Girl, Reconstructed

Through the words of those working on this rebooting of the adventures of Lara Croft—and due to my own, perhaps foolish, assumptions of what that undertaking would bring—I held lofty expectations for Tomb Raider. I envisioned a Lara that had not yet become the superheroine of previous games, and I looked forward to an experience where exploration and survival would trump pistol-powered confrontations. A story of a girl fighting desperately to survive a battle with nature in a harsh land, at a point before she’d come to learn how to win that fight.

That isn’t the game we get in this incarnation of Tomb Raider. Hints of those aspects are scattered throughout its length, moments that seem to reveal a project originally intended to be far more ambitious. In the beginning, it is Lara versus the island. She must learn to hunt in order to feed herself. She is attacked not by men with guns and swords, but by the wind and rain. She is alone, uncertain, and in need of confidence. We’re presented a character who feels real—and so unlike those heroes who typically dominate the action genre. In these early goings, I felt like Crystal Dynamics had been able to fulfill the promise that they’d made to me—or, at least, the promise that I believed they made.

However, that all changes. Hunting and foraging come to play no part in the game outside of XP collection; the island’s threats, both living and natural, take a backseat to the squads of hostiles that inevitably inhabit every location. Lara’s transformation from inexperienced young girl to unstoppable powerhouse comes far too quickly. The first time she kills another human, it’s an emotionally powerful moment too rarely seen in videogames. Soon, her body count rises exponentially—as does the power of her weaponry. (In fact, on more than a number of occasions, Lara enters into battles with the island’s ragtag inhabitants where she greatly outguns them; it’s easy to feel some level of moral ambiguity when you’re using an automatic rifle to mow down men carrying nothing but bows and arrows.)

It wasn’t long before I found myself comparing the Lara here to late-era John McClane. Obviously, we know that our main character will never not pull through—but the ease in which Lara overcomes every danger she faces makes it hard to appreciate the journey she’s supposedly struggling to survive.

How is it that Lara is able to dispatch all foes who confront her? Why is there so little struggle for her in overcoming the physical challenges she comes across? That post-first-kill outpouring of emotion is so well done that you want to connect with Lara on that level on more occasions and really feel how mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting everything she’s going through really is. We want to be reminded that Lara is an inexperienced young woman, and we want to sometimes believe that she just might not make it. Instead—outside of cutscenes or in-game conversations she has with herself—Lara too often simply moves through her adventures as your normal videogame character would.

Of course, there’s good reason for that. The unfortunately reality is that Tomb Raider isn’t some ground-breaking experience—it’s a game, one that still falls prey to the trappings of our hobby. The upside is, when taken as a game, it’s quite often an impressively good one. Yes, there’s inspiration taken from Uncharted—just like Lara herself once influenced Sony’s famed “Dude Raider”—but Crystal Dynamics has crafted Tomb Raider in a way that genuinely attempts to chart its own territory.

As much as I may complain about the concept of Lara laying waste to scores of villains, the truth is that the execution of that concept is both well developed and fun. There’s a satisfying feel to the various weapons—especially after some well-chosen upgrades—and that also goes for Lara’s non-combat equipment. As with any action-adventure game, new paths and hidden treasures will open up thanks to gadgets you’ll receive at key points, but what’s nice is that most of those earned items provide gameplay elements different than those you’ve come to expect.

Then there’s Tomb Raider’s island itself. It initially seems like a collection of path-following segments based around cinematic needs, but these sequences end up intertwining to create a more open-world environment. Among the island’s beautifully rendered mountain peaks and sprawling forests are the ruins of a lost Japanese civilization, interspersed with bonus hidden tombs for raiding. Strangely, Tomb Raider’s standard structures are much better developed in terms of design and challenge than those ancient burial grounds—even though they give a nod to past chapters of the series, the puzzles found within are simply too easy.

I must also take a moment to mention Tomb Raider’s multiplayer. At first, I felt like it was a superfluous addition existing simply because somebody somewhere decided that games these days are supposed to have multiplayer. Matches were a chaotic mixture of clunky gameplay, unexplained objectives, and completely random terms being tossed at me without any explanation as to what they meant. After four hours of prelaunch multiplayer sessions, however, I was actually having some fun teaming up with or taking out other players. I still don’t think the multiplayer here is great—but it takes nothing away from the game’s single-player storyline, and it isn’t totally without merit. I do have one personal beef with the mode: the complete lack of selectable female characters for one of the two factions presented in multiplayer. In a series built around a strong female protagonist, a lack of gender equality in one of its included portions is unacceptable.

More than male-dominated multiplayer or scalable cliff faces or ancient Japanese sun goddesses or anything else, the real star of Tomb Raider is Lara—as she should be. Even with my complaints about how her evolution is handled here, she’s still a fantastic character and displays a level of depth and personality never previously seen in the series. Before, Lara was a caricature; now, she’s a character, one primed to legitimately move the franchise forward from here on out.

And—no matter how much I think Crystal Dynamics squandered the potential they had when rebooting the series—that is what matters most. If this new vision of Lara’s best days are still ahead of her, then I’d say the same for this reworking of the Tomb Raider mythos. When taken for what it is—and not what it could have been—this game serves as a fantastic opening act. However, it’s also clearly just the first step in what will be an arduous journey.

Developer: Crystal Dynamics • Publisher: Square Enix • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 03.05.2013
8.0 Tomb Raider presents a conflict between what I expected and what I received, so to some degree, it’s hard not to be disappointed. However, even with its missteps and missed opportunities, the effort Crystal Dynamics presents here is a respectable first step in giving the Tomb Raider franchise a proper–and much-needed—reboot.
The Good A Tomb Raider—and Lara Croft—that display more depth and character than before.
The Bad The continued assumption that every game needs to have you constantly killing people.
The Ugly Definitely not a bloody, dirty Lara Croft.
Tomb Raider is available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.


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About Mollie L Patterson

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Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Find her on Twitter @mollipen.