When a series is nearly twenty years old and still releasing new games, that potentially means a few things. For one, it's likely a memorable milestone in the industry. The Tomb Raider
series is certainly that. The exploits of Lara Croft have left an indelible mark on the action-adventure genre. However, any series around that long is also at risk of growing stale or failing to innovate. Crystal Dynamics, the team behind Tomb Raider
since 2003, decided it was time for Lara's makeover after a five-year hiatus, and the end result is simply beautiful.
In name alone, gamers will understand that 2013's simply-titled Tomb Raider
is a reboot of the famed heroine's adventures. The story thrusts a young, untested Lara and her team aboard her ship, the Endurance, into stormy waters that soon shipwreck them on an island while they're searching for the lost lands of Yamatai. As her surviving crew is separated and Lara has to adapt to the hostile environments, we're introduced to Tomb Raider
's best feature: the marriage of the story to the gameplay.
Lara knew her mission would be risky, but just moments into the game when she is battered, bruised, and bleeding, she has to fight for her life. The gameplay evolves stride for stride with Lara as a character. It was a focal point of the developers to make her a realistic adventurer rather than the objectified, empty sex symbol she had been in past games. We see her tremble when she kills her first deer for food and she breaks down in tears when she kills an actual person out of self-defense. For the first time, Lara is a human being.
Early on, when she needs to traverse an unstable tree bridge over a waterfall, the game makes it difficult and memorable for us to express how unfamiliar she is with the danger. Later she can do the same thing with grace and quickness. Simply finding solid ground eventually becomes ziplining onto rock walls with a pickax high above the trees. Learning how to shoot her bow evolves into her running and gunning with assault rifles, pistols, and shotguns. An origin story like this one lends itself very well to the progression of gameplay because we needn't suspend our disbelief as to how Lara is capable of the on-screen action. She personally grows into the ever-changing gameplay elements unlike many games that say 'here is your story, here is your gameplay' and leave a disconnect between the two.
The synchronicity of story and gameplay wouldn't be enough alone. They would both need to function well too, and fortunately, they do. The game's objectives are varied and even when you repeat the core elements of the game -- third-person shooting, platforming, and puzzle-solving -- you never get a 'been there, done that' feeling. The island environment isn't completely open-world, but you can access several convenient fast travel locations and this is especially helpful to collect the game's multitude of collectibles after the game is over. Collectibles in games are often a bore, but most of them in Tomb Raider
add to characterization or the island's history. The shooting is very reliable and the cover system is one of the smartest I've seen this generation because it works automatically. If you're in combat and approach cover, Lara will take cover but without sticking to it. You'll never feel trapped hugging a wall and you can still pop out above or beside it smoothly.
An XP system is used to progress Lara's abilities across three groups -- survivor, brawler, and hunter. By the end of the game, you can perform stealth attacks, melee combos and reversals, climb faster, and find more salvage which is then used to upgrade your weapons too. While these ideas aren't original, they're presented effectively and they're necessary for survival as the game's enemies get harder and more numerous. The puzzle-solving isn't as difficult as past games' and the Optional Tombs are brief, more so than I expected. Still, they're crucial for their XP boosts to strengthen Lara's abilities as well as making collectible-finding easier.
Simply put, the single-player mode is exciting, cinematic, rewarding, and extremely polished. The multiplayer is seldom any of those things. Since it was revealed near the end of the development cycle, the online multiplayer of Tomb Raider
certainly seemed like an afterthought, and hands-on time with it doesn't do well to erase that perception. After the laggiest round of online gaming I've literally ever experienced, I was cringing at the idea of playing more. Luckily, the game was never as laggy after that but the content that does remain is too sparse to interest most gamers. Offering just five maps and four game modes to play, you probably aren't going to spend much time in the lobbies unless you're working on the game's many multiplayer achievements.
With small teams, the pacing is slower than other online shooters, which I actually welcomed, but even with the great deal of vertical space to move about on each map, they all felt mostly empty. Also, the intuitive cover system of the story mode doesn't carry over to the multiplayer and this results in an adjusted control scheme that just isn't quick enough for a competitive shooter. In short bursts the more unique game modes, Cry for Help and Rescue, can be fun, but not for long. The other two modes, Free-For-All and Team Deathmatch, are offered in basically every other online shooter and are done better in most of them too. Though the multiplayer was outsourced to Eidos Montreal, it still fails to capture any of the magic of the single-player mode.
The achievements will drive away plenty of completionists thanks to a lot of them requiring multiplayer, including prestiging your online profile a few times. Luckily, the situational online achievements as well as leveling up can be done in private matches, so you're just left with one achievement that requires ranked play time. Even in the single-player, the list isn't generous. I didn't pop my first achievement until a few hours into the story and besides beating the campaign, there are no story-related achievements. Much of the gamerscore will come from working on collectibles and achieving milestones with different weapons and different methods of eliminating enemies and animals that can be hunted. By the end of my first playthrough, I had managed to achieve 25 of the 50 achievements for about half the gamerscore. At time of writing, after some more multiplayer and finishing off every collectible, I now sit at 38/50 for 790G. Unless you play games strictly for their achievements, the game has plenty to offer even when you're being starved of any gamerscore increases.
Crystal Dynamics promoted Tomb Raider
with the slogan "A Survivor is Born" to accentuate the rebooted and improved approach to a decades-old series, but from an industry standpoint, we can alter that slogan to "A Contender is Born". It's a five-star story mode bleeding like our young Lara with obvious commitment from the studio behind the game. The two- or three-star online mode dampers the final score of the game but there's little to be ashamed of in Lara's origin story. Consistently engaging and polished gameplay supplements an enthralling story, and despite the facelift, it all still feels like a part of the series. For a console generation soon to be replaced, Tomb Raider
will be remembered as one of the swan songs of the Xbox 360 and a must-play for pretty much anyone.