Before Nathan Drake there was Lara Croft.
Nearly 17 years since developer Core Design dropped Lara Croft into her first tomb, a parade of sequels and major motion pictures have spawned, solidifying Tomb Raider as one of the most iconic video game franchises of all time.
After the first six games, the team at Crystal Dynamics took over the Tomb Raider franchise and became responsible for another three adventure titles in the series. Lara Croft had seen most of the planet and explored the deepest of dungeons, but where was she to go from there?
I was able to meet with Crystal Dynamics studio head Darrell Gallagher for an in-depth look at the new Tomb Raider and discuss the game's four-year evolution. He explained to me that one of the main focuses behind rebooting Tomb Raider was to give Lara Croft a proper backstory. Veterans of the franchise might know Lara pretty well, but the story of her rise from amateur explorer to rugged adventurer has never been told with much detail.
The new Tomb Raider successfully accomplishes that. Never before has Lara seemed so human and compassionate. This new adventure resets the counter to zero and properly allows the player to watch Lara come of age, maturing into the hardened beloved heroine who has captured the imagination of countless gamers. Watching Lara go through the trauma she endures is sure to poke at your own personal emotions, placing the new Tomb Raider on a short list of titles able to connect on such a level. These moments work so well because Lara's challenges are experienced, not told. The game explains who she is through her actions. At first, she's scared. In fact, killing a deer for survival seems like it's the worst thing she's ever had to do.
But while rebooting the franchise has derailed some of what gamers originally fell in love with all those years ago, the new Tomb Raider is somehow able to preserve some of the elements of classic games in the series all while evolving it into the modern era. It captures the "you're on your own" tone that the original did so well, even if there's a bit of hand-holding along the way.
Let's face it, games aren't as difficult as they used to be. I remember playing Tomb Raider on PC and spending hours in a room with absolutely no idea where to look or what to do. Times have changed and Crystal Dynamics has found a common ground that should please old- and new-school Tomb Raider fans alike.
Playing as Lara is very satisfying. Controls are ultratight and responsive. The use of the bow and arrow adds an addictive stealth mechanic to the game while an array of firearms are available for taking down bigger threats. There's plenty of diversity buried within the game and a handful of moments that will have you begging to go back and do it all over again.
Tomb Raider is undeniable proof that graphics have hit their stride on current-gen hardware. This game looks absolutely amazing. The environments exude an uncanny attention to detail, while some of the lighting effects and flares create frames of total adoration. I can't remember ever stopping to snap a smartphone photo of game before, but I did it while playing Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider is what a great action-adventure game should be, and its top-notch production values separate itself from the rest of the pack. But I really respect a game that's laid out logically and incentivizes the player to explore. Sure, XP isn't anything new in a game, but Tomb Raider rewards you for going out of your way to find hidden items scattered across each area.
Where as some titles might just have these side missions unlock concept art and the like, this XP can be used to upgrade Lara's weapons and abilities. Some locations even contain tombs that act as mini-levels to complete, awarding even more XP. Found an interesting item? Examine it closely and unlock a secret that'll net more XP. The whole experience is complemented by a beautifully stylized menu system that neatly lays out your completion percentages in everything that's possible in the game.
There's not much that the team at Crystal Dynamics didn't nail in the new Tomb Raider reboot. You may run into a few frustrating moments where you think Lara should be able to jump but can't, and early on there's some strange rules as to how Lara can light a torch.
Finally, it's worth pointing out that this Tomb Raider is probably not the right title to introduce a younger gamer to the series. This is Lara Croft like you've never seen her before. It's graphic and littered with gut-wrenching moments of agony and triumph. While no doubt a fantastic experience, this Tomb Raider reboot isn't for all ages.
CNET verdict: A must play
Tomb Raider epitomizes the action-adventure game genre and provides hours upon hours of unadulterated raw fun. It's action-packed, cleverly paced, and at times makes games like Uncharted feel tired. There's also a decent amount of replay value packed inside, similar to the fantastic collection side missions seen in games like Batman: Arkham City.
You can also check out GameSpot's review here.