It’s only 10 minutes into my Tomb Raider playthrough, and Lara Croft has already taken more of a beating than most action stars do in an entire movie.
So far, Lara has nearly drowned, been knocked unconscious, set herself on fire, impaled herself on a piece of rebar, narrowly missed being crushed by rocks, and tumbled out of an exploding cave before collapsing into a sputtering, whimpering heap.
This is not your father’s Tomb Raider.
It’s been 17 years since Lara Croft first became a video game icon — and five years since the last Tomb Raider release hit shelves — but over the course of that time, Lara’s legacy has been defined more by her pixilated proportions and Angelina Jolie movies than by her actual games. For a new generation of gamers who grew up on the Xbox and Playstation 2, Tomb Raider had started to feel like a franchise left behind without anything new or innovative to offer the market.
So Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics hit the reset button, casting Lara as a fresh-faced 21-year-old explorer in search of the lost Japanese kingdom of Yamatai and its fabled ‘Sun Queen,’ Himiko. Gone are the short shorts and pin-up girl looks, and in their place is a realistic character that you will come to empathize with, root for, and ultimately guide on a transformation.
This is Lara’s origin story, with a renewed focus on storytelling and character development. The result is darker, grittier, and more mature than any Tomb Raider game to come before it, and consequently, it’s incredible.
When the ship carrying her and her crew is destroyed, Lara washes up on a seemingly deserted island, only to be immediately kidnapped by a mysterious group of inhabitants. This sets into motion the aforementioned sequence of near-death experiences, with Lara narrowly escaping her captors before being thrust into the jungle to fend for her life, search for her missing crew, and ultimately unravel the mystery of Yamatai and how to escape from it.
The heart of the gameplay is focused around Lara’s slow evolution from a frightened, overwhelmed youth to the confident, capable survivor that she will ultimately become. As you search the island, you’ll acquire new tools and skills that help Lara in combat and open up new areas of the map to explore, while discovering relics and journals that give you more insight into the history of the island and the background of Lara and the other characters. And yes, you’ll even find a few tombs to raid along the way.
The tight controls make the many platforming sections a joy, and the environmental puzzles that are occasionally thrown in are creative if a bit simplistic. Combat is handled in typical third-person cover-based fashion, but Lara’s limited health means that approaching each situation with a plan is essential for survival.
Tomb Raider is a decidedly cinematic experience, with dynamic camera angles and elaborate set pieces seemingly inspired by the Uncharted series (which is fitting, considering that Uncharted has become the Tomb Raider for this generation). This make the game feel like you’re playing a Hollywood blockbuster, but you’re never left out of the action like some cutscene-heavy games. Controlling Lara as she tears through a burning building or avoids falling debris while scaling a mountain made for some of the most heart-racing gaming moments that I’ve ever experienced.
But the real highlight of Tomb Raider is watching Lara’s character change from victim to hero. Wracked with the guilt that it was her expedition that got them stranded in the first place, the driving force of Lara’s evolution is the desire to save her crew and see them return home safely. Nothing about her journey is fun or lighthearted, and you can appreciate how the necessity to survive leads Lara through some pretty substantial shifts in personality. As the gameplay evolves with new weapons and abilities, Lara changes emotionally as well, and the character’s dialogue will start to change to mirror the more-capable heroine.
It’s a pretty cool feeling to play the game for a couple of hours, and then look back and realize how much the character has changed in so many subtle ways right before your eyes.
Much of the credit for Tomb Raider‘s success goes to Camilla Luddington, the British actress who voiced Lara and did the motion-capture work. Camilla brings an emotion and vulnerability to Lara that draws the player in, so much so that in the early parts of the game, I felt a real need to protect this character. But as Lara grows and Camilla’s performance shifts, I found myself marveling at how tough she had become. It’s rare to experience a fully established character arc in a game, but Tomb Raider nails it.
If there’s a criticism to the game, it’s the fact that the portrayal of the weaker Lara follows a different pacing than the in-game actions that you’ll perform as the character. One minute, you’re massacring a room of ten enemies with a machine gun (while one of them yells, “she’s tearing us to pieces!”), but the next minute, Lara is paralyzed by the potential danger of having to climb a radio tower to send out a distress call. It feels slightly disconnected, but fortunately, things even out by the latter third of the game.
There’s also a multiplayer component, but it’s thoroughly forgettable. After such a carefully crafted narrative, it felt strange to drop these characters into the same deathmatch scenarios that we’ve seen a hundred times before, and I found myself much more eager to return to the single-player campaign to find the last few collectibles that I had missed.
Despite these minor issues, and the fact that it’s only March, we already have a strong contender for 2013 Game of the Year. This is a reboot that the franchise desperately needed, and a perfect introduction for new gamers to a less cartoony Lara Croft.
After 17 years, I have never been more excited to see what Tomb Raider does next.