Some game franchises are just too big to die. Either they’re left to drift off into irrelevance, or they’re destined for the reboot treatment. Sometimes, as in the case of DmC: Devil May Cry, Need for Speed: Most Wanted or last year’s XCom, it’s an effective approach, reinvigorating a tired formula or reminding gamers what made the series so great in the first place. At other times, as in EA’s unloved Syndicate reboot or the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog, the reboot takes the series in a disastrous new direction, failing to grab either new or existing fans, and actively wasting any nostalgia.
Which way does the new Tomb Raider go? Well, some of Lara Croft’s biggest fans are going to miss aspects of the old Tomb Raiders, just as some Bond aficionados think there’s something missing in the grim, Bourne-inspired new films with Daniel Craig. In fact, the parallels aren’t hard to draw. Tomb Raider is, like Casino Royale, a gritty origin story, low on humour, with some unsettling scenes of violence and a noticeably darker tone. The new Lara Croft is younger, less confident and more vulnerable. What’s more, early sections of the game show a worrying reliance on stealthy exploration and cinematic quick-time-event sequences, raising alarms that the new Tomb Raider has lost its grip on what fans expect from the franchise.
All we can say is: give it time. The whole point of the new Tomb Raider is that it follows Lara’s transformation from storm-swept youth to steely heroine, and that as Miss Croft becomes more confident, so does the game. What begins as a tale of shipwrecked students and savage cultists on a remote Pacific island grows to take in the grand locations, mysterious ruins and strange encounters we expect from a Tomb Raider game, and there’s plenty of running, jumping, climbing and puzzle solving to be found.
What Tomb Raider has done is take the changes Naughty Dog’s Uncharted added to the Tomb Raider formula and made them its own, with a style that sometimes owes as much to Resident Evil 4 as it does to Nathan Drake’s adventures. It’s not the old Tomb Raider, but it’s every bit as good.
In fact, in some ways it’s better. Like Uncharted, Tomb Raider goes big on third-person, cover-based combat, and it’s expertly handled. There aren’t many enemy types and the AI isn’t particularly challenging, but there’s enough going on to keep you on your toes and the weapons, all customisable with secondary fire modes, are fantastic. Pride of place goes to Lara’s bow; silent, lethal for medium-range headshots and customisable later on with perks for extra damage, faster firing rates and fire arrows. It also doubles as a Zelda-style hookshot for grappling objects and creating zip-lines.
All the running, jumping and climbing stuff also works brilliantly. Tomb Raider uses a range of visual tricks to show which parts of the scenery you can grab or grapple onto, but there’s often more than one way to get from A-to-B, and the island is littered with secret spots where you’ll find collectible items, journals and ammo caches. While early sections appear quite linear, there’s plenty of exploration to be done.
Discovery is one of the joys of playing Tomb Raider, so the less we tell you about the plot, the gameplay and the set-pieces the better. What we will say is that it’s action packed and an incredible spectacle, with scenes of peril and feats of derring do that Naughty Dog would be proud of.
Meanwhile, hidden tombs and seemingly inaccessible areas add interest both when the main storyline is running and afterwards, as newfound abilities open up new sections in the style of a Metroid or Zelda. The semi-open world setting and a series of fast-travel points encourage exploration, and there’s plenty out there to discover. With time, even the puzzles that seemed absent in the game’s early chapters put in an appearance, and while Lara’s abilities to manipulate the environment seem oddly limited, you’ll still find some satisfying conundrums.
Tomb Raider also has plenty of atmosphere. The single island setting might seem like a limitation, but the game pulls a surprising amount of variety from it, with stormy beaches, rain-soaked forests and creepy tunnels giving way to snow-capped mountain shrines and ramshackle settlements as time goes on. The visuals are frequently brilliant, with stunning scenery, superb water effects and some beautiful animation for Lara and her various moves. Your enemies suffer a little from the indentikit, beardy ruffian look that fans of Resident Evil 4 might be familiar with, but that’s not a huge deal. With its dynamic camera angles and huge set-pieces, Tomb Raider clearly wants to be a summer blockbuster of a game, and nine out of ten times it achieves it.
When it doesn’t, it’s because the story falls into generic patterns, or because aspects of the gameplay disrupt the feel. Lara’s story itself is well told, but the supporting characters fall into familiar clichés, and you can sometimes see the joins where ten to twelve hours of gameplay are being shoehorned into a single storyline.
Tomb Raider also goes bananas over upgrades and collectibles, making you wonder why Lara is so fascinated by exotic tea-making items when her friends are in such danger, or whether stomping every last crate to collect salvage is such a great idea when necks are on the line. Collectibles and upgrades help extend the game and make it more interesting, but the pop-up messages are an unwelcome disruption. Nor do prolonged gun battles in the later sections always help the pace. At heart, Lara’s an explorer, not a tooled-up, death-dealing marine.
But let’s not get too caught up in a few small complaints. Once it kicks into gear, Tomb Raider is a formidable new start for the series, establishing the new Lara Croft as a character, and showing real promise as to where her adventures might go on next-generation machines. It’s exciting, action-packed and immersive, and it hits all the right cinematic notes. This might not be the Tomb Raider we know and love, but it’s a great Tomb Raider to discover.
Tomb Raider does for Lara Croft what Casino Royale did for Bond and what Batman Begins did for Batman. Some fans might not like the new tone or the new Lara, and parts of the gameplay leave me cold, but it brings the action back into a more believable world and reinvigorates the franchise. It’s not flawless, but it’s a smarter, more exciting breed of blockbuster. Throw in excellent graphics, a lengthy adventure and plenty of optional content to explore, and Tomb Raider joins DmC: Devil May Cry and Need for Speed: Most Wanted as a triumphant resurrection.