Those who relieved the frustration of being stuck in previous Tomb Raider games by guiding Lara Croft over the nearest cliff won’t need to resort to such tactics in Crystal Dynamic’s origin story. In a game whose opening hours more than occasionally resemble torture porn, Lara is beaten, tied up, or spends most of her time falling from bone-shattering heights and impaling herself on things. These aren’t end game scenarios, but part of a narrative that transforms Lara from wide-eyed archaeology pupil into dead-eyed murdering machine in a reboot that begs to be described as “gritty”.
It’s Lara’s first expedition, which sees her join a veteran archaeologist and documentary crew in searching The Bermuda-alike Dragon’s Triangle for the lost civilisation of Yamatai. Caught in a violent storm, their ship wrecks on an island and most of the crew are captured by a hostile group whose presence on the island is something of an incongruity. Escaping captivity, it is up to Lara to rescue the crew and figure out a way off the island before they are caught by the locals or eaten by the wildlife.
Tomb Raider is a visually stunning, immaculately presented experience full of flourishes and breathtaking vistas. The lighting, weather, and particle effects impress in particular, and each environment feels alive and authentic, from thick-canopied forests to rugged mountaintop bandit lairs to dank subterranean temples. The score, courtesy of award-winning composer Jason Graves is equally exquisite, a sweeping and suitably epic adventurer’s soundtrack.
While not an open world game per se, Tomb Raider is nonetheless a series of very wide interlinking levels that generally allow non-linear traversal and hide a load of hidden areas and bonus content. The island is big enough that fast travel is an option to and from various points, but it can all be jogged or climbed to directly as well. Given the scale on display, there are impressively few smash cut loading screens, with the majority disguised by Lara squeezing between rocks or traipsing down dusty trails.
Tomb Raider greedily insists on staking claims towards opposing ends of the continuum. Its platforming, puzzle, and exploratory sections are well-directed, cinematic, and often spectacular. However, the forgiving nature of the former presents little challenge: while airborne Lara can bend her trajectory back and forth, and appears to float horizontally to destination ledges should the jump command be issued early. She can also fall great distances and survive with barely a scratch, so while there are amazing feats accomplished onscreen, there is little at stake for the player.
Similarly, many passages of regular play are punctuated by blockbuster-worthy escape sequences, where the usually-trailing camera will fix itself at a certain perspective before Lara is commanded to run, slide, or leap for her life. A series of daring moves will see her emerge into daylight as ancient ruins crumble, waterfalls rage, or monasteries burn, but what’s often sacrificed in these arresting escape sequences is tension and player agency. Often, escape is simply a matter of holding the analogue stick in one direction and perhaps completing a series of simple jumps. Only the proliferation of hard-fail quick time events causes headaches here.
The physics-based puzzles themselves are equally straightforward, containing one possible solution and offering no red herrings. Lara’s Survival Instinct mode highlights things she may interact with in the environment, and Lara herself will even vocalise advice if the player dallies about for too long. A combination of setting things alight, moving weights, and ascending specially-marked surfaces with a climbing axe usually does it, and there are so few options presented that blind experimentation will see them solved quickly.
The other half of Tomb Raider’s gameplay equation is pure third-person cover shooter, well executed but featuring some atrociously poor AI. Even here the player’s role is somewhat minimised, with Lara taking cover automatically in what is actually an extremely elegant and functional cover system. There is no stickiness when entering and exiting cover, and the player is never fighting against the environment the way they must even in similar top-flight titles.
Lara’s arsenal begins with a bow that is capable of a power-up shot, but quickly extends to pistols, shotguns, submachine guns and more – all of which may be upgraded via ubiquitous and generic salvage deposits. So too may her hunting, survival, and brawling skills be honed, this time via experience points that are earned for pretty much everything, including conquering the game’s many optional side tombs and item collection challenges. Melee attacks are dodged not with a dive roll but an appropriately desperate all-fours scramble, and more points towards brawling will see Lara able to follow up and ram an arrow directly into her assailant's throat, for example.
Unfortunately, enemies – while aggressive – spend too much time in the open talking about how they are being shot at. Their use of dynamite and molotovs to flush Lara out of sometimes-destructible cover is great, but the pregnant pauses following their melee attacks give her far too much time to counter or flee. Furthermore, enemies are all right-handed and a bit thick, so it’s sometimes possible to manoeuvre into positions where the player cannot be hit but all enemies are in plain sight.
Bumping things up to hard difficulty doesn’t fix all these issues, but it does see foes close in faster, which provides a better challenge as groups can quickly overwhelm Ms Croft. The AI is suspect when it comes to detecting a sneaking Lara as well though: missed bow shots that whizz by faces and ricochet off rocks just feet away will leave targets stoically unmoved. Those same guards will then duly expose their backs while their mates look the other way.
Despite these minor gripes Lara’s origin story is an exhilarating ride full of great animations, amazing sound design, thrilling set pieces, and big action moments. There is enough variety and spectacle within to not only hook players but entrance onlookers as well. Lara’s growth into an apex predator is sudden, but it does precede a game full of “Hell yeah” moments and enjoyably empowering game design. The start is a bit grim, but the fuss over last year’s E3 presentation is proven to be a fuss over nothing, and the story is enjoyable and decently voice-acted. Much like closest competitor Uncharted, Tomb Raider provides a rollicking tale whose glossy production values and narrative propulsion overshadow its faults, and as such, it comes highly recommended.