Lara Croft has been around in the gaming world for a long time. Since 1996, and with her generously proportioned character, she has been raiding tombs and unraveling ancient mysteries. She has even earned her way into the Guinness Book of World Records with a “Most Successful Human Virtual Game Heroine” award.
I should confess I was never much of a fan of prior Tomb Raider games. The adventure elements were fun, and swan diving off giant cliffs never got old, but shooting endangered species and moving two-ton rocks with my bare hands all for the sake of a puzzle got boring fast. Lara always seemed like kind of a jerk out for her own personal gain. The character and story never grabbed me.
Enter the 2013 (and early 2014 Mac release) reboot which does away with the previously over-sexualized Lara, introducing a much younger version of the character that, though still beautiful, is more realistic. This title also serves as a story of origin for our heroine: As an enthusiastic archaeology graduate, Lara is part of an expedition out to find a lost and possibly mythical island off the coast of Japan. A violent storm soon wrecks their ship however, and Lara along with the rest of the survivors are stranded and separated on a strange island.
The fun of origin stories is seeing how a character becomes who you know they will be in the future. In other Tomb Raider games Lara is already a confident badass, blasting anything that moves without blinking and handling crazy situations with ease. Here, Lara is scared, hurt, and on the run for most of the opening sections. You are forced to find food, shelter and warmth or perish. Later, you must find the other survivors and figure out the mysteries of the island.
You get to see Lara’s transition from a naive young adult into a hardened survivor over the course of the story. What is perhaps most remarkable is that the writing allows for this to happen in a mostly believable context. Few games have a good reason or justification for the proceedings, or for the actions of the characters you either play or experience indirectly through NPCs. Tomb Raider handles all of this deftly, whether it is Lara’s horror at her first kill, what she is forced to do to save her friends, or the great lengths she must undertake to explore the island.
One of my favorite things about the reboot is that all the puzzles are organic to the game world and make sense in the context of the surroundings and story; they don’t come off as being gamey, but are actually logical to the situation. Obstacles aren’t placed in your way intentionally or arbitrarily; they are often present due to the results of combat, exploration, or some other sequence of events. Occasionally you will be confronted with a quicktime event, sometimes for a puzzle, other times in specific cinematic combat scenes such as being attacked by a hungry wolf. These mostly work, coming off as exciting and fun, though a few are overly difficult on the timing.
Curiously enough, in this Tomb Raider you do very little tomb raiding. In fact, all tombs are optional areas that provide a nice challenge as well as salvage and experience bonus at the end. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Assassin's Creed series, but not in a bad way. I found the tombs to be fun, if unchallenging diversions from making my way around the mountains.
Combat, certain exploration, and challenges net you experience. When you’ve earned enough you gain a survival point, which you are free to spend as you like among the survival, hunting and brawling skill trees. This is a nice way to have Lara’s skills grow but let you have control over which order. With a decent amount of exploration and scavenging, it isn’t hard to acquire everything by the end of the game. Scattered throughout the island are campfires which serve as fast travel points and where you can level up your skills and gear.
Lara has access to four main weapons throughout the game. The much-touted bow is as fun as advertised, while her armament is also supplemented by a pistol, shotgun, and assault rifle. These start out as basic WW2 weapons which you can upgrade with salvage found on dead enemies and around the island. Some weapons gain additional ammo types, or increases in fire rate and damage. Much like your skills you can choose in what order to upgrade your weapons. Meanwhile, Lara’s trusty pickaxe doubles as an excellent climbing tool and vicious melee weapon when required.
The AI will do a decent job of keeping you on your toes by changing positions, flushing you out of cover with fire or explosives, or trying to flank you. Combat is balanced and enjoyable, neither feeling too easy nor too hard. There is a lot of it in this game, but I found it never overtook the excitement of simply exploring the island.
There are definitely some memorable sections, such as a nighttime stealth attack through the woods; Lara turns from the hunted to the hunter as she picks off gun-toting baddies one-by-one with her bow. Later, an assault on a monastery is both explosive and thrilling, filled with ranged and melee combat that showcases Lara’s skills and capacity for revenge.
Visually, this game is stunning. An excellent use of lighting, colors and environmental design create a rich world to inhabit. Weather effects are a particular standout, as there’s nothing like climbing a mountain in the slippery rain, or having a gunfight in a snowstorm. Textures are sharp, character models are smooth, and particle effects are great. Fire and water look extra good here and I often found myself lighting my torch just to wave it around and watch how the lighting and shadows would change.
Animations in this game are phenomenal from start to finish. A lot of detail has been put into Lara whether she is walking, running, climbing or fighting. Many game characters just feel like a person running through a world, rather than experiencing it, but Lara feels like she is actually an inhabitant of the setting and reacts accordingly. She will often glance around in interest, reach out and touch objects or brush a wall, and crouch when scared. Her movements are so natural and fluid it makes navigating around fun in and of itself.
Voice acting, sound effects and music are also top of the line. I feel like that is easy to say for a lot of games, but Tomb Raider does a standout job in both its cinematic sequences, combat scenarios, and the little moments when Lara is just quietly walking along in a forest or high up on a mountain ridge.
It also performed well on my iMac, averaging about 44 fps on maximum resolution and settings. I also played this on a lower spec’d iMac on medium settings and the game still looked and performed well. Feral has done an excellent job with scaling this on Mac, and the benchmark lets you test how it will run on your system in advance.
I must admit the singleplayer contained less survival elements than I expected as the game progressed, especially since they were so strongly featured in the beginning. This didn’t end up taking away from my enjoyment of the game, as evidenced by the fact that I binge-played through the twenty hour story mode in a mere two days. Congratulations Tomb Raider, you have me officially hooked on Lara Croft and her future adventures (just don’t make me shoot tigers and dinosaurs).
Tomb Raider also contains a multiplayer element. While you could easily deem this unnecessary as the single player story is the star of the show, the multiplayer is actually really fun. Sadly, nobody plays it, in part I think due to the poorly designed matchmaking system which makes it hard to find a game in the first place. But if you do manage to find someone to play with, you are treated to a terrifically fun hunter-versus-hunter challenge. Players have access to a similar level of mobility as Lara in the story, letting you scramble around the diverse maps as you please. This allows for epic escapes or sneaky assaults during fight or flight.
There is also your standard xp/unlock system here, which lets you obtain new gear and weapons as you progress. Personally I love the bow in the game, so I mostly stuck to that during multiplayer. It’s also more satisfying to turn someone into a pincushion while they try to fill you with lead. Voice and text chat is also present, and while it may seem odd to note this, some multiplayer games only provide one or none at all.
Aside from the occasionally annoying QTE, The Tomb Raider reboot is gaming gold for any action-adventure fan. An intriguing story, fun exploration, and great combat enhanced by top-notch graphics and sound come together to create one of the best games I have played in a long time. For $20 it would be a crime not to pick this one up.
- Engaging story
- Incredibly animated
- Intense combat
- Immersive graphics and sound
- Multiplayer is surprisingly good...
- But nobody plays it
- Quick-time events aren’t always fun