After an exciting, edge-of-the-seat opening sequence in which the Endurance and her assorted crew members are shipwrecked on the fabled Japanese islands of Yamatai, we’re introduced to a fresh-faced, almost naïve, incarnation of our heroine Lara Croft. While hardcore fans were initially sceptical about this redesign, I have to admit that it felt like a good decision from the onset. Gone (thankfully) are the overconfident quips and annoyingly smug one-liners. Here Lara is untried and vulnerable, her helplessness further reinforced through her brutal ordeal during the introduction to the game as her blood spills, skin tears and bones smash. Old Lara would have shrugged these off but new Lara hurts, evoking an embedded protective instinct from deep within the player.
That the initial ‘tomb’ resembles something from out of a horror film, with death filled tunnels, claustrophobic passageways and mountains of skulls, just casts Lara further into the victim role to strengthen her connection with players. The horror film analogy is again suggested by the use of over-the-shoulder camera angles or the rapid facial close-ups as Lara struggles to claw through the dirt or keep grip on distant ledges. As much as I liked the simplicity of previous Tomb Raider instalments, the new cinematic approach, in conjunction with the new Lara, makes for a tremendously visually exciting experience. Fiery explosions, wide panning shots, fluid cut scenes and heart-pounding chase sequences, make the opening segments as much cinema as they are game. Lara is back ladies and gentlemen and despite being a younger model, she’s far more grown up then before.
In no time players are introduced to the new “Survival Instinct” visual mechanic; a gimmick whereby all interactive objects are highlighted in a similar vein to the Eagle Vision of Assassin’s Creed or Batman’s famous Detective Mode. To be honest I wasn’t too sure if I liked this new feature at first, while it can help to locate otherwise invisible aspects like hidden footprints or treasure trails, it also runs the risk of making puzzles too easy. Why bother to figure out how contraptions work when you can just hit a button to highlight all the key components and home in on them? Was it just another example of removing old-fashioned trial and error and dumbing-down the cogitation experience that seems far too popular with this generation?
Thankfully Survival Instinct is optional, while the game occasionally suggests using it, it’s never really forced, allowing players to go old-school if so desired. Talking of the interactive objects there seems to be a lot more of them this time around. Crates can be smashed open and looted for salvage (which seems to be the done thing in 2013), animals can be hunted and skinned and flaming torches can be lit and later, used to illuminate darkened corridors or set the scenery ablaze. To say this feels a lot like the Assassin Creed or Dead Space series is an understatement, albeit a good one at that.
As the game progresses so does the character of Lara evolve, from wounded victim to hardened survivor, as she sets about rescuing her shipmates from the depths of the island almost in tandem with the recent Far Cry 3. This is essentially her origin story and while later on she may have access to shotguns, pistols and assault rifles, I was pleased that developers Crystal Dynamics never gave in to the temptation of making her too powerful. Her first kill makes an impact, very much the puberty moment of her character, and while she seems to leap into the heroine role a tad too quickly, the constant need to scavenge to survive keeps Lara in check of becoming too much too soon.
Occasionally Lara will come across a campfire, essentially a break-point between the game’s segments, but also a place where she can upgrade her weapons through the aforementioned collected salvage. For example Lara can modify her bow to shoot a little farther, arrows can penetrate thicker materials, guns can carry more ammunition and fire-rates can be increased. It’s nothing too original but the need to keep evolving and adapting the weapons in order to defend yourself is another indication of Lara’s struggling survivor status, much like a child learning to become an adult which is very much what this game is all about.
Lara herself can also be upgraded at campfires. Over the course of the game she will earn experience points from anything like hunting animals and scavenging, to scoring headshots, exploring new areas and discovering collectables, of which there are loads dotted throughout the island. Upon accumulating a set amount of experience you will earn a skill point which can then be spent on upgrading and unlocking either survival or hunter bonuses. Survival, as the name suggests, relates to helping Lara endure on the island so bonuses here revolve around things like the ability to loot more salvage, highlighting animals during Survival Instinct or the skill to re collect bows from fallen prey. If a talent is going to help Lara live then it will most certainly be here.
Hunter bonuses on the other hand are more combat focussed; giving Lara the abilities to fight back in addition to survive. With these she can improve her aim, speed-up her recovery, throw dirt to blind opponents or later on, unlock finishing moves and some rather ferocious counter-attacks, again akin to something out of a horror film as Lara transforms from victim into (almost) killer. Having all these bonuses staggered over the game’s duration (the bigger moves come towards the end) puts further emphasis on Lara’s evolution and it works amazingly well in shaping her character.
Of course with all these moves we would need enemies to use them on. While I have yet to encounter a single dinosaur (did someone mention DLC just then?) what we do have are cultists, brutal, feverish, island-dwelling cultists who are always the best kind. To stand a better chance against the kool aid gang, in addition to combat skills, Lara is able to run, leap, dodge and take cover with far more fluidity than ever before. Is it a nod back to the mobility of youth? Her climbing too moves at a far more rapid pace, ironically more akin to the Uncharted games than previous Tomb Raider entries, but boy does the game feel all the better for it.
After the story is complete, when you’ve skinned your last wolf and speared your final cultist, Lara is still able to use the campfires to fast travel to various locations over the island. Here you can go on to discover missed collectables and raid hidden tombs; that in turn unlock a host of cool extra features such as character models and concept art in the main menu. There is also a multiplayer mode, one which I have yet to sample, but initial reports are that it’s good but clearly second best to the lengthy single player which I for one applaud. Let’s hope that future DLC supports that side too.
What makes this new Tomb Raider so good is that it isn’t a Tomb Raider game, not in the true sense at least. It borrows the best bits from other releases, sprinkles them with a heavy dusting of modern cinema and then combines those elements into finely tuned perfection. It’s as much survival-horror and stealth as it is action-adventure, set on the island from Lost, with some breath taking action sequences. Yes there are times when it feels cliché ridden but at the same time it feels so good that you don’t really mind. This is a well-crafted, gorgeous looking, fun filled origin story that raises the bar to amazing levels. The queen of video games has most certainly returned.