Tomb Raider provides a vital shot in the arm to Square Enix's adventure game series and revitalises Lara Croft as high adventure's leading protagonist
Tomb Raider occupies the same space in video games as Casino Royale inhabits in the film landscape. It's essentially a gritty reboot of an ailing franchise brought on by the rise of a snotty upstart that re-wrote the rulebook – and, by extension, the audiences' expectations – for its genre.
Just as Jason Bourne necessitated James Bond's transformation from a suave jack-a-nape into a scowling blunt instrument, so the rise of the Uncharted series has prompted Crystal Dynamics to ramp up the action quotient for Lara Croft's latest outing.
Tomb Raider: Features
It has to be said, right off the bat, that the new Tomb Raider borrows one or two notes from Naughty Dog's adventures series – most evidently in the game's over-the-top action set-pieces.
Just as players have witnessed Nathan Drake scramble to freedom in a burning mansion, or flee from death in a capsizing ocean liner, in Tomb Raider they'll see Lara Croft scrabble and claw for survival through all manner of hell.
In the game's opening she lands on a spike after burning through ropes that bind her, flees from cannibal through a collapsing cave, and is forced to clamber up the skeleton of a WW2 bomber while pieces of it break away.
This all occurs in the first eight minutes of the game, and it's the least violent passage Croft faces throughout.To be honest, the physical punishment Crystal Dynamics puts Croft through is eye-watering.
When they're not hurling her off a cliff or collapsing a precipice below her feet, the developers plonk her in a blood-soaked prison cell filled with human innards or force her to walk slowly through a tight tunnel filled with human body parts.
The series of death animations are particularly gratuitous; really, some of the ways that Croft can check out in this game give Issac Clarke a run for his money in the Dead Space series.
Tomb Raider: Plot
There is, it seems, some reason for all of this madness. As the gaming medium begins to mature and players notice that the protagonists from action games they loved for so long are, in effect, psychotics, Tomb Raider's origin story begins to make some hideous sense.
After all, someone who can take life as pragmatically as Croft has in past games in this series has to have been through a particularly trying time at some stage, and the story of Tomb Raider is certainly that.
The action kicks off as Lara Croft is shipwrecked with a group of friends on an island in the South China Sea, while they were all on en route to archaeological dig. In short order Croft and her friends find they aren't alone on the island, and are soon at the mercy of its current inhabitants – a group of cult-like castaways armed to the teeth with knives and guns.
Croft escapes her tormentors and sets out to radio for help. As she makes her way deeper into the island, she begins to uncover a terrifying secret and finds that the cult of maniacs she encountered earlier are the least of her worries.
Tomb Raider: Characters
The less players know about the story going in, the better, but it should be pointed out that the overall tone of the story is somewhat different to previous Tomb Raider games. Crystal Dynamics have foregone the swashbuckling high adventure ambience for one of brutal grit.
Over the course of her traumatic experience on the island, Croft changes from a vulnerable scholar into a hard-bitten, capable adventuress. Amazingly, she comes across less as an unstoppable force and more as a determined survivor, clinging onto her humanity with the tips of her fingernails.
Tomb Raider: Gameplay
The structure and mechanics of the game plug right into Croft's twin identities of action hero and explorer. In combat, she's not an invulnerable killer, forced to juggle four different weapons with varying range effectiveness as a rather decent AI alternately flanks and rushes her. In hand-to-hand battles, timed attacks and dodges are more effective than trying to take opponents down head on.
These encounters all feel perfectly balanced; every fight feels like it exists on a knife-edge no matter how many weapons and skills the player has unlocked.
Away from the gun-battles, players are encouraged to explore every inch of their environments, which are filled with salvage (for weapons augments), collectibles, mini-quests and, yes, tombs filled with puzzles and treasure. A quick tap of the control pad bumper activates the game's Instinct mechanic, highlighting points of interest and hidden items on the map.
The player earns XP for everything they do, which can be used to unlock a series of skill trees at Base Camps that serve as save points. It's here they can also use salvage to augment Croft's weapons, making them more effective, deadly and less cumbersome to use.
They can also use the Base Camps to fast travel to any areas they've unlocked on the island and rinse them for content. It's worth it simply to wander through the environment a second time; Tomb Raider pushes the visuals hard and even though there's a dour pall to the proceedings, this game is one of the best looking offerings on this generation of consoles.
Tomb Raider: Multiplayer
The campaign lasts an engrossing and thrill-packed 15 hours, so it almost feels like Crystal Dynamics are over-egging the pudding a little by including an online competitive mode. That having been said, it's a fun and lightweight optional extra, which lone wolves can ignore if they so choose.
There's delightfully chaotic fun to be had traversing the multi-levelled maps over the four match types. It won't rob the online lobbies of the FPS heavyweights of any significant numbers, but it's hardly what you'd call a betrayal of the series' aesthetics.
Tomb Raider: Verdict
All told, Tomb Raider is, at its core, a great video game. It's arguably the best entry in the Tomb Raider series in an awfully long time and it's sure to satisfy the TR faithful. Best of all, it makes the next entry a mouth-watering prospect. Now that Lara Croft has been humanised and rebooted, one can't help but be excited about where Crystal Dynamics will take her next.
It's been a tough road back for Ms Croft, but Tomb Raider makes a convincing case that Nathan Drake's position as the first and last name in high adventure in gaming may be seriously under threat.
Tomb Raider release date: Out now
Tomb Raider price: From £27.99 (PC)