Just as Daniel Craig recently rebooted the James Bond franchise, another British sophisticate is being taken back to their roots.
Seventeen years ago Lady Lara Croft dragged video game characters into the mainstream and, for a while, the English archaeologist was both a media darling and an astonishing commercial success.
The first Tomb Raider game took the industry by storm, offering up an exciting mix of exploration and platforming.
The game was very much in the style of an Indiana Jones movie but featuring a female character that couldn’t be more removed from Harrison Ford’s Fedora-wearing hero.
After five hit games for Sony’s original PlayStation, the Tomb Raider series took a fall with Ms Croft’s only PS2 adventure, the ill-fated Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness.
The game wasn’t very well received and as a result the series was wrenched from the grasp of its original British development studio and placed in the hands of US outfit, Crystal Dynamics.
From 2007 to 2009 Crystal Dynamics produced three Tomb Raider titles; each of which was an extremely polished and competent affair, staying faithful to the earlier titles in the series.
But they were not the shot in the arm that the publishers were expecting. In sticking with the formula that served the classic Tomb Raider games, back in the day, these new efforts looked rather basic when compared to the likes of Sony’s Uncharted series.
And so for Lara Crofts new game, simply titled Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics have gone back to the beginning, giving us Lara’s origin story.
In clearing away almost two decades of baggage that have weighed the franchise down, Crystal Dynamics have been freed up to create their own fresh take on Lara Croft.
This is a new Tomb Raider entirely, echoing the originals but with modern gameplay and modern visuals. The game introduces a fresh-faced, newly graduated, twenty-one year old Lara Croft.
Along with the crew of the ship Endurance she is searching for the enigmatic island of Yamatai. Convinced that their goal lies within the area of the South Pacific known as the Devil’s Triangle, Lara leads the team headlong into a storm that finds them all shipwrecked, conveniently, on the very island that they were seeking.
What followed wouldn’t look out of place in films like Saw, Hostel or Wolf Creek. Having washed up on the beach, Lara is subdued by an unknown assailant only to awake tied upside-down in horrific-looking candle-lit chamber.
Tomb Raider is a game that is designed to shock; expertly imparting Lara’s harrowing emotional journey onto the player.
This isn’t that cocky aristocrat from the previous Tomb Raider games, this Lara Croft is a frightened girl that has never fired a gun before, let alone killed anything. Injured and way out of her depth; Lara is fighting for her life and that of her friend Sam, who has been kidnapped by the denizens of the mysterious island.
With every encounter we see Lara struggling, both physically and mentally just to survive. Tomb Raider’s writer, Rianna Pratchett (daughter of British novelist Terry Pratchett), is no stranger to fleshing out strong female characters.
Ms Pratchett was also responsible for Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword and EA’s Mirror’s Edge. In a welcome change from the usual paper thin video game plots, Lara Croft’s character is properly developed throughout the game.
Tomb Raider’s story is top notch stuff. The pacing is just right, and hooked me into a gaming experience that I found very difficult to put down.
Several times the story seemed to be reaching its conclusion when suddenly, and to my absolute delight, it swung off in a new direction. I initially though that the solitary Pacific island setting was going to be a bit restrictive.
Traditionally Lara Croft has jetted around the world in the course of a game. Even Nathan Drake, whose Uncharted video game series has been the closest rival to Lara’s tomb raiding crown, gets about a bit.
Thankfully this mysterious island offers up some starkly contrasting locales. From caves to jungle to snowy peaks, the island of Yamatai provides more than enough diversity to keep things interesting.
Whilst the gameplay echoes the original, the influence of modern games like Uncharted is obvious. Instead of a regimented tomb raiding experience, this time Lara’s adventure is full of cinematic events and gameplay twists.
Surprisingly there isn’t that much in the way of actual tomb raiding in the game. There are tombs scattered across the levels, but they are optional diversions from the main story quest.
Also, rather than go for the nose-bleed inducing brain-teasers of the past Tomb Raiders; this time the puzzles come in easier to handle bite-sized chunks.
Puzzles and platform climbing have always been staples of the Tomb Raider games,but Ms Croft has always been up for a bit aggro; especially when it comes to shooting endangered species.
This outing Crystal Dynamics have given Lara’s combat abilities a much needed overhaul. Gone is that awful lock-on mechanic that served Lara well in the early days; players will need to aim at their own targets now.
There’s also no need to fumble about drawing weapons now, either. Lara’s stance adapts naturally according to her environment. If she feels threatened she crouches and readies her weapon.
It’s a fluid game mechanic that allows you to concentrate on playing the game rather than on superfluous controls. Another change is Lara’s choice of weapon.
The young Lara favours the more stealthy bow over firearms (although a variety of which are still made available to players later on in the game).
As the game progresses there are plenty of opportunities to modify Lara’s weapons. Salvage collected from caches stashed throughout the island and, bizarrely, from animals that you’ve killed can be used to upgrade weapons.
When things get up close and personal, Lara’s climbing axe can be used as a melee weapon. These brawling moves have Lara brutally attack her assailants in desperation, as if her life depended on it; which, of course it does.
The game’s animations have also been completely overhauled. Using Hollywood-style motion capture, actors have provided all the characters movements. Gone are the ridged, robotic animations of the old games.
This time Lara’s movements are directly affected by her environment as she runs, jumps, climbs her way through the game, making this the most realistic Tomb Raider to date.
Armchair collectors are going to have a field day with Tomb Raider. The game is packed with optional challenges and collectables, some of which add to the games backstory.
Whilst I recommend that players try and find the secrets during the course of the campaign, you can continue, post-credits, and mop up anything that you missed.
Unlike some tacked on afterthought, not only are some the collectables really difficult to get to, but the levels also re-populate, so there’s still plenty of opponents hell-bent on getting in Lara’s way of the prize.
It’s not just the Tomb Raider’s game mechanics that have been updated. The graphics of 2008’s Tomb Raider: Underworld look positively primitive compared with the visual feast that Crystal Dynamics have prepared for us this time.
Scenes are packed full of detail, grass blows in the wind and birds soar in the sky. I can only imagine how the game looks on a high-end PC.
Tomb Raider’s astounding visuals are complimented by an equally exquisite cinematic score from award-winning composer, Jason Graves.
The music echoes the original game; you can almost make out the old cues, but with a new main theme for a new Lara. It is a rousing and dynamic score that adds wonderfully to the feel of the game.
The game’s multiplayer mode allows players to use all the gameplay devices from the single player game in a competitive online experience.
The locations are sampled directly from the locations in the story mode. It doesn’t really feel like Tomb Raider, though. It’s more like a rip-off of the multiplayer modes in Uncharted 2 and 3; which did feel like an extension of the main game.
I also found the found that the graphics were a tat muddy in multiplayer. Still it is a decent addition and one that adds extra value to an already complete package.
Tomb Raider throws aside all the gameplay constraints that were a legacy from the previous games; no doubt due to the hardware limitations at the time.
This is the Tomb Raider that we’ve been waiting the best part of a decade for. Not since the Tomb Raider games on the original PlayStation have I been so engrossed in the adventures of Lara Croft.
Crystal Dynamics have finally pulled it off, giving us an incredible cinematic romp that has all the hallmarks of the Tomb Raiders of old but at the same time coming across fresh and new.
Tomb Raider is out now on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC.
Lasting appeal: 9.0