This is a spoiler-free review.
For a long time, Tomb Raider was one of those video game franchises. Whenever a conversation about sexism in video games came up, Tomb Raider was usually one of the first games discussed. Everyone liked to talk about Lara Croft and her short shorts, narrow waist, and big triangle boobs. She existed as fanservice, and, for anyone with a sense of good taste, it was super tacky.
Things changed in 2013 when Tomb Raider released. Ditching any sort of sub-title to mark an attachment to the original games, Tomb Raider served as a re-boot of the tainted franchise. The game promised an all-new adventure for the franchise’s iconic heroine, Lara Croft. With 2013’s Tomb Raider, the brand was reborn. From that point forward, “Tomb Raider” would mean something newer, something different.
Tomb Raider begins with Ms. Croft’s research vessel crashing into a mysterious island. From the start, the game let me know that I was in for an adventure that I would just barely survive. Through the crash and the ensuing frantic scramble in an effort to figure out where the hell I had ended up, the game heartily challenged both my reaction speed and problem-solving capacity by use of quick-time events and environmental puzzles, respectively. After a handful of careful jumps, some spurts of button-mashing, and a good deal of near-death experiences, I finally emerged out onto one of the game’s first vistas. The view I was rewarded with was gorgeous, and really showed off the attention to environmental detail that Tomb Raider would utilize as the game unfolded.
As someone who appreciates history, let me tell you that one of my favorite things about Tomb Raider was the attention the game gave to educating me with little facts as I scoured through the game’s environment uncovering relics, when I wasn’t busy dodging gunfire or running from wolves. Artifacts ranging from vases to paper fans were scattered throughout the island’s many caves and tombs. Oftentimes, getting to these locations to retrieve the artifacts was a puzzle in itself, one that involved figuring out how to maneuver across a cliffside without plummeting to my death, among many other equally dangerous feats.
Many of the items were beyond my reach, figuratively and literally speaking, the first time I passed through an area. As I played the game, I gradually unlocked more gear for Ms. Croft to utilize. Thanks to an implemented fast-travel system (you discover campsites as you play through the story which can be used as both save points and fast-travel points) I could easily go back to an area to recover a relic I then had the means to retrieve.
Tomb Raider absolutely nails the thrill of exploration. Whether I was exploring a discovered tomb (which contain treasures well-worth the effort it takes to fully explore them) or tip-toeing my way across a rickety bridge, the set pieces that the story pulls Ms. Croft through were always fresh and exciting.
I really liked the idea of being able to go back and further explore the previous regions, however, I was largely focused on completing the story (which was the main draw of the game, for me), so I didn’t fully utilize the fast-travel system, and instead opted to just ignore the artifacts that I couldn’t get to, in favor of progressing through the story faster.
The story was very spectacular. It presented me with many memorable moments, and while the characters were pretty straight-forward and borderline predictable at times, it wasn’t bad enough to detract from the overall mystery of what the heck is going on, on the island. Being careful not to reveal anything, I will say that the ending was a tad bit disappointing, mostly in that it set the stage for more games in the franchise, so it left the larger questions unresolved on purpose.
As I mentioned earlier, Tomb Raider involves plenty of gunfire. Beyond the game’s iconic bow, Ms. Croft eventually picks up a pistol, shotgun, and machine gun. All of her weapons can be upgraded through use of a neat leveling system that had me scavenging for “scrap”, which is found by breaking boxes and looting dead enemies. Scrap can be spent on giving the weapons better stats or new functionalities, like a scope for the machine gun, or incendiary ammunition for the shotgun. Enemies come in a few different forms: there are fast-moving wolves, the standard grunt-type soldier that can be dropped with a few well-placed shots, and the larger, tougher enemies that usually require the player to dodge their hard-hitting attacks and attack them from behind.
The combat in Tomb Raider was the least satisfying element of the game, and I blame that largely on the bow.
The bow is a near-silent weapon that I was using to kill unsuspecting enemies who were standing nearly back-to-back with one another. Even with using a controller, landing precise headshots with the bow was an easy task. If I missed a shot and the enemy became aware of my presence, a well-placed arrow to the chest was enough to stagger an incoming enemy, if not outright kill them. Taking out enemies was far more efficient by just using the bow all of the time, rather than running around with a machine gun and alerting the area to my presence. The bow made things easy, which in turn made things repetitive.
Another aspect of Tomb Raider that struck me as odd was the overall destruction that the game pulled Ms. Croft through, and her lack of reactions to the destruction, thereafter.
For example, I’d open a box and would find a paper fan from, say, a few thousand years ago. Ms. Croft would excitedly exclaim what dynasty she suspected the fan was from, who it was likely used by, and what the drawings on the fan represented. As I said, as a history nerd, I ate this stuff up. But then, moments later, I had accidentally triggered the entire temple to collapse and was now guiding Ms. Croft out of the gradually collapsing building. Through all of the destruction, she never reacted in a remorseful way at all the artifacts that were likely just destroyed.
Also, it seemed like every set piece ended in mass destruction. It really nullified the excitement of, “I have to get out of here, now!” to just, “I wonder when this place is going to cave in.”
Beyond the main story, I found scraps of journals from the island’s prior inhabitants, and Ms. Croft’s own crew members, that slowly painted a broader picture of what the island was, to accompany what I was experiencing first-hand. Telling a story though randomly placed, static items is a trite way of handling backstory in a game. But, it’s an absolutely ridiculous method of doling out backstory when I’m finding scraps of journals from people in locations that those people likely did not take a moment to sit down and write in their journal. This was a big load of nonsense, and my biggest peeve with the game. I was finding journal scraps from crew members who had written about things that just happened. Did the game expect me to believe that the character would just leave that page there?
The fact that I’m nitpicking the story, in a Tomb Raider game, should make it evident as to just how far the Tomb Raider franchise has moved in the right direction. Ms. Croft is a likable, realistic, intelligent character, who is thrown into a great adventure. Even though that adventure can feel a little repetitive here and there, and some story-telling methods make little sense, it still remains an adventure that you do not want to miss out on.
Tomb Raider was reviewed using a PC retail copy purchased by Tom. All screenshots included in this review were taken from my gameplay experience. Multiplayer modes were not reviewed.