One of my fonder PlayStation 1 memories was of raiding tombs on a demo disc with the dual-wielding, ponytail-clad, buxom Lara Croft and her '90s edge reminiscent of an Alanis Morissette song. I ran about with my ostensible Indiana Jones in short shorts reveling in all the polygons and then suddenly I was being attacked by dinosaurs as if someone let Indiana Jones wander into Jurassic Park. It was a simpler time.
The series appeared to have been reaching its apex of mainstream proliferation -- Angelina Jolie would twice pull back her hair into a ponytail of archaeology a decade ago. However, games were on their last legs following some less-than-well-received installments, until a PS2-era revival by Crystal Dynamics. Still, by that point, Lara seemed to remain on the fringe, almost as removed from the canon as the other quasi-PS1 mascots, also now under new management. Still, Crystal Dynamics has toiled diligently, making well-received Tomb Raider games even when Lara’s position as gaming’s Indy had seemingly been usurped by one Nathan Drake. Never one to lie down and die -- well, except that one time she did -- Lara and Crystal Dynamics aren’t leaving this throne unchallenged.
And here we are, witnessing a waning generation reboot of one of gaming’s most iconic women. A gritty, realistic one at that, eschewing the no-strand-out-of-place ponytail, large bust, and otherwise cartoonish features for, as Allistair Pinsof so eloquently put it, “American Apparel breasts” and a photorealistic flair. It’s quite the shake up, but evidently one the seminal franchise needs to elevate it back into the public consciousness. One thing’s for sure: I’m paying close attention.
Tomb Raider (Xbox 360 [previewed], PlayStation 3, PC)
Tomb Raider opens up with a doozy of a storm leaving Lara washed up on a beach, but before she can catch her breath, a swift thump to the back of the head leads the screen to face to black and Lara becomes tied up in some sort of cocooned restraint. The transition from well-shot cinematics to fully manipulative gameplay is impressively seamless. Some shimmying about results in Lara careening toward the floor and impaling herself on a bit of upturned bone, the ill effects of which seem to be lost on Lara not too long after, but for now she holds her punctured side and winces with each step.
The opening, which you’re funneled through, doubles as a tutorial and sets the stage for what’s to come. Fire plays a big part in the game, particularly in puzzle solving. Obtaining a torch is necessary and it also needs to be externally lit or can be extinguished during certain portions of a level. Early on you’re also given access to Lara’s equivalent to Arkham Asylum’s detective mode, which tears the environment of its colors and highlights objects of import in amber. Seeking a way out of the caves ends up being a mix of light, introductory puzzle solving, platforming, and quick-time events. Though the latter causes concern for some, I was generally happy with the QTE implementation, particularly how organic they tended to feel. Part of this might tie back to the strangely cinematic camera which feels zoomed in quite close to Lara relative to other third-person action games. It gives everything a more personal feel yet never obscured my field of view.
The next thing to strike me was the sound. Mind you, I did have the benefit of playing with a wonderful surround sound setup, but it was impressive none the less. To begin, you can check out this cool video documenting composer Jason Graves’ methodology in writing wholly new material, as well as take a look at the neat instrument he had built specifically to make the soundtrack, which I dig so far. On top of that, however, I was particularly affected by the tertiary sound design. Aftershocks in the cave post-explosion left me with a palpable sense of dread while bumping into cans and other things let out deep, resonant metallic twangs. The ambient sound helps sell the world.
After finally freeing myself from the unsettling, creepy cave, I was momentarily awestruck by the sun-blazed, beautiful, and tumultuous landscape stretched out before me. Lara’s ponytail may hang a bit awkwardly at times, but the environments are gorgeous and there’s a noticeable amount of nuance in characters’ facial animations, adding another layer to what are some strong voice acting performances.
Things get a bit more familiar after this. In cinematics, Lara remains scared, battered, and previously impaled (I don’t remember her pulling the bone out but she certainly couldn’t have left it in), but she builds a fire and presses onward, scavenging while trying to reconnoiter with her shipmates. Here you get to play with the in-vogue bow, shooting helpless deer and rending their delicious deer meat for experience. While everything I played was rather consistent in overarching linearity, I was a little surprised that the level designed opened up enough that I didn’t feel claustrophobic and that I felt it worth my time to check out certain nooks and crannies in order to leave no stone unturned.
The platforming isn’t as expansive or tightly segmented as in some current games; rather, it feels purely used to achieve a goal rather than to feel rewarding in and of itself. That being said, there are some cool idiosyncrasies. Double tapping A on flat walls lets you scramble up them, sometimes after a jump you’ll have to tap X to get a proper grip, and later in early portion of the game the pickaxe makes for a rewarding sensation when manually plunged into stone you’ve leapt perilously toward. Even the dodge mechanic eschews a traditional forward roll in favor of an on-all-fours scurry echoing the fighting pose of a cornered, embattled animal. I was also able to unlock the ability to throw dirt into opponents’ faces while in combat, though I never got a chance to use it.
Outside of getting from point A to point B in the service of progressing the plot, there are swaths of various collectibles to hoard, as well as hidden tombs for you to raid, which is where a fair bit of the puzzle solving I had to do came into play. Areas are also scattered with bits of salvage, which can then be used to upgrade your weapons at base camps. It’s a slightly restrictive feature, but I like limiting upgrades to base camp -- it’s sensible to sit and do those things by a fire in your down time and keeps the gameplay flowing otherwise. Additionally, you can use experience points to unlock a wide variety of perks. While I don’t mind the system, I was irked by the intrusive experience bar popping up even for each mundane task I did, like skinning a rabbit.
While the narrative is constantly trying to show the torn-down side of Lara, when you’re in control, you feel completely empowered, which leads to some narrative dissonance. And while killing was rather easy and mechanical, I felt a bit tripped up by how many bullets enemies could occasionally soak up, which dampened the effect of murder and made things feel quite gamey.
That being said, the combat system plays well, particularly the organic cover. Rather than hitting a button to stick to cover, Lara will get in cover if you walk toward cover and leave it if you walk away. Surprisingly, this worked seamlessly and fluidly during my entire run through. In fact, I almost forgot there was a cover system at all.
Tomb Raider has a lot of the core stuff nailed down pat. It remains to be seen how Crystal Dynamics will take advantage of this fresh slate and tell this narrative, which is perhaps where the most critical eyes are turned to anyway; can the team validate the reboot and “tearing down” of Lara, or is it going to come off as an unnecessary dramatization of an already working formula just to pull people in by the grit? The strong voice acting (I particularly like Lara’s friend Sam) and nuanced facial animations are a start as well as the intrigue set up the first few hours, but we’ll have to wait until spring for the final verdict. Also, Lara’s boots are really cool.