If there was ever a heroine in desperate need of a reboot it would have to be Lara Croft. The once quintessential female adventurer has found herself on a precipice by way of her last few incarnations and their failure to capture a significant audience. The timing couldn’t be more perfect for a leaner, grittier version of the Indiana Jones styled archaeologist.
Crystal Dynamics has opted to take her back to her roots, and this Tomb Raider explores Lara Croft’s origin story. It reveals how she was forged through necessity and adversity into the tough as nails customer we’re all too familiar with. Still, don’t think you know what to expect. This is no happy go lucky adventure. Lara is in a fight for her very life and only through cunning, resourcefulness and ruthlessness is she going to survive.
In search of the fabled island of Yamatai, alleged resting place of a mythical sun goddess, Lara and the crew of the aptly named Endurance enter the treacherous body of water known as the Dragon’s Triangle. When a freak storm virtually manifests and tears the ship apart Lara and the survivors find themselves marooned on a mysterious island. And they’re not alone.
Separated from the others Lara finds herself bruised, battered and bloody. It is necessity that drives her actions, necessity to bandage her bloodied body, to start a fire to stop from freezing, to acquire a makeshift bow and kill wildlife in order to go on. Everything thing she does reeks of desperation and it becomes a central theme to your journey alongside her.
To help you find such items and locations you’ve got your “survival instinct”. Tapping the left shoulder button turns the screen black and white and any item of note, be it weaponry, flora, fauna or climbable sections are all quickly visibly outlined in yellow. You can also differentiate between enemy types with those capable of raising the alarm and calling reinforcements marked in red.
The transition from billionaire daughter to skilled warrior begins with her first kills. Initially it is her desire to survive that forces her to kill a young buck for nourishment. Her first human kill in stark contrast, is a traumatising affair. She’s against overwhelming odds as the island is littered with cruel and dangerous customers with dark desires. To protect herself she takes her first life in a fairly gruesome fashion. The progression from that moment on is a little more exponential and I would have preferred a bit more time devoted to her coming to terms that she’s just ending another human being’s life.
It’s hard not to feel an overwhelming desire to protect Lara. I felt every injury inflicted upon her. Her fear resonated within me. I felt an overwhelming sense of empowerment as I upgraded her skills and made her a force to be reckoned with. She and I were going to get off this damned island and heaven help anyone who gets in our way.
You have two forms of in game currency to aid in your progression. The usual XP for kills, finishing missions and hunting (a very important aspect) and Salvage used to upgrade gear and weapons. You are a scavenger and I can’t recommend detailed exploration enough. Hunting is a quick way to level up as you get XP from both killing and skinning - and all the while you are looking for rare plants, relics, documents, GPS trackers and, of course, raiding tombs.
You’ll find most tombs off the main path and each usually involve a puzzle to solve garnering you a sizable XP boost once complete and at times a treasure map pinpointing hidden item locations, so it’s well worth your while to knock them out. While none of them will have your ripping your hair out in frustration, they will force you to stop for a few minutes, assess your surroundings and work out the solution. Occasionally you’ll get an audio clue from Lara but only if you’ve been stuck there for a while.
Each section of the island also offers unique challenges from locating specific plant life to destroying totems or effigies. I methodically worked my way through all of these and completed all the challenges, solved all the tomb puzzles and found myself sporting killer gear and all the upgrades a shipwrecked billion-heiress could ask for.
Your skill upgrades focus on three trees. One focuses on melee combat, one on weaponry and the final one on scavenging. I don’t know if it was the setting or that the bow just happens to be the hot ticket item in gaming right now, but I immediately levelled up the bow and melee options as quickly as a possible. The progression was eminently satisfying.
The ‘thwack’ accompanying each shot with the bow and force at which arrows embedded in their targets was pure poetry. It was such a precise and elegant tool. Each draw felt calculated and measured and I almost felt myself holding my breath as I released an arrow. Sure when push came to shove I’d whip out a pistol, shotgun or assault rifle, but I kept going back to the bow time and time again. You can use arrows to distract enemies and separate them from patrolling partners and later you can even add fire or explosive damage.
Anyone unfortunate enough to get within close quarters would be sorry they did so. To assist your traversal of the rugged terrain you have a pickaxe and to say it’s a decidedly brutal melee weapon would be a gross understatement. Initially you’ll find yourself scrambling to dodge incoming machete attacks or shoving attackers away to give yourself a bit of breathing room.
As you level up you’ll be able to throw dirt in their face, use stealth to be a silent killer by strangling them with your bow or stun them for a finishing move. The higher tiers unlock one of the goriest dodge and coup de graces I’ve ever seen. As your adversary strikes, if you dodge correctly you’ll have the chance (via quick time button press) to embed an arrow in their foot as you roll past the strike. This leaves them prime for an embedding pickaxe strike to the top of the skull complete with suitably bloody spray. I constantly threw Lara into harm’s way time after time just to get another chance to see the animation again. It really is something else.
You also unlock finishers for each weapon which can be an arrow tip to throat, a shotgun blast point blank to the base of the chin or going all John Woo on some poor fool’s chest with your rifle. The combat is beautiful and sure to keep you entertained no matter what your weapon of choice, but take my advice and stick to the bow/pickaxe combo. There’s something absolutely primal about it that really fits the setting.
Of course the most satisfying gunplay (bow play?) in the world would be nothing without an intriguing playground to get lost in and the developers have really been inventive with their platforming and level design. You use the pickaxe to climb more rocky surfaces and can even fashion makeshift rope bridges with your arrow and a length of rope. Even on occasions when you need to retrace your steps the environment has been altered by some event to make it seem almost completely different.
Kudos to Crystal Dynamics for keeping both the combat and traversal fresh and interesting. In fact, I couldn’t stop playing the game, wanted to explore every nook and cranny and was genuinely jonesing to get back to it when I was taking a momentary respite doing ridiculous things like eating or sleeping. Any game that keeps me itching for more over a 20-25 hour period is a winner in my book.
If you’re getting the feeling that I’m purposely skirting over the story, you’d be right. It’s something you’ll want to experience for yourself filled with twists and turns and some genuine jaw dropping moments. It’s brutal, confronting, unbelievably violent and shrouded in Japanese lore and mysticism and that’s all you’re going to get out of me. Rhianna Pratchett - writer of Heavenly Sword and Mirror’s Edge - has done a magnificent job reinventing Ms Croft, weaving a tragic and dark birth for one of the most iconic characters in gaming.
There were only a few niggles keeping Tomb Raider from garnering a higher mark. There were some graphical inconsistencies, occasional rough rendering, clipping and frame-rate sputters which momentarily destroyed immersion. Infrequently a button press wouldn’t register; usually mid-jump during an epic mountain climbing sequence, but the generous checkpoint system made such occurrences only a tiny inconvenience. The rest of the time it ran like a well-oiled machine.
I was cautiously optimistic for this reinvention and have been doing my best to not gush over the experience. Crystal Dynamics has exceeded my expectations and crafted one of the most intense, rewarding, surprising and bloody origin stories I’ve had the pleasure of playing through. It’s been a long time since I had to finish a game.
Tomb Raider is an outright classic game franchise. From dubious beginnings by way of oversized polygonal chests, it presented a comfortable balance between challenging puzzles and visceral violence. After getting lost in the forest the franchise now comes full circle - this younger Lara is arguably a more mature representation of the character, and I'm more than hungry for the sequel.