Of all the major game franchises, few have enjoyed such a meteoric rise – and subsequent decline – as Tomb Raider. It’s been a long time since Lara Croft’s 1996 debut revolutionized the very notion of strong, female protagonists, and though the last few years have seen a few decent outings for the world’s sexiest explorer – Underworld and Legend each had their moments – it’s also been a long time since a Tomb Raider game was really something to get excited about.
So perhaps a reboot was inevitable. Tomb Raider hits the reset button on Lara and her globe-trotting adventures, reintroducing the iconic heroine as a young, naive explorer, keen to carve out a reputation by discovering a lost civilization. When her ship is wrecked on a mysterious island, Lara and her crewmates must get a rescue signal out, as well as survive the island – complete with predatory fauna, harsh conditions and a mysterious band of psychopathic killers – itself. I don’t want to give too much of the excellent story away, but it’s fair to say that the Lara who’s first confronted with the possibility of having to kill another human being is not the gun-toting, shorts-sporting automaton of games past. Tomb Raider is a very human story. In a similar way to last year’s excellent Far Cry 3, players are forced to consider exactly what it might cost someone to turn themselves into a battle-hardened killer. And that’s a gameplay experience that’s as rewarding as it is uncomfortable.
By opting for an open-world format, and utilizing much of the actual ‘tomb raiding’ as optional side missions, Crystal Dynamics have reshaped the Tomb Raider experience. Gone is the progression from one cookie-cutter underground passage to the next. Instead, there’s a very real sense of geography to Lara’s new world. And a very real character progression for our heroine. Lara is rarely free from injury, or confident about what she’s doing. As a player, you’re made to feel like events are escalating out of control – a mechanic that engenders a very tangible sense of fear and uncertainty. It’s subtle, too. Little about Lara’s movements makes you feel reassured. She’ll run a hand along a wall, or whisper encouragement to herself as she enters a pitch-black chamber – very human, very minor interactions that Crystal have seen fit to include, but they create an amazing amount of character empathy. Lara is a computer-generated, fictional entity. But you’ll find yourself wanting to shepherd her from one objective to the next, wary of pushing her too far.
There’s a sleek, cinematic energy about the game’s look. The environments are beautifully terrifying, the interface easy to use, and the characters well-drawn and believable. But perhaps the greatest achievement of Tomb Raider is a true reboot of a character that had become so accomplished as to be virtually invincible. Lara Croft is back, and she’s more human than ever before.