Tomb Raider: Re-booted, replayed, reviewed

If you go back about thirteen years ago into this gangly writer’s even ganglier adolescence, chances are you would’ve found me or one of my brothers strapped to an original Playstation with a controller in our sweaty hands (attached to the console by a a wire) swearing at each other and yelling in frustration as we tried to find the right fucking sequence of the fucking levers to light the fucking torch to get the fucking relic in one of the original Tomb Raider games. To be honest, we loved every second of it.

The incorrect assumptions outsiders often make about Tomb Raider is that the majority of the franchise’s success is due to the occasionally mis-proportioned female lead character. While this argument holds more water now (her breasts ironically hold less), it’s difficult to argue that any teenager could be attracted to a woman made out of poorly rendered polygons. Then again, the wonders of a thirteen year old’s imagination never cease to amaze. Although sex in video games isn’t exactly rare

Tomb Raider is a success because the developers managed to release a competent string of thrilling, well-defined games that presented a solid mix of third-person shooter and brain-fizzing puzzler. The first five, all for the very first Playstation: Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider II, Tomb Raider III, Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation and Tomb Raider: Chronicles were all consistently great games. I struggle to think of another video game franchise that has made it to five games and managed to keep their quality anywhere near as high.

But the second Playstation and the era of blockbuster gaming, in part assisted by Tomb Raider‘s record-breaking success, offered less convincing outings for Lara Croft. A promising popcorn movie and an awful sequel meant that it was hard to imagine Lara had a future. Luckily, game developers are never reluctant to ever let any franchise ever die. Ever.

Ever.

The latest Tomb Raider is a return to the franchise’s glory days. There’s little that has stayed the same. The basic game structure and form: puzzler and third-person shooter, are there. Everything else is different. Lara is young, there are RPG-lite elements, she travels with a team, and her famous dual-pistols, while teased, are never used as weapons (or maybe they are…).

Lara, a young adventurer, sets about with a scientific team to investigate a series of mysterious events in a Bermuda Triangle-style section of anonymous ocean. The ship crashes, and the game centres around Lara’s attempts to survive and escape a menacing island. It is a black smoke monster and some bad acting away from being an episode of Lost.

But the story is good. The original game’s narratives were frequently incomprehensible, written, as they often were in the 90′s, by game developers as opposed to, you know, writers. Although a fiery climax in the middle of the game feels a little mis-placed and over-sized, so that the actual climax, five or six hours of game play later, feels a little mis-matched.

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The voice-acting and motion capture, which could so easily make Lara a whining teenager, manages to create a wonderful leading lady. The supporting cast, however, rests on action-film racial stereotypes that I pray video games can move past. There’s an assertive and severe African-American woman, a large esoteric and spiritual Polynesian (or Maori?) man who is the first to accept the island’s spiritual capabilities, a smart and softly spoken Asian scientist, and a British white colonialist whose tendency towards being a Judas is foreshadowed way too early.

But, most importantly, the game play is fast, well-paced, beautiful and compelling. The decision to give Lara a bow and arrow is fantastic, and is a gateway to creating one of the best ranged combat systems I’ve ever played. All weapons, including a range of modifiable guns, are fantastic. Melee and close combat, however, is clumsy and unfortunately lets the game down. With only one melee weapon that is able to be used, and used frequently, I often found myself trapped in awkward polygon-land, or unable to manipulate the camera to a suitable angle, or getting killed abruptly from an unseen and unknown enemy. A shame, as all other elements of combat, including difficulty level, pacing and NPC AI, is spot-on.

This is a great game. Playing for the scenery and suspense alone reaps rich rewards. It’s a fantastic and welcome return for Lara. Her introduction to an open-world means the crafting of an individual experience. Puzzle-heavy tombs, for example, are mostly optional. Personally, I’d love to see more of them, but as a third-person shooter, the game is equally as compelling.

Welcome back Lara. Now try not to screw it up by releasing six sequels in four years.