When it came time to actually sit down and play Tomb Raider, the latest entry in the renowned franchise that has spanned three console generations and garnered millions of fans, I did so with more than a little skepticism. Could Crystal Dynamics, who took over the reins to Tomb Raider in 2006, successfully reboot the iconic Lara Croft? Could they deliver a game that satisfies and delights in the same way the originals did back in the days of the PlayStation? Above all else, I wondered, in an era where Sony's Nathan Drake and the Uncharted franchise sit at the top of the action-adventure mountain, is Lara Croft, gaming's most iconic female character, even able to remain relevant?
Within the first hour of gameplay, my answers were unequivocally ''Yes.''
What Crystal Dynamics has accomplished is nothing short of astonishing. Tomb Raider strips away the storylines that have built up over three generations of games, and takes us back to Lara's youth. Here, she isn't the ass-kicking, puzzle-solving, gun-toting archeologist we all know and love. Lara Croft in this game is human, fresh out of college and ready for adventure. The opening scenes see our protagonist involved in a shipwreck, thrown onto the beaches of a mysterious island, kidnapped, bound and left for dead. And with that, the theme for the whole narrative arc, and Lara's development, become clear -- survival. We don't start with all the tools needed to run, guns-blazing, into a guarded tomb. Lara must learn her skills along the way, teaching herself how to hunt, gather, make shelter, climb buildings and cliff faces, fight enemies and, eventually, wield weapons.
The initial hour of gameplay is heavily scripted, with little error for the player to explore the vast, dense world that has been gifted to them. Quick-time events, tunnels, a very stripped-down tutorial all guide the player through the basics of gameplay, as Lara escapes her initial captor, and is thrown, almost literally, out into the island. It's here that Tomb Raider's contemporary influences sneak in. If anyone has played Far Cry 3, then the method of hunting animals and collecting food will be very familiar, as will the new ''perks'' system, which allows for the upgrading of Lara's core skills, teaching her better weapons handling, greater survival instincts, more efficient resource scavenging and more.
Hunting for food introduces us to combat, with Lara gaining a bow. The bow features throughout the game, but is initially used just for hunting. Indeed, Lara spends her first hour exploring, gathering food, searching for her shipmates and trying to ascertain more information on her setting.
Controlling Lara through this is easy, with an intelligent camera set-up and familiar controls removing any barrier to instantly grappling up buildings or jumping across ravines. While lacking the fluidity of Assassin's Creed, Tomb Raider manages traditional platforming with aplomb, with Lara hurling herself across gaps, scrabbling up walls, and gingerly stepping out over makeshift bridges. Uncharted's Nathan Drake is an obvious influence here, as Lara approaches these tasks with a suitably human response, thumping into the sides of cliffs, gasping as she scrambles to climb over a ledge, shouting in agony as she falls and showing all the signs of a person out of her comfort zone and pushing her body to the limit. Intelligent design and easy-to-spot destinations make traversing the environment a constant delight -- and fans worried about Tomb Raider's ability to adhere to the platforming of its predecessors will be glad to know Lara has never looked better jumping, swinging and climbing through the game's numerous scenes.
Lara's first kills in the game reinforce the fragility of her youthful character -- she apologizes to a deer after killing it for food and sobs in fear and agony as she defends herself against wolf attack. She uses her bow begrudgingly, and combat is slow to start. Indeed, Lara's iconic gun-play isn't introduced until the player has mastered the first few opening scenes, and Tomb Raider's darker setting is emphasized as Lara takes her first human life. She breaks down, crying, shaking, apologizing for the kill. However, in a slightly awkward transition, this is the last we see of the Lara afraid of taking a life. Combat immediately switches to the offensive, with gun- and bow-play coming into full effect, as Tomb Raider's dynamic combat system opens up.
Combat is tough, with intelligent enemies making use of the landscape just as easily as Lara herself. Scale a building to escape gunfire and enemies will follow, with some climbing after you, and the rest peppering the player with arrows, bullets, molotov cocktails and dynamite. Environments are destructible, with fences and boxes splintering and cracking, stone pillars and walls crumbling, and wooden fences and cloth items setting alight as enemies rain fire upon Lara. It's a hectic, often tough affair, and I died frequently due to being overwhelmed by the quantity of enemies attacking me from different angles. Mercifully, Tomb Raider has a very strong auto-save feature, so should you die you'll often be dropped back into action moments before you left it -- which also applies to any misjudged moves while scaling walls and leaping gaps outside of combat.
The initially slow opening doesn't set an example for the rest of the game. After introducing combat, survival and maneuvering through stages, Tomb Raider cranks up the heat. The main story lasts between 12 to 15 hours, and in that time it rarely pauses. Set-piece after breathtaking set-piece keep Lara constantly moving, whether fighting hordes of the game's antagonists, the Solarii, or having to navigate across windswept chasms, crashing her way down a river or running through a burning building. It's a relentless onslaught, but it never feels repetitive. Action is confined to areas, with a player alerted through audible clues when they have removed all threats. Should they press on, Tomb Raider will throw them into the next puzzle, climbing challenge or gunfight that awaits them.
Such a constant barrage of danger and exploration could become tiring were it not for Tomb Raider's setting. The island of Yamatai, where the game's story takes place, is stunning. Crystal Dynamics has crafted an incredible playground, with players moving between snowcapped mountains, beaches coated in traversable shipwrecks, deep, dark caverns, musty, bloody tombs and crypts and open, windswept villages. Tombs are filled with crumbling passages, scurrying rats and decaying statues and mechanisms. The makeshift shanty town is a symphony of driftwood, detritus, recycled materials and human filth. Cliff-faces crumble under the elements, waterfalls soak the screen in splashes and snowfall builds on the ground, slowing Lara down. It's a fascinating, beautiful, detailed, lived-in, constantly captivating place. Indeed, Tomb Raider's graphics will keep you in a state of awe, with cinematic cutscenes and deliberately forced camera angles guiding the player in their appreciation of the locales and settings they visit. One in particular rendered me speechless, and saw Lara forced to climb a radio tower to signal for help. As she climbed, the camera switched between the steep fall that awaited a wrong move, and the vast openness of the surrounding vistas. When I reached the top, the camera panned around to reveal an incredible sunrise behind Lara. I watched, as an exhausted Lara sat down and gazed at the scene before her, and it blew me away with its beauty. Tomb Raider is one of the prettiest, most detailed games I've ever played.
It's also one of the goriest, with visceral blood spatters, rotting corpses, rivers of blood and human waste, frequent executions and some harrowing death scenes for Lara should you make the wrong move. It initially surprised me with its brutality, and the frequency with which characters and enemies are killed and the number of revolting and bloody scenes that await discovery. It's deliberate, though, and as you wade waist-deep through human blood you come to understand the desperation of Lara's situation. Tomb Raider will shock you with its graphic content, but Lara, too, is shocked. You experience it with her.
This immersion is backed by some great audio. Camilla Luddington takes on the role of Lara, and does a stellar job of bringing her character to life. The desperation in Lara's voice, the sighs as she gazes at the distance she must travel, the grunts and shouts as she battles through enemies -- it's a fully realized performance that captures the essence of Lara Croft. Indeed, the finest moments are when Croft examines tombs and treasures, with the excitement of her discoveries and the forming of theories offering a joyous respite from her harrowing situation, as well as offering insight into her deep education and cultural knowledge. Secondary characters offer up similarly well-rounded voice acting, with each being believably genuine, though the writing occasionally strays a little too far into cliché for some. Tomb Raider's island setting is injected with its own personality, with violent winds, crackling fires, screeching birds and rustling leaves all adding a sense of realism and depth. Guns and explosives are suitably deafening, voices reverberate through narrow passages, and doors and mechanisms creak and grind with suitably aged response. Yamatai feels as though it's existed for centuries, and the audio helps back up the detail in the games visuals with aplomb.
If there's one area in which Tomb Raider lets itself down, it's multiplayer. It consists of 4v4 games played across 5 maps and three game-types, and features many of the weapons and abilities of the single-player adventure. It's not particularly bad, per se, and I enjoyed the few matches I played. The controls are no different to single player, though, and the deliberate nature of scripted encounters doesn't carry well to frenetic unscripted action, but it shouldn't matter. Those who want to sink hours into multiplayer, trying to get the achievements and trophies are free to do so. What's important about it is that it doesn't detract anything from the main campaign. Nothing feels sacrificed to make way for it, and there's no lack of content to justify having it. It's simply there.
Those who ignore it have no end of content in the main campaign. Once the story is complete, there are challenges, tombs and collectables to find. Players can fast travel around the island, completing mini-tasks and side quests, finding hidden treasures and discovering Tomb Raider's tombs. I finished the main story after 13 hours and was told I'd only completed 66 percent of the game -- and I'm a thorough gamer, so there's no telling how long a player can spend combing every inch of the island. Tombs, by the way, are Tomb Raider's fan service. They offer self-contained areas with one-off puzzles, and are much more like the original games. Offering a slower pace and a much harder level of difficulty, they can be found across the island. They're worth completing, not least for the reward, but also for the additional backstory and detail each contains at its end.
When all is said and done, what is Tomb Raider? If I want a well-made, cinematic, beautiful and captivating action-adventure game, I could play any of the Uncharted franchise. Tomb Raider's new, fragile Lara Croft draws many comparisons to Nathan Drake, with Sony's franchise setting the bar for adventure gaming this generation. Well, I can comfortably say that Tomb Raider reaches that bar, offering a life-or-death aspect to gamers that Uncharted does not. Lara is fighting for her life. She doesn't want to be on the island, she doesn't want to be in this situation, she just wants to get her friends and get out of there. That struggle, that need to keep going and keep fighting and save herself translates beautifully to the player. When I messed up and sent Lara hurtling off a cliff, or into a rusty spike, or caused her to die at the hands of an enemy, I felt like I had failed her. She wanted to save herself, and I was stopping her.
Tomb Raider combines gameplay, story, graphics, sound and characterization into one heady, engrossing adventure. Seeing Lara's story to its conclusion is a heart-stopping, breathtaking, adrenaline-filled experience, and it's one that, whether a fan of the original Tomb Raider or not, every gamer should play. Tomb Raider isn't necessarily better than Uncharted -- rather, it matches its excellence in a way few other games can, for one stand-out reason: gaming's greatest heroine.
Lara's back, and she's never been better.