Lara’s first kill? The section that was so massively misjudged last year? Wrapped up in a dumb Quick Time Event that, without much explanation, ends up just being frustrating. After you’ve second guessed what the game is asking for the third time, the fact that you’ve just killed someone is almost lost in the noise. But crucially this dramatic turning point, albeit one early on, is probably the game’s only stumble: the rest of it is much better than I ever thought it might be.
Other developers and publishers take note: this is how you do a reboot.
The fact is that Tomb Raider riffs heavily and ironically on games like the Uncharted series – there’s little of Drake’s swagger and cocksure arrogance here in Croft’s swerving transformation but the jungle environment, supernatural undertones and solid, evolving gunplay ape Naughty Dog’s uncanny ability to have already picked from the bones of previous Tomb Raider adventures. This is just as lean, a result of no-doubt constant tuning, but there’s more to this ride than meets the eye.
Tombs, however, are mostly out of the question. Relegated to a few hidden, optional elements, the game instead subverts what you’d expect to be doing in the darkness lit only by a torch and transposes that onto the myriad hillsides, cliffs and downed, long forgotten aircraft. Tomb Raider’s mysterious island plays host to plenty of things, but it’s never short of rocks to climb, chasms to leap over and intermittent, rather perilous playable cut-scenes.
It’s the same modus operandi, but largely outdoors, and it works brilliantly. Your paths overlap and intersect, but newly gained abilities unlock areas previously impassable, sections opening up as you progress through the game’s sturdy but well paced plot. This being a prequel to everything else means that Lara’s skillset is far from honed, and being unprepared means that you’ll need to scavenge around to upgrade your weapons and abilities, which sounds at odds with the minimal HUD and movie-like experience but never really feels too gamey.
That you can largely ignore a lot of the collect-em-up checkboxes is appreciated, but will expand your time with the game on a second run through; it’s probably best to just go along for the ride the first time, and it’s a game that quite happily drags you by the hair.
Indeed, the first fifteen minutes or so present a harrowing, unnerving escape for a shipwrecked Lara Croft. You’ll have seen the trailer, no doubt – it plays largely the same as it did back at E3 2011 – but that opening is still strong and doesn’t feel diluted at all. Your character is racked with fear and the enemy, largely unseen and infinitely better armed, represents a powerful, deadly adversary. It’s a scramble, Lara mostly alone from her friends and desperate to survive.
Those friends feel like padding though – especially at first. They’re not terribly well acted, the script isn’t exactly top notch and their presence never feels like it’ll amount to much other than to advance the story via sudden staccato interruptions.
They’re unable to assist you in any meaningful way and aside from a select few moments just end up breaking an otherwise rather robust forth wall. Lara almost never does what you’d expect in their company, and it’s jarring.
No, the game works best when it’s you against the platforming: bridges collapsing beneath you, walls crumbling around you and huge chunks of metal whizzing down a hillside with you caught right in the middle of everything. And whilst this all feels too familiar initially, there’s a few twists to the mechanics that liven things up beyond just holding up and tapping A to jump to the next ledge. Tomb Raider has regained its crown in this area and Uncharted 4 will do well to take some pointers.
Likewise, the shooting is capable and enjoyable. Your first weapon – a bow – is silent and decisive but soon makes way for upgraded models, pistols and machine guns without ever feeling redundant. And whilst again there’s enough familiarity here to make the combat sequences feel second nature there’s an intelligent cover system and a batch of moves not found elsewhere that elevate it above most comparative titles. These sections are also shorter and better defined than they have been in recent years and each feels different enough to matter, so it’s rarely a chore.
The visuals are great, too. Lara’s animation is top tier throughout – she’s solidly motion captured throughout her running, jumping and rolling but it’s the incidentals (like the way she holds a pistol when a torch is lit) that really bring the character to life. Close-up there’s a slight lack of detail facially and it’s slightly hard to watch, but that appears to be the case for all the characters here, and it’s certainly not a problem during the game itself.
The way the camera acts, the lighting and the motion blur all add to the filmic qualities the game exudes. It’s a dramatic game, a mostly linear one that the developers have a firm grip on in terms of pacing and positioning, and that helps with control of the camera. It’s near when it needs to be, jaunty angles and a stuttering shake evident when the tension requires it, but sweeping and lingering when the mood is more reflective. Once sequence at the island’s highest point is majestic, handled brilliantly and almost certain to evoke at least nausea.
Of particular note is the game’s user interface. It’s presented brilliantly, with in-environment pop-ups when required (think Dead Space rather than Splinter Cell) and some smart menu work which not only looks great but offers up a welcome set of configurables like the ability to adjust the heads-up display to account for overscan.
The production values really are great on Tomb Raider, and the way it’s all integrated into the game visually is appreciated.
I have to admit, I didn’t have huge hopes for this game. I’d shrugged off a lot of the hype but entered into it with a view that it would have to do something really big to impress. I’m happy to say that – so far – I’ve been having an absolute blast. The platforming is up there with the best, the third person shooter sections work well and the overall adventuring is nicely paced and whilst linear never really feels like it, due to some excellent level design and a clear pointer (“instinct”) tool that stops you getting too lost whilst highlighting key elements.
So whilst it might not look and feel too much like Tomb Raider games of old (although look out for at least one nod in that direction) at first the important thing is that it feels modern enough to play as you’d expect it to whilst still retaining everything that made those games so pivotal in generations lost past. Crystal Dynamics have reinvented Lara whilst sticking to genre staples, with just enough ideas of their own to keep things fresh. From where I’m standing, that’s a success.
Tomb Raider is out on the 5th of March. A copy of the 360 version of the game was provided recently by the publisher for review.