Tomb Raider is an interesting game. In the time from its announcement to its release, I've observed a lot of discussion, often heated, about the new direction the franchise was heading. Some were pleased with the new look, while others either deemed it unecessary or "trying too hard to be Uncharted."
I avoided most of the publicity for Tomb Raider leading up to its release. It certainly had my attention, but I always saw it as the kind of game that would sneak up on me and surprise me. It has certainly achieved that. Tomb Raider broke the street date by 4 days here in Australia, and after seeing the high praise it had received, I couldn't help but snatch it up. Four days later, I have spent over 20 hours in the game, so here is exactly what I think of it.
The game opens by introducing us to the new Lara Croft, before quickly beating the shit out of her. She is younger, more innocent, and much less sexualised than previous versions of the character. Gone are the short shorts and the exposed torso. What's replaced her is a modest young woman.
A young archaeologist, Lara is part of an expedition who are shipwrecked on Yamatai, an island full of all kinds of twisted mysteries. She washes ashore and is kidnapped almost instantly, before being tied up and hung upside down. Most of the beginning of the game involves quick time events depicting Lara's escape, and while this will bother many, I personally didn't find them too intrusive, as they seem to be present for the sake of establishing character and giving us a quick look at the horror Lara is suddenly dealing with.
The writing is also superb. Lara is a brilliantly written character, and Crystal Dynamics have succeeded in fleshing her out and genuinely making the player feel for her. In the beginning, I felt sympathy for the scared young Lara getting beat up at every turn, and witnessing her transformation from this innocent woman into a killer who does what she must to survive is truly gripping. The story is also written fairly well, as the secrets to the island are revealed it becomes apparent that there is more happening there than science can explain. These events are supernatural, and bring with them some nice twists.
The moment Lara comes across the bow and arrow weapon, the game opens up. Initially, you only hunt animals, and while not actually mandatory, it is a good way to get the hang of your new weapon. At first, it took me around 5 shots to kill a simple deer, because I couldn't even get close to a headshot. However, pretty soon I was nailing them between the eyes with ease. All this builds up to the moment you receive a gun. Now this is the point where the story really kicks off, so as of now, I will stop talking about it to avoid potential spoilers as it's an experience definitely worth going into blind. But know this: Lara's first kill is an emotionally draining moment, and the kind of scene that remains with you throughout the game.
Where Tomb Raider really shines is the combat. This is a combat system done exceptionally well, so well in fact I can barely fault it. You will have 4 weapons to use at any time throughout the game: Your bow, a shotgun, a sub-machine gun and your pistol. All of these weapons are a joy to use, particularly the bow. They all have an immensely satisfying impact. During combat, Lara automatically gets down low and moves silently, which is a great indicator that there are enemies nearby in case you didn't notice them.
The cover system is perfect. Unlike comparable games such as Uncharted, there is no dedicated button to snap into cover. Instead, Lara will automatically take cover behind a wall or crate when walking up to it. Now, I understand this may seem to be a system that opens up frustrating possibilities of accidently snapping to cover when simply walking around a corner, but this never happened to me. It just worked when I wanted it to.
Throughout the game, you will come across campfires. These will either be Day Camps or Fast Travel Camps. The latter allows you to quickly travel between any other Fast Travel Camps you have encountered throughout the game, a particularly handy feature after completing the story, as it allows you to return to look for any relics, documents or GPS caches you may have missed. These are scattered through every section of the island, and are much easier to find after retrieving the hidden treasure map for that section.
These camps can also be used to upgrade weapons or spend skill points. Salvage, which is picked up by looting enemy corpses or opening boxes, is the currency of Tomb Raider. Weapon upgrades vary from simple recoil improvements to damage enhancers. The bow in particular has some brilliant upgrades that make great use of fire and explosives. I have never seen napalm used in a better way than with arrows that explode on impact.
Skill points can be used to enhance Lara's ability as a hunter or survivor. Survivor skills involve bonuses like more rewards when looting enemies, and hunter rewards include brutal finishing moves against stunned enemies. These finishers can be truly violent, and even shocking, so try not to go out and murder a bunch of people after playing this, alright? That's totally a likely thing.
Strangely enough, most of the tombs in Tomb Raider are optional to explore, but I don't know why someone wouldn't, as they are great fun to explore. Each tomb holds a puzzle that when solved grants Lara access to a treasure map and other rewards. These puzzles are satisfying to finally solve, as some of them are real head-scratchers. Bonus points to this game for including a puzzle involving electrified water. I can't remember the last time I played a game with that, but it was definitely a long time ago!
The platforming side of Tomb Raider is where a lot of similarities with Uncharted come from. You will climb, jump, fall, dodge and swing your way through many various environments and set pieces. I absolutely love the Uncharted series, but I get the feeling that returning to it after playing this will make me wish it had some features Tomb Raider had. Lara can shoot rope arrows into rope surfaces and, later into the game, rocks, and climb up or glide down the rope. Not only can she interact with ledges, but also rock faces, which Lara scales with her pick-axe.
The single player campaign took me around 13-14 hours, though anyone who speed runs this could easily top it in 9 or 10. I've spent an extra 6 or so hours just going through the levels completing my treasure collection, so there is definitely replay value past the story. Sadly, enemies rarely appear after completing the story, so if you are desperate to get trophies relating to bodycounts or a certain kill type, you might be better off to start a new game.
I feel I should at least touch on the multiplayer component. I only managed to find one game, and even then it only had 4 players on the server despite the game supporting up to 8, most likely due to the game not being released worldwide yet. The mode I played was team deathmatch, and it was fairly standard. A few nice little innovations were there in the ability to blow up parts of the level, and setting traps to catch enemies in, but it really felt like the definition of a shoehorned multiplayer experience. I will definitely try it out again when its full, but I don't see it gripping me for a long period of time the way Uncharted 3 did.
If I have any negatives regarding the game, its the minor glitches I encountered that literally took sight away from the screen, leaving just a crosshair and limited HUD elements. In the middle of a heated battle with 10+ enemies, this can be deadly, and indeed proved to be, several times over. I managed to work past it though, but this is an issue that needs fixing. Also, despite being a wonderfully written game, I found some of the background characters to be fairly bland compared to Lara. Maybe this is because in comparison Lara seems fleshed out and interesting as a character, but the rest really seemed like shallow, cliched stereotypes for the most part.
Tomb Raider is a high quality single player experience. It's almost impossible to avoid comparisons to Far Cry 3 in concept and Uncharted in gameplay, despite the latter being heavily influenced by the original Tomb Raider games, but I feel it far exceeds both in execution and enjoyment. This is the most fun I've had in an action-adventure game since Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and is easily on par with it, if not slightly above it. If you love single player experiences, and are a longtime fan or a newcomer to the series, I couldn't recommend this game more. I had an absolute blast playing it, and for the first time in a long time, feel like I could justify the $79 price tag it has in my country. Take note other publishers: this is how you reboot a series.