while picking off unassuming foes can be as exciting as the fiercest gun battles.
Traversal is always enjoyable here and not just a placeholder activity to tie battles together. Her signature floaty jump lends itself well for many leaps of faith, some of which require you to mash on the X button for dear life to maintain a grip on a leap that could have been fatal. Climbing with her axe adds a level of plausibility to all of the wall-scaling she does, while adding its own movement nuances to master. I hate Quick Time Events, but they’re not overdone and very well executed in a way that adds to some of her most dramatic movements, rather than take away from the action.
If you loved the original series for its puzzles, they’re still intact, albeit in a more sensible form. As someone who generally struggles with spatial puzzles, I was able to solve everything fairly quickly without the help of a guide, while still gaining the satisfaction of knowing that it took some cleverness on my part to do it. In particular, stick around for the second half of the game, where puzzles are much more prominent and challenging.
Most of the game is linear in nature, though there are definitely reasons to explore and backtrack if you want more out of the experience. There are all sorts of collectables strewn throughout the world; many of which aren’t accessible until you’ve acquired certain items during your adventure. Should you choose to be a completionist, you can fast travel from one major region to the next through certain camp fires. The coolest reason to trek beyond the boundaries is for the sequences where Lara actually raids tombs. Yes, the raiding part has become a much smaller aspect of the experience, though the ones I found were great to traverse through. In particular, if you’re looking to solve puzzles, these are the most intense of the lot.
Whatever gripes I had with its predecessors don’t matter here. It’s a new day and a fantastic new Tomb Raider. Maybe it strays a bit too far for its roots or too closely to the Uncharted template for some, but I adored my time with it from beginning to end. Not only is Lara Croft back, but she returns in one of the overall best games of this year.