The intrepid adventurer Lara Croft is back in the latest attempt to reboot the Tomb Raider franchise – but is this game the story of how a survivor was born, or just a struggle to get through?
A lot of people who play videogames and remember the original adventures of globe-trotting archaeologist Lara Croft are only too happy to talk about how very special the first Tomb Raider was to them. Yet when I look back, to be honest, I struggle to remember exactly what the fuss was about. It’s like hearing old heavy metal fans rave about Black Sabbath: I know how important Tomb Raider was to tens, even hundreds of games that came after it, but all I can come up with is a kind of polite disinterest while I think about how much better many of those later games were.
I know it was fine at the time, but all that stays with me are vague impressions, like the queasy feeling of vertigo looking down from the top of one of the early levels. And even back then I was uneasy about all the infuriating, pixel-perfect jumps the game wanted me to do, or wondering why I kept guiltily spinning the camera trying to look down Lara’s pointy cleavage. Sure, I was a teenage nerd, but I was also thinking: isn’t there anything more interesting around here? And while it was gratifying to see an actual lady get a starring turn – doing stuff, not just looking pretty – I had the sneaking suspicion there wasn’t much to her beyond, well, being a lady. And refusing to dress for crawling around ancient mausoleums in the dark.
From my perspective, then, the new Tomb Raider recaptures a lot that was good and bad about the franchise. This is Crystal Dynamics’ second attempt to reboot the series, and it’s a good game: an entertaining third-person action adventure, technically very competent, easy to get into, lots to do if you want to do it. But it still evokes the same feeling of: “shouldn’t I be more excited about this?” It tries really hard to impress you, but having finished it I keep thinking of the downsides as much as all the thrilling set pieces. Sure, stuff blew up real good, Lara Croft killed a whole lot of people, but I felt like I’d seen an awful lot of it done better already. And she still won’t put a proper jacket on.
If only you could talk to the cultists
This is a younger Lara, fresh out of university, part of an expedition sailing to an uncharted patch of ocean some way off the coast of Japan. Lara thinks she’ll find a lost island somehow linked to a story way back in her best friend’s family history, the myth of a long-dead queen rumoured to possess mystical powers over the elements. When a storm runs the ship aground on said island, the survivors are promptly kidnapped by a colony of cultists living in the labyrinthine ruins the queen’s followers left behind, still worshipping her memory. There’s no diplomatic option here – the young Lara has to fight her way through a small army of desperate men to save her friends.
No tombs as such, then, but the island’s a pretty big place, and the different zones are satisfyingly tricky to navigate. Miss Croft’s as athletic as ever she was, leaping, climbing and shimmying over the increasingly convoluted terrain. While the main story is linear enough, extra gear unlocked as you progress lets you backtrack to hunt down collectibles, if you feel so inclined – ziplining across previously inaccessible gaps, or blowing up barriers you couldn’t before. Levels are never quite as ridiculously contrived as the first games got (most puzzles are a little too easy, to be honest), but they definitely have similar “Aha!” moments where you finally realise how to snag that antique vase or jade figurine just out of reach.
Was it worth it?
There’s some light RPG-style levelling up, where Lara earns experience for her discoveries – and all that killing people, too. Here’s where I started getting properly uneasy. Past Tomb Raiders had violence, yes, but there’s a definite shift towards third-person shooting here, and the game never quite convinces you it was worth it. Controls for the gunplay or Lara’s bow are a lot looser and less precise, although it won’t give dedicated players much of a challenge – once you’ve unlocked a fair chunk of the combat skillset, enemies stand about as much chance against you as if this was Ninja Gaiden.
This ties into a broader problem: Crystal Dynamics are pitching this as a dark and gritty business of survival against impossible odds, and while there are moments where the blood and savagery works, there are far more it comes across as uncomfortably forced. Gruesome death scenes and a stupefying amount of cartoon gore in the second half just fall flat – and there’s no real reason to care beyond nasty things happening to a pretty lady. The voice cast try their hardest but most of the writing’s mediocre, all painfully obvious twists and awkward dialogue. Despite the odd poignant moment, overall Lara seems no better fleshed out than she was back in 1996.
Tomb Raider 2013 is a solid, professional piece of work (and kudos for a quality PC port), but not much more than that. It has its moments – the later levels get a lot more impressive, both in their artistry and layout – and yet I only ever thought “Oh, wow!” a handful of times. There’s very little truly distinctive here, and even the ending promises nothing beyond a non-committal “Yeah, sequels if you want them”. Shouldn’t a reboot do more to make you a believer? Certainly, Tomb Raider 2013 failed to convince me I needed to be playing the further adventures of Young Lara Croft; it was solid, but it never really felt like anything worth making a fuss about.
Tomb Raider, by Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics, is available now for Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC (reviewed).