I watched a lot more of the original Tomb Raider series than I’ve played. In college, while I was taking notes and skimming texts and just generally not busy playing games, I would glance up at the television every now and again to catch the gist of Ms. Croft’s adventures. I’ve got to say, it just didn’t look enticing. Maybe it was because I was absolutely saturated with Angelina Jolie as the concept of raiding (tomb or otherwise), but I was not attracted to the concept. My closest friend admitted–comically shameless–to have intimately known Lara Croft in his formidable years in frequent, carnal fantasy. “Totally,” he replied when I “for real?”ed him. “I don’t think any 13 year old is playing Tomb Raider because they’ve got wood for treasure-hunting, if you want to get right down to it.” Fair enough.
And so of course I had to see what all the fuss was about. I gave it a go. I rented earlier Tomb Raiders on Gamefly. I got sucked in for a few days in a row. While I saw the draw of the franchise, and appreciated Lara’s ample…treasure hunting skills, the game seemed to be a little far-fetched, disconnected and fantastic. Reaching is perhaps a good term for it. A fifteen year franchise, I remember thinking upon viewing the most recent predecessor to Definitive Edition, and this is what they’ve done with it?
What I found in the new Tomb Raider, however, is altogether a different animal. Perhaps this is my breasts talking, but it really felt as if this title didn’t pander to the expected range of Croft fans, but really took into consideration what gamers as a collective were looking for. Sure, little Lara still looked exotic, delicately sultry–do-able, if you will. Her sexuality, however, takes a definite backseat to her naturally progressing survivalist know-how and her incrementally satisfying skill and weapons tree. Cinematic-heavy, this game was ripe with side-missions, supplemental quests, and full-fledged freedom to explore the rich environment. It didn’t play up to the player; it rose to meet a person, and seemed to suggest natural denouement, but not force conclusions. This game felt as smart as it’s audience, and as a result, I’m not lying when I say I could not put it down.
In Definitive Edition, players get a chance to experience Lara’s backstory in a believable, well-constructed and elaborate mission-based game. Lara’s tale is a far cry from the more vanilla-adventures from which existing fans may associate the saucy little explorer. Gritty, dark, sadistic and even savage, this 2013 prelude is a veritable feast of capable goons, mythical monsters and honest-to-goodness mystery that is actually engaging. Playing Tomb Raider, players will be just as consumed with whatever the hell is going on on that crazy island as they will be in the progressively receding hemline of Lara’s tops.
I haven’t finished Uncharted (I’m stuck on a puzzle, and with a wealth of new content bombarding me, I simply haven’t had a chance to complete it…shame on me); however, Tomb Raider seemed similarly set up. There wasn’t just one way to go, or one quest to fulfill, or just a paltry handful of relics to pilfer. Rather, Tomb Raider is an open-ended adventure that can be tackled at any pace or from a wide avenue of angles.
Lara begins her adventure with her crew of academics and a few practical exceptions (cook, guide, ship’s captain, some expendables whose names are never learned) headed towards the Dragon’s Triangle, a group of storm beleaguered islands that promise the mother load of archaeological finds. Shipwrecked by a powerful storm, Lara survives, but finds herself separated from her surviving crew. Things take off quickly from there. Lara realizes almost immediately that there is something terribly wrong–terribly evil–about this island.
Things begin very narrative-heavy. Players follow cues to explore the terrain–no cut-scenes or jumps. Lara crawls out of a cave, and she has to find shelter. The game’s hint system or guides consist of “survival mode”; activated by selecting the left bumper, this removes the color from Lara’s environment and activates pillars of light, or a shining, golden aura around objects to direct your adventure. Use “survival mode” to find GPS caches, bows and arrows (or corpses who happen to have such tools), guns, relics, ammo, the right way, clues to complete missions, winning lotto numbers–everything, really. This system was smart and staid; it neither gave too much away, nor did it leave a person needlessly chasing his or her tail.
So we see Lara’s transition, more believably than in previous installments, from a young, waif-ish student of the past to an adept survivalist. Lara collects food and weapons, and her story evolves organically. She endeavors to become reunited with her team, and collects items that will become vital to her ascendancy. This portion of the game really favors cinematics, although they are interspersed well and often run short. I can’t say that I think it was unnecessary, because it felt like the thorough introduction you’d expect to create the transition from collegiate castaway to skilled hunter and budding pugilist.
I’ve heard a lot of criticism among the upper echelons of reviewers who fault the game for it’s brutality. Lara’s bloodlust, as well as the graphic ways that she can occasionally die (it happens…jumps are miscalculated, controllers are dropped in firefights, mistakes are occasionally made), are as violent and gratuitous as any of the violent ends that you’d expect from Ryse: Son of Rome. You know, final, blood-gurgling breaths. Broken ribs. Headshots that pan out more or less how you’d expect a bullet to the head might. Obviously, I’m sick, because I happened to love the gore. If anything, I wish that Dead Rising 3 had delivered the same gross level of realism (because, of all the titles released for the new consoles, it was Dead Rising and Ryse in which I was most interested). If Viva Piñata or Plants vs. Zombies were to release a similarly graphic system of dismemberment, but with sparkles and coconut flakes and marshmallows instead, I would definitely pre-order.
Obviously, as with the future version of herself, Miss Croft has a lot of adventurous ground to cover. Lara’s trek through the uncharted jungles, beaches and cliffs to rescue her friends takes her to marooned ships and ornate tombs, caves and bunkers, lairs and command centers. Each of Tomb Raider’s missions are intuitive, building on skills and missions previously completed. It’s all very organic, discerning and satisfying. So gratifying, in fact, that I didn’t want to miss a thing. When I had to let go of the controller, inevitably, I demanded that all other household plays be broadcasted via Twitch. You’d have thought I was checking up on a feral rescue animal, not inquiring as to a video game’s progress, from my texts: “How’s Lara doing? Where is she?”
Dragon’s Triangle is as much a character as Lara or her crew in this Definitive Edition, and I have to speak to this briefly. The environment in which our hero is shipwrecked is diverse, alive, and not at all constricting. When I passed the controller, I was backseat hinting the whole time. “Don’t forget the box two floors up,” I’d say. Or Twitch chat from work. “You missed some caches, sweetie.” The detail of the ships, caves, tombs and jungles was delightfully complete. Caches, relics, journals, weapons and ammo–there was so much more to contend with then “make it to point b from point a”. (GPS caches, which facilitate achievements and story progression, were developed with Groundspeak’s geocaching database in mind. I love it when my hobbies overlap, and was unnaturally pleased to see these GPS hunting get its 15 minutes of fame in this amazing game title.)
Kills, too, and combat were evolved and gave nothing away. More than one hit were needed to kill an enemy, lest the hit was a headshot. Lara took more punishment than her enemies, admittedly and illogically, but not by much. Characters did not quit moving, stand still or in any other way make if easier to target them. Lara was capable of stealth kills (an intimate strangle hold and neck slashing duet) as well as distance attacks, and there was always a range of weapons available.
Lara’s skills, also, were developed with forethought and are all accrued in due time. When Croft’s adventure begins, the only skills she seems to have are crouch, walk and jump. Lara can’t even rock climb at the onset of her adventure, but 4 hours in, your enterprising little hunter can shoot zip lines, travel on these and dismount onto cliff faces, use rope to lasso and drag items, and utilize hand combat, archery and artillery to advance and subdue, conquer and gather. While at some point hunting no longer becomes necessary without explanation, Lara is hunting for tools to take down bigger and badder foes until nearly the end of her journey. Some areas of the map aren’t available until Lara acquires the tools she need to succeed, but this doesn’t feel limiting; it feels necessary.
While the controller felt like a much more organic tool to slaughter reanimated corpse-warriors and cult-lackeys alike, playing Tomb Raider with the Kinect was a new experience. Voice commands and gestures completed a number of actions that you could just as easily have executed in a reclining position. Speaking commands opened up different areas on the map, and weapons could also be selected this way. Here’s the thing: I want to tell you that I really spent a long time trying this out, and that I totally shredded it. But that’s a lie. I have missed the boat, I think, for pantomiming my activities. Born in the Baywatch and original yoga era (as opposed to the “I do hot yoga because how else could I justify wearing these pants all the time?” era), so when I want to work out, I…you know…do it. When I want to play video games, however, call me old-fashioned, but I kind of want to sit the hell down. Having said as much, it was still pretty cool to to be all like, “Crossbow” and make Lara grab her longbow, or “Show me maps,” to have the maps pulled up, in theory. But the novelty wore off more or less immediately.
Multiplayer mode was available, and I gave it as quick a once-over as the multiplayer in Ryse (which, if you haven’t tried yet, is no real great shakes). In Definitive Edition, multiplayer was developed by Eidos Montreal and draws on characters from the campaign mode to match Lara’s surviving crew against the island cult henchmen. Scavenging and survival take a backseat to a more FPS model that–while appreciated as an option–could not hold a candle to the well-crafted majesty that was single player mode.
Subtle nuances from every game that I have ever enjoyed playing were present in this newly re-imagined foray into the world of tomb raiding. The gore from (the newest!) Mortal Kombat Ultimate and slow-motion precision kills that were the selling point of Ryse; the attention to detail that I can only compare to Forza 5‘s fetishist auto models, and the interactive maps that hearkened to Assassin’s Creed. The larger battles were interspersed so well within the game that a person was rejuvenated and refreshed from 30-40 minutes of exploration and challenges by the time Lara would even see another living soul. How authentic is that? What an amazing level of faith in your game as well as its audience, to just let a person enjoy the ride and not force encounters and engagement. Because of this confidence and independence, I was never bored, and the gameplay never felt repetitive or exhausting. Until I played Tomb Raider, my takeaway favorite game of 2013 had to be Injustice: Gods Among Us (which, by the way, is available from NetherRealm for free on iOS and Android). Tomb Raider, however, takes the cake by a decent margin. I would literally recommend this game to anyone, anywhere, with any aptitude for console gaming. Between the impressive graphics, evolved, storied adventure, and the wide range of missions and combat, this game literally has something to offer to everyone. Except pirates. Pirates would not appreciate this game and it’s decidedly anti-pirate rhetoric.
This review originally appeared on Gizorama here on May 21, 2014.