Lara Croft is back and she’s not pulling any punches. Crystal Dynamics threw her into a big, beautiful, inescapable world in Tomb Raider, and you’ll have trouble leaving it behind as well. Almost every locale is an amazing visual treat—Lara treks across ruined temples, caverns, shipwrecks and every other set piece the island has to offer. What’s more, they all feature level design that makes full use of Lara’s tools and abilities. Tomb Raider isn’t the puzzlefest like its predecessors, but it still features several nice puzzles. Combat is mostly third-person shooting with the four weapons you have, but the enemies are smart enough to flush you out of cover. The occasional close quarters combat changes things up nicely, with new and satisfying gut-splattering kill-moves available for weapons once they are leveled up.
Something must be said about Lara Croft herself. Her character model is highly detailed, with dirt, blood and battle damage increasing as you progress. Her animations are truly impressive, thanks to Crystal Dynamic’s use of motion capture. When you’re traversing a cave, she reaches out to a wall if you’re near one. Depending on how you reach a ledge, she climbs on top of it differently. The animation really stands out during the slow, tense moments of TR, and there are plenty of them throughout the game. The only thing she’s missing is the cutting-edge facial animation from Halo 4 and L.A. Noire, but otherwise, her animations make her come to life.
Tomb Raider’s atmosphere is engaging, and the plot is interesting, but the writing is only okay. Lara is interesting, but the supporting cast members all fall into traditional archetypes and, unfortunately, some stereotypes. Also, Lara’s transformation from a helpless girl into a hardened woman is the centerpiece for the plot, yet there’s a disparity between the plot and the gameplay. The issue is context: Lara starts off as a neophyte, but she undertakes superhuman feats in the very beginning. Early on, killing is depicted as an almost traumatic event for Lara, but throughout the majority of the game, you kill wave after waves of enemies with ease, and the game rewards you for it. However, the plot is effectively powerful at times; at one point, Lara’s newfound toughness caught me (and her foes) by surprise, and it was great.
The mystical elements of the story are, thankfully, rather intriguing. Tomb Raider takes place on an island where an ancient, semi-Japanese kingdom called Yamatai existed. The kingdom is gone, but a cult has arisen in its place under Mathias, the main antagonist, who worships the goddess Himiko. I was let down a bit though, because the main conflict hinted at a horrifyingly dark resolution but ended with a typical happy ending. Bleh. On the other hand, the plot carries a great deal of momentum despite my misgivings, and it will keep you wondering what happens next.
Nevertheless, the gameplay more than makes up for the ordinary story. There are secret tombs scattered across the island waiting for you to discover and a billion artifacts, documents and GPS caches for you to uncover. The environment is a fun place to get lost because there are just so many things to find. Once in a while though, slow down and look at the amazing scenery that Crystal Dynamics created. Get out there and raid some tombs.
*I played TR on the PC with max settings and it is a gorgeous game; the graphics really helped boost the aesthetics.