Lara pants shallowly, quivering in the cold. She stares with frightened eyes into the soft glow of the fire burning close by her feet. She sits alone in a dark recess carved out of the side of a cliff, a weary castaway on an uncharted island. Water pours from stormy skies, and thunder cracks from foreboding clouds. She’s thousands of miles away from home with no provisions, and her only hope of a friendly voice is the screech of static calling from her two-way radio. And it’s only the first night.
This is not the wise-cracking, gun-toting Lara Croft we’ve known. This is someone new. This is Lara before she became the tomb raider. And this is a game unlike anything we’ve seen from Crystal Dynamics before.
Straight out of the gate, Tomb Raider establishes Lara Croft as a real, human character. She’s a young, naïve, budding archaeologist fresh out of grad school, and thrust into a nightmarish hellride surrounded by the worst of unscrupulous man the world has to offer. These bipedal predatory animals have built a Mad Max jungle of repurposed scrap, with the only aesthetic touches being the disembodied heads of their victims.
In order to be reunited with her friends and to ultimately escape this island, Lara must learn to fend for herself, and that includes taking the lives of those that threaten her or her own. We’re told she’s already traveled the world, joined in climbing expeditions, and even took aim with a firearm or two. It’s not long before she’s putting those skills to the test, deciphering clues to her surroundings and clinging to the face of steep precipices, all in an effort to keep moving forward.
What we’re seeing is a video game character that does not revel in violence. Her first encounters with bloodshed are visibly traumatizing, but she quickly (perhaps too quickly) develops an ease and finesse with projectile weapons. She’s also no bullet sponge, which means that encounters with enemies must be somewhat planned. In some cases she’ll use the environment to take out multiple enemies at once, such as with explosive barrels or collapsible structures. When those aren’t an option, stealth is her friend, and her number one tool in that endeavor is the bow. With some well-placed shots behind cover, a crowded patrol can be whittled down one-by-one without inciting suspicion.
As she grows more accustomed to foraging and manslaughter, she’ll gain new skills, which can be picked from a list of options whenever she finds a campsite. These can include greater ammo capacity, additional hand-to-hand moves, or increased reward bonuses. While she’s at it, she can also use acquired salvage to modify her weapons, creating utilitarian abominations of destruction that would make Ellen Ripley beam with pride.
Before long, the scared and helpless bookworm that had you sympathizing and cheering for her every stride towards self-reliance has transformed into a dead-eyed killing machine. She wields shotguns and assault rifles with equal efficiency, doling out death like a well-trained operative. She has become a veritable badass, and the quiet atmospheric immersiveness early on gives way to adrenaline-fueled action in the later portion of the game. Her enemies express fear and dread, and she cries out defiantly in approval. She’s not going to be taken lightly.
Feeding her rage is determination. She wants to survive, but once she gains self-confidence, she cares more about ensuring the survival of others. Much of the game is spent on a rescue mission, but that’s not the only trait defining her in Tomb Raider. She still has an inborn fascination with buried history, and will turn to glance at interesting man-made features as she traverses environments. Occasionally she’ll even remark out loud on what she sees, giving the player a little background and often important story information. Relics and other collectibles can be found in the world, giving further clues, and optional tombs can be discovered and explored to reveal short puzzles that uncover more details about those who have come before. At the end of each tomb is a giant treasure chest, which when approached will prompt a Zelda-like cutscene showing her astonished face emblazoned by the glow of shiny priceless riches – which you’ll frustratingly never get to see.
Cutscenes and cinematic camera work is a constant in the game, seamlessly integrated into the gameplay, or transitioning interactive sections with scripted events. There’s no visible UI unless you’ve paused the game, which further enhances immersion. Aiding this most of all is the fantastic graphical presentation, which on the PC boasts outstanding textures and moments of dazzling lighting. Environments can be gloomy and downright creepy, setting an isolated and imposing tone during the adventure. This game is a visual feast, and there’s no doubt that the story wouldn’t be the same without it.
Less consistent is the audio. While the sounds of the environment and nature do well to expand the space beyond the borders of your screen, the voice work doesn’t always land within the goal posts. Lara herself is a fantastic exception, and a few characters do well to complement her in the cast. Others, particularly the character Reyes and the primary antagonist in game, are flat and unconvincing. It’s not enough to break the illusion, but it’s a drawback nonetheless.
Presentation is overall well-done, but not without its occasional rough edges. Standing in water did not prove to be any guarantee of protection when the enemy threw Molotov cocktails, as apparently small streams are still flammable. Ammunition was in overabundance, and if the environment didn’t provide enough of it, looting enemies (thankfully a quick and painless process) certainly would. And while the game is mindful of its moral obligations to players of both genders, the fact that none of the enemies used sexist verbal insults rang a little false if we’re being completely honest.
Multiplayer is supposedly an interesting mix of fiction-appropriate objectives and point capturing, with a bit of deathmatch thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately at the time of publication, the matchmaking service could not locate any other players for me on the PC. An update to this review may be added once some impressions of this feature can be gleaned.
Tomb Raider is an exceptional experience. So much that could have gone wrong winds up being a textbook case for how things can go right. Gameplay is a smooth and satisfying venture, balancing precisely tuned platforming with visceral gunplay. Most of all, the writing, and specifically Lara Croft as a character, are sterling examples of what can be done in the medium. Lara is a fleshed-out, relatable protagonist with motivations and personality. Her internal and external journey is that of the unlikely hero, a classic tale with modern psychological insight. Throughout it all, you’re right there standing next to her, a witness and an invisible guide in her metamorphosis. By the end, she stands towering over adversity, cloaked in an ethereal light with a pistol in each hand. She has arrived. This is Lara Croft.