The newest entry in the Tomb Raider franchise is a much needed reboot of an ageing series. Published by Square Enix & developed by Crystal Dynamics, the game is a major improvement over past titles in the series with the developers focusing a significant amount of their resources on creating an engaging and enjoyable solo experience.
The story of the new Tomb Raider is the real meat of the game. It focuses on the early days of Lara Croft as she is thrown between a rock and a hard place and starts to develop her survival skills. Lara, an archaeologist, and her colleagues/friends are investigating the ancient Yamani Kingdom when their ship is shipwrecked on an island that happens to be Yamani. They pretty quickly find out they're not alone and that there are other survivors on the island who aren't very friendly and kidnap them. Lara escapes and begins trying to rescue her friends while doing some archaeology on the side like any good scholar.
The story is told through a series of cutscenes as well as several of Lara's self narrated diary entries. The cutscenes are interesting to watch and the diary entries are equally interesting to listen to. The voice acting in both is well done with some convincing performances. Overall the story is well told, entertaining and captivating. The development of the characters, more specifically Lara, is very good. By choosing to have parts of the story re-told through Lara's diary entries, it really helps hammer home just how much she is changing as a result of the events and by the end of the game, you'll see a very big difference between the Lara you started with and the Lara you ended with. The other characters don't get as much attention as Lara does but their relationship with Lara is well portrayed and there is a strong sense of emotional attachment between her and some of the characters such as Roth.
Tomb Raider's gameplay is by no means poor or boring but compared to the fantastic story it feels a little second rate. It relies a little too much on quicktime events & button mashing. After the first two hours of gameplay I'd already been through nearly a dozen quicktime or button mashing sequences and there were many places in the game where said sequences felt unnecessary. At the same time, there were some places where the sequences did actually work well.
There are essentially two components to Tomb Raider's gameplay, platforming and shooting. There is arguably a third in the form of stealth but that really takes a back seat as while there appears to be the option to stealthily take out entire groups of enemies I think that this is just an illusion as when I tried this I often found myself in the midst of a firefight just moments later. Maybe I was just doing it wrong.
The platforming sections work well. The controls are tight and it's always fairly obvious where you need to go thanks to Lara's “Survival Instincts”. The threat of dying in the platforming sections is next to non existent thanks to some very lenient platforming targets. When I did die it was generally because I hit the wrong key and made Lara go the wrong way not because a certain jump was too hard to make.
The shooting sections tend to be duck and cover affairs. You'll spend most of your time crouching behind a crate, popping out every now and then to shoot some enemies. Sometimes the shooting sections can feel a bit boring as you face wave after wave of enemy, especially later on in the game when the enemies start throwing grenades that force you to keep moving from cover to cover, often not giving you chance to actually return fire. At other points though the combat can be fun and exciting. The level where Lara obtains a grenade launcher is particularly memorable for me. The cover system in Tomb Raider works well enough. Lara automatically takes cover behind objects as you approach them assuming there are enemies nearby. I would have preferred a dedicated button to make her stick to cover but there's nothing up with the cover system that has been implemented.
Shooting sections are occasionally spiced up with the introduction of boss fights. These tend to be heavy gunners dressed in body armour or with shields. They put up a bit more of a fight than the regular enemies but you tend to face them one-on-one which sort of eliminates the threat of them since you can easily dodge their attacks and attack their weak points. Doing so then leads to a joyous quicktime event. Failing said event causes the enemy to get back up but in the time it takes for them to get back up, you can probably hit them in their weak spot again causing them to go back down. It's a bit of a cheap tactic but hey, it works.
The weapons in the game are OK. You get a bow & arrow which, if used correctly, is possibly the most powerful and certainly the most versatile weapon in the game. You also get a pistol, rifle & shotgun which get upgraded to more advanced models as you progress through the story. You'll probably find yourself using your pistol the most often since ammo is so plentiful for it and it tends to kill enemies in one or two shots. Throughout the game there are weapon modifications to collect and also a sort of in game currency called salvage which allows you to purchase said modifications. The modifications improve the base stats of your weapons and a few add some cool new functions to them like firing incendiary rounds from your shotgun.
You also gain experience as you kill enemies in the game which allows you to buy perks. The experience rewarded is based on how badass the kill is. Body shots earn the least, followed by headshots and then executions. Executions can only be performed by purchasing the required perk though. Aside from adding executions, perks also make various improvements to Lara such as reducing fall damage or making her more efficient at looting enemies. The perks are all helpful but there isn't much need to ration your experience points. You earn a significant quantity of experience every time you finish a story mission so you'll never really run short and be unable to afford a perk.
There are many collectibles to be found in this game too ranging from artefacts which have their own L.A. Noir like inspection mode to diary entries from other characters which help flesh out their backstory a little bit. It is actually sort of worth trying to find these collectibles since they add a bit to the story but the placement of them is often illogical. It would seem, for example, that characters that are kidnapped right in front of you and you chase after take the time to leave their diary entries as they are kidnapped.
In addition to hidden items to find there are also hidden tombs to find. Known as Challenge Tombs, these sections are one of my favourite parts of the game aside from the story. Challenge Tombs lack enemies, offering some slightly more relaxing gameplay. Instead, they have one large central puzzle which you must solve in order to access a reward (generally a weapon modification). Some of the puzzles require a few minutes of thought but solving them is fairly satisfying, generally employing a bit of platforming, timing and interacting with the environment. The puzzles are made a bit easier by the use of Lara's “Survival Instincts” which highlight points of interest in the environment. While it's helpful, “Survival Instincts” sort of spoils the challenge of the Challenge Tombs. To get maximum enjoyment out of the challenge tombs, try and ration your usage of the “Survival Instincts”.
The graphical design of the game is truly fantastic. The game looks beautiful with the character models being very detailed and believable. Environments are rich and detailed with some great vistas at various points in the game. The graphics aren't just eye candy though, they do a great job of adding to the atmosphere of the game and making the world as a whole more immersive. Another aspect of the game's design which is fantastic is the sound. As I've already said, the voice acting in this game is terrific and that's not just for the cutscenes. Enemies in the game have their own conversations which are fun to listen to before killing them. It's really cool to hear how enemies go from questioning how some girl can be running circles around them to genuinely fearing her. Then, when things start to go their way again, they fear her less.
Not only is the voice acting great but the ambient sound is brilliant too. The sound of Lara climbing up a craggy cliff face is incredibly satisfying as is the sound an arrow makes as it lodges itself in an enemy's skull. All the individual grunts and breaths Lara takes sound brilliant and add to the immersion of the game.
As far as reboots go, Tomb Raider is a shining example of how to do one properly. Thanks to some TLC by the developers, Tomb Raider is a fantastic game with an engaging and worthwhile story mixed in with some beautiful set pieces. Yes the gameplay isn't the most original or exciting thing out there but it's easy to forget when the story is this good. I only wish that the developers had laid off the quicktime events and button mashing because it really did make some sections of the game tedious to play. Still, even though these sequences exist throughout the game, they make up a relatively small amount of the actual game and won't detriment from your overall enjoyment of the game. Definitely play this game.
A Side Note - The Multiplayer
It's obvious that Tomb Raider is a game focused on a solo experience but, for better or for worse, the publisher decided that a multiplayer component was also necessary. The multiplayer section of the game was developed by a separate studio and, while it isn't terrible, it's easily forgettable. The multiplayer includes a standard PvP deathmatch mode as well as a scavenger mode where one team must collect supplies while the other tries to stop them and an escort style mode where one team must transport supplies to a specific point on the map.
The multiplayer might occupy you for two or three hours at best but seriously, go into this game expecting a great single player experience, not a multiplayer one.