Here are two things you need to know about the Tomb Raider reboot: the game’s focal point is young Lara Croft’s first kill – a breathless, gory brawl which ends with her shooting her attacker in the face, rolling free, and retching and howling at the enormity of what she’s done; the game also features the phrase, “Execute enemies at point-blank range for more rewards” as part of the description of a high-level skill, which lets Lara finish off wounded enemies by shooting them in the face to earn extra XP.
It’s a testament to the strength of Crystal Dynamics’ story and characterisation that the concept of a finishing move like that sticks out so much; in any other game of this ilk it wouldn’t cause a ripple. They’ve taken the famously shallow character of Lara Croft and given her an origin story to be proud of, and although the progression from victim to survivor isn’t perfect, it’s a joy to play through.
That joy is largely due to the game’s mechanics, which do their part to tell the story of Lara’s rise to power after being shipwrecked and repeatedly abducted on an island in the windswept Dragon’s Triangle – a network of islands off the Japanese coast. Much of the exploration and puzzle focus of the previous titles has been pushed to one side in favour of a more combat-orientated experience, and taking control of Lara as she grows, as her old life is shorn away, has a visceral quality that’s often lacking in games with skill progression trees.
Her default combat stance is a crouch, and if there’s cover nearby she’ll automatically duck behind it without being told to. When idle, she holds herself ready and her eyes scan the environment for threats. She swings her climbing axe with wild, unbalanced strokes (when she finally learns how after several hours without a melee attack) and scrambles out of enemy lines of fire on all fours.
Combat is impressively tense thanks to a limited selection of weapons that always feel as though they’re underperforming in relation to your needs: your shotgun spread not quite wide enough, your bow not quite fast enough on the draw, your assault rifle running dry when you need it to last. Fighting in Tomb Raider manages to maintain the sensation that you’re seconds away from death at all times, which deserves respect even if, in hindsight, deaths in action, outside of a few tiresome instant-death QTEs, are very rare.
Even aside from the combat sequences, Tomb Raider is an impossibly violent game. Lara crawls away from more fatal falls than you’ve had hot dinners. If this game had realistic damage modelling, Lara would be dead in a cave around three minutes after you pushed start.
If you fail a QTE, Lara is generally impaled on something; commonly it’s a convenient pipe at head height, but an especially sharp tree branch will do in a pinch. All of this violence can get to be exhausting, especially considering that there are very few scenes where Lara is not fighting for her life in one way or another.
But throughout all this the modelling, scriptwriting and acting behind Lara is superlative; it’s hard to think of a character more engaging on looks and actions alone. Her behaviour is skewed towards not fighting, where violence is a necessity for survival. In the opening stages of the game it’s a wonderful concept, with the market so flooded with steely-eyed protagonists.
Of course, all that desperation washes away as you progress. Lara upgrades her weapons by collecting salvage. She toughens herself, learns to brawl in close combat and scavenge off the land. She packs incendiary ammo and a grenade launcher, and men run away screaming at her approach. At one point she emerges from a literal river of blood and proceeds to murder everyone in the room who isn’t expressly her friend.
Which is why it’s a shame that her wary, human behaviour doesn’t change when she shifts between her states. For all the explosives and bullet wounds she carries, she still cowers into a crouch when enemies approach, and still handles the pickaxe like it’s too much for her, even as it carves through the skulls of her enemies. If Crystal Dynamics had got her to stand up straight for the second half of the game, the transformation would be complete; but there’s something about the end of the game where it tries to marry the two halves of Lara together that doesn’t quite wash.
It’s obviously a challenge to wrap an origin story around someone as strange as Lara Croft – an archaeologist who doesn’t mind blowing up ancient buildings to extract treasures, who kills men without a second thought, and who will gladly gun down a t-rex rather than retreat to a safe distance and report this evolutionary marvel to the proper authorities. Lara is not a character built in reality, but Tomb Raider takes a shot at grounding her in it and letting her run wild. And it does a pretty good job too, all things considered.
While the trailers make a big deal out of Lara’s deer-hunting expedition, there’s almost no hunting in the game past that first incident. You’re occasionally menaced by wolves or given the option of shooting a wild boar, and you can gut them with an arrow if you’d like which somehow rewards you with XP. It’s not clear whether Lara eats the animals or just enjoys mutilating their corpses, but the rewards contained in these XP bags – or, as the Spanish would say, piñatas – are rarely worth the fuss.
XP can also be earned by killing men, which you’ll be doing a lot, and exploring the environment. Much of the puzzle gameplay that formed the backbone of the series up till now can be found in out-of-the-way ‘secret’ tombs. Each typically contains a single puzzle focused on timing mechanical objects in the environment, and a treasure map at the end shows the location of many of the optional pick-ups in the area – so the reward for exploration is more exploration, which can often feel frustrating.
Apart from this, exploration and traversal is tied to equipment, gating off areas until they’re unlocked: pickaxes let her climb craggy surfaces like she’s in Vertical Limit; rope arrows can attach her to distant items; barricades can be blasted away by shotguns; winches let her pull heavy objects, and so on. There’s fun to be had revisiting the island once the game is over to collect every last item, carry out the fairly arbitrary tasks and hoover up all that XP. But, in reality, there’s not much point to doing so, as getting better at killing isn’t much of a reward when almost everyone on the island is already dead at Lara’s hand.
There’s an awful lot to like about Tomb Raider. It takes the gameplay Uncharted has used to such great effect (which was, of course, nicked from Tomb Raider in the first place), and replaces wise-cracking gentleman-thief Nathan Drake with this new damaged Lara Croft, one of the most involving characters seen in a computer game to date.
It asks some questions about where we’ve come since Lara’s creation and reforges her as a blood-soaked killer not really suited for civilisation, which is entirely appropriate given the calibre of videogame storytelling we’ve seen emerge since 1996. This is a product of an industry starting to look inwards upon itself while still making fantastic games, a title along the lines of Far Cry 3 or Spec Ops: The Line, and while it’s not perfect by a long shot, it’s one of the best Tomb Raiders you’ll ever play.