The Tomb Raider series has long been in need of a reboot. Back in the halcyon days of the original Playstation, the first game was a revelation; a real showcase of what the machine could do and an introduction to a true videogame icon – Lara Croft. This was made all the more prominent by the fact she was a female protagonist – a rarity back in 1996. The game fed into the hunger for adventure and exploration many gamers craved, and was home to many iconic moments. Sadly; the franchise moved further and further away from the simplicity of the original in favour of bigger storylines; bigger characters; bigger breasts. Tomb Raider as a brand began to diminish, eclipsed by the brand of Lara herself – culminating in the buxom explorer’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine. For a while, she became videogames; simultaneously managing to drag the once fringe pastime into the public consciousness and cement the average person’s image of the ‘gamer’ as a fat, sweaty virgin drooling in their basement over posters of old pixel-tits.
We’ve never been huge fans of the franchise at Low Fat Gaming. While the premise has always had potential, the limitations of the PS1 controller, awkward jumping mechanics and just an overall lack of personality made the original hard to love for us, and subsequent entries have only compounded our apathy. All that changed with the reveal of Crystal Dynamics’ drastic-looking reboot a couple of years ago. Rumours of a Tomb Raider prequel starring a young, inexperienced Lara had been circulating for quite some time, but nothing prepared us for just how different this latest installment was shaping up to be. This Lara was realistically-proportioned, young, naive, and in deep, deep trouble. Shipwrecked on a mysterious island, kidnapped by crazed natives and forced to endure grueling hardship to escape; the game looked gritty and appealing. Still, for many people doubts remained – would this still feel like Tomb Raider? Would the game be as linear as it appeared, or would there be an allowance of freedom? Would it be any good?
Here’s the good news – Tomb Raider 2013 isn’t just good. It’s fantastic. On starting up the game the first thing that strikes you is just how gorgeous this game looks. Even running on the decrepit old 360, it’s stunning. Grass ripples in the wind, sunlight breaks through the trees, and the mysterious, dangerous island of Yamatai stretches out in front of you in what is undisputedly one of the very best looking games of the generation. We have absolutely no idea how Crystal Dynamics have managed to get this running on current gen hardware with no sign of framerate drops or screen tearing. The opening couple of hours see the aforementioned shipwreck; Lara’s separation from her shipmates and subsequent escape. Its a very linear slice of gameplay, peppered with the ever-present and oft-debated QTEs that can become tiresome very quickly, but as happens so often in games these days this section is an extended tutorial that both introduces you to the game’s new mechanics, and the new Lara herself.
The developer has done wonders with Lara; transforming her from the voluptuous caricature of old into a fully fledged person who you can’t help but root for. She’s a triumphant amalgamation of Katniss Everdeen, from excellent teen book trilogy The Hunger Games, and a young female Indiana Jones with just enough of the old Lara to ease players into her shoes. She is slender, very small in stature compared to the large men who hound her through caves and jungles, and at least to begin with, very frightened and weak. Crystal Dynamics seem to revel in putting the poor girl through as much pain and suffering as possible – the initial few hours see her tied up, burnt, impaled, half-drowned and suffering bone-crunching falls at every turn. While Lara can still occasionally let rip with an uncomfortable sounding ‘paingasm’ like the days of old, the violence this vulnerable young woman endures is often jarring if not entirely shocking, further cementing this remarkable game’s dark, gritty tone.
After the lengthy opening hours are played out, players are finally treated with a sense of the game’s true potential. While the story may be linear, the island of Yamatai is in fact a completely open environment that can be traversed at will. Its a fantastic piece of game design; the island split into several distinct sections that all interlink and loop back on each other in ways that don’t become apparent until you are a fair way in, similar to the world of Lordran in Dark Souls and every bit as well designed. Lara even finds respite (and fast travel options) at bonfires. Although parts of the island are initially closed off, Lara is constantly acquiring new equipment that in turn opens up more and more areas to explore. There are old journals, GPS caches, rare plants, and of course relics to collect. Challenges are also scattered throughout each area, such as finding mushrooms, burning tapestries and so on. This ensures many reasons to continue exploring the island long after the credits have rolled. The tombs from which the game gets its namesake are present too, but are strictly limited to optional side missions. Players of the previous games expecting gargantuan chambers full of multi-tiered machinery puzzles may be disappointed to find that these tombs are very small and largely limited to one fairly simple physics-based puzzle that won’t leave you scratching your head for too long. Nonetheless, they are a welcome addition that ensure Lara has at least some connection to her old self.
Crazed Religious Leaders
The game isn’t quite perfect. While Lara is a fantastic, rounded protagonist; the cast of shipmates, natives and crazed religious leaders that surround her are all paper-thin stereotypes that somewhat dilute the weight of Lara’s predicament. However, that’s just if you see the cut-scenes – put the time in to explore the island and you’ll find documents that fill in the blanks on these characters and flesh them out. The focus is still very much on Lara (as it should be) but this helps embellish the narrative further and shows you the characters (and islands) goals and motivations. Rhianna Pratchett’s story does a brilliant job of driving us forward to discover more about Yamatai and how on earth Lara is going to escape, but its supernatural elements (while an ever-present part of previous entries) go a long way to detract from the realistic tone that the game spends the majority of its time establishing. There is also the usual videogame problem of narrative dissonance early on – although Lara is upset upon killing a deer near the start, within a hour she is mowing down natives with a shotgun screaming ‘take that you bastards!’. Its not really the game’s fault so much as its a problem videogames have in general, and one that we can’t see a satisfactory solution for. The aforementioned hunting element never really becomes integral either, despite the game’s E3 showing seemingly making a big deal of it. You can kill a variety of animals for XP to fund the games levelling up and weapon upgrade systems, but its not integral to Lara’s survival. These niggles are all minor however, and don’t come anywhere close to ruining the overall experience.
In many ways Tomb Raider is derivative, taking the world design and bonfires of Dark Souls, the back tracking and drip feeding of equipment of Arkham City, the stealth and assassination of Hitman and of course the linear spectacle of Uncharted. But this is a game that is far more than the sum of its parts. Crystal Dynamics should be congratulated for not only showing the world how a reboot should be done, but on creating the best third person action game of the generation.
– Matt Reynolds. Raid his Twitter @thelostmoment