Mar 082013
 

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Lara Croft can be considered one of the elder statesmen (stateswomen?) of video games. She, along with Samus Aran and a few other notables are the original female leads of the digital world. Unfortunately  things have gotten stale for Ms. Croft over the years. She’s gone from a quality lead character to a stand-in on a b-class sitcom. Honestly, it was time for a reboot, but does it stack up against the series great titles. 

Tomb Raider as a series has had its share of ups and downs leading to this point. Given that the last few games in the series didn’t exactly represent the peak for the franchise, it was a natural assumption that a reboot could breath new life into Lara Croft. Crystal Dynamics, with a little help from Square Enix, have attempted to do just that with the newest adventure.

Gone is the old, snarky and fearless Lara Croft we’ve come to know (and some of us love a little bit too much). Instead, we are presented with a character that is a lot more archeologist than adventurer. The reboot paints Lara Croft in a very human character, and serves almost as a rite of passage adventure for the young heroine.

Shipwrecked on an unknown island, Lara has to put up with the terrible weather conditions, vicious wildlife and pockets of survivors from other expeditions, who are no longer in the right state of mind, or so it appears. Sure, there is a tale of a mythical Sun Queen that begins to unravel, and some of the plot “twists” are seen from a mile away, but this is truly, Lara’s story, her growth.

The environments are gorgeous

The environments are gorgeous

That’s what truly draws you into the story. You see Lara do some things that would emotionally traumatize most people, but more importantly you see her struggle with those actions. The game portrays that very well, especially when Lara has to kill her first human enemy. Sure, some of that falls apart once we get into the gameplay and she dispatches foes in a nonchalant fashion, but in some parts you just have to separate gameplay and story in your head.

The score is dark and ominous, highlighting how dire the situation actually is for Ms. Croft. A lot of work has gone into a tremendous soundtrack that lands more weight to every moment in the game.

Voice acting is terrific. Sure, there are archetypal characters who aren’t given much to do, but the main cast delivers a stellar performance. The actress who plays Lara goes above and beyond putting us in the shoes of this survivor. Every line has a sense of emotional gravity to it and it helps you grow closer to these characters.

Visually, the game does a very good job of balancing various environments and situations. The character models are great, and Lara’s digital remaining has done her a lot of favors  I applaud Crystal Dynamics for taking a step back from the over sexed, short shorts huge breasts image and bringing it back down to earth. As you progress through the story, you will also see Lara take a lot of punishment and it will reflect on the character model.

Lara is constantly under threat, both from nature...

Lara is constantly under threat, both from nature…

I also enjoying how most of the equipment you use actually feels like something that would be found on a deserted island. You will hunt down scraps and piece together whatever weaponry you have with them, it won’t look pretty, but it will definitely effective.

The island itself, feels like a real place of despair. From shipwrecks and plane crash debris all over the place, to ancient villages from a time long gone. It is a dark place, but one that can be eerily beautiful at times too. The environments change often, and you will find yourself taking a pause just to take in a particular vista on more than one occasion. The game is indeed beautiful.

From a gameplay standpoint, it seems that Crystal Dynamics studied the genre very well. A lot of elements from other games are integrated with such precision that it creates a very fluid gameplay experience. The interplay between platforming, exploration and combat is well realized and everything feels natural on the controller.

As Lara learns more abilities, terrain exploration becomes a joy, from climbing, to jumping, to creating make-shift rope bridges to get over gorges. Similarly, the combat works just as well. You are rewarded for good aim and planning your approach. Most of the time, using the stealth option with the bow is best, as Lara is heavily outnumbered. When you level up and unlock more upgrades however, it will be easier and easier to get out of a battle unscratched.

It all holds up with a very balanced difficulty curve that ramps up the further you get to keep the challenge up. A lot of games have trouble with providing a very balanced experience start to finish, but Tomb Raider passes with flying colours. Gunplay and combat feel natural, with Lara taking cover herself when enemies are around, and reacting well to her environment. There is no easier way of describing the gameplay than: it flows.

... and the human population of the island

… and the human population of the island

There are, of course, tombs to raid, but they are optional and serve as side missions a la Assassin’s Creed chambers. It is a good break from the dangers of the island, allowing you to relax. Some of the environmental puzzles in these sections are downright genius and very rewarding. Unfortunately, unlike Assassin’s Creed, they could have been a larger part of the game. Crystal Dynamics got a lot right with the tombs, but they didn’t do enough of it.

Finally, the multiplayer is in the game, but it’s hard to be very excited for it. It seems like every game has a MP component in it, just because. There isn’t nothing particularly creative or inspiring about it and it definitely won’t keep you coming back when there are much better options available on the table.

Verdict: Tomb Raider reboot is a tremendous gaming experience through and through. It brings back a more human and believable Lara Croft, one who is just growing into the big shoes she has to fill. Crystal Dynamics does a great job balancing many different gameplay elements without dropping a single one on it’s head. What came out is an engulfing experience that is a joy to play and is held together by an amazing right of passage story for a character that we felt we knew so well. In a way, it’s a sign that Lara still has plenty left in the tank, and I can’t wait to see where her adventures take her next. 

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