We’ve seen Lara Croft in many forms over the years, from busty action-heroine to Atlantean explorer to wise-cracking aristocrat. But we’ve never seen her like this before. Crystal Dynamics' new Tomb Raider sees a young Lara on her first expedition, shipwrecked and stranded on an island bristling with danger, pushed to the limits of her ingenuity and will to survive. Over the course of the game we see this intelligent, resourceful young woman become something closer to the Lara Croft we know, fearless in the face of danger. It is a greatly successful origin story, a series reboot that feels both authentic and hugely exciting.
Lara is shipwrecked alongside a crew of friends, and her guilt over bringing them along on this expedition provides much of the plot’s emotional thrust, but it’s difficult to feel as much for them as you do for Lara. Thankfully, this doesn't rob the plot of impact. There are a few jaw-dropping moments in this story, which develops quickly from survival-struggle into action epic.
It's a good while before you first pull out a gun in Tomb Raider. Lara's first kill is the game's first dramatic crescendo, a moment of genuine emotional impact. After that moment, though, the game quickly moves on thematically; the transition from terrified survivor forced to take a life to headshot-happy killer is jarringly instant, and this is the narrative’s only significant weakness. One minute she's retching over a corpse, the next she's skewering five guys through the neck with arrows, which leads to a period of narrative dissonance as you adjust. Lara has to get used to killing quickly, and so does the player.
Lara periodically discovers new weapons, injecting the combat with fresh novelty every few hours. I gravitated towards the bow - there’s something vastly more satisfying about being a hidden assassin than leaping into the fray with a shotgun or hiding behind a wall with an assault rifle, though the game necessitates all these approaches and more in different situations.
Building Lara’s skills and upgrading her weapons with salvage proves unexpectedly gratifying. By the later stages of Tomb Raider’s story her arsenal rivals that of a small guerrilla army, and she’s equally deadly in hand-to-hand combat. But for most of the game, Lara has to work with what she’s got. Though survival is one of the plot’s dominant themes, if anything it’s under-used in the gameplay; hunting and foraging are introduced in the first twenty minutes, but then quickly abandoned.
Climbing, meanwhile, is masterful. Lara moves naturally and confidently in her environment, but it still feels excitingly dangerous. Leaping across cliff sides with a climbing axe never quite loses that heart-in-throat feeling. Croft has been to some really impressive places in her day, and happily this island is among them. It is stunningly beautiful, and the game gives you plenty of opportunities to admire it from cliff-sides, misty mountain outlooks and precarious climbing ropes. It’s also rich with detail and tightly designed, and as Lara masters the skills of survival and picks up new tools along the way, you can venture further into its hidden crevices. It makes you feel like an explorer.
Croft’s Survival Instincts vision - which, at the touch of a button, helpfully highlights things like climbing walls, flammable objects and rope surfaces you can attach to - makes navigating the island and its puzzles easier, and thankfully is completely optional after it’s first introduced. It’s most useful when you’re hunting for collectibles, but otherwise I played the rest of the game without using it. The game is well-designed enough that you can read the environments perfectly well without it.
Tomb Raider has definitely taken inspiration from the other great action games of this generation. There's an escaping-from-a-burning-building scenario, and more than one sequence where you're skidding at speed down a waterfall. But even when Tomb Raider falls back on action-game cliché, it does so with such confidence and aplomb that you don't mind - in fact, that burning-building sequence is one of the game's most breathlessly exciting moments. Once it gets going, Tomb Raider is high-octane and squeezes your adrenaline gland dry, but it's also got great variety and pacing. There are quiet, tense moment’s in-between the combat-heavy set pieces, and you're never in the same place doing the same thing twice.
The Tomb Raider heritage shows itself in the game's secret tombs, which are secreted around the island for you to discover. These are self-contained one-off puzzles that lead the way to treasure, and they are frequently ingenious, challenging enough to make you feel properly clever when you find the solution. This traditional Tomb Raider exploration takes a back seat to the storyline in the main campaign, so it's great to see it shine in the secret tombs. Lara's love for archaeology and geeky fascination with ancient civilizations shows through when she's poring over relics and ancient structures, despite the hardship she has to endure.
When the story is complete, the map opens up for you to comb the island for documents, relics and other trinkets that you left behind. Miraculously, you will actually want to do this. Without the plot pushing you through them with a shotgun to your back, Tomb Raider's locales become playgrounds, and you're free to admire their intelligent design as you ponder a relic stashed on a seemingly inaccessible treetop platform. These are far from the corridor-like environments that other action games offer; oddly enough, the game turns into something more closely resembling a traditional Tomb Raider after you've finished it.
There is one truly disappointing aspect of Tomb Raider, and that's the multiplayer, which is best forgotten about. Two of the four game modes feel significantly stacked in favor of one team over the other, and though Tomb Raider's combat is good in the context of the single-player, it's just not flexible or varied enough to support a multiplayer mode for long. It’s also over-complicated with loadouts, levelling and skill unlocks, which robs it of immediacy. At best it's passably entertaining, but I'll be surprised if anyone is still playing it in a couple of months.
Tomb Raider is well-written, sympathetic, exciting, beautiful and just incredibly well-made. The single-player rarely makes a miss-step, and though Lara's quick transformation into a hardened killer seems at odds with the narrative at first, the game quickly moves past it. It is a superb action game that brings a new emotional dimension to one of gaming's most enduring icons.