Since I was old enough to watch them, the Indiana Jones films have been some of my all-time favorites. I even love Temple of Doom, with all of its goofy B-movie charm. And yes, I was in that small minority that even found most of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to be pretty enjoyable, even if they did jump the shark with the absurd “nuke-proof fridge.” And the monkeys. And flesh-eating ants. … Okay, so it was pretty ridiculous, but I have no shame in admitting that I am a Crystal Skull apologist.
Maybe that’s why I love the Tomb Raider reboot so much. It could be that, no matter how cheesy or unlikely, the sense of discovering a lost artifact deep within a booby-trapped dungeon speaks to my inner child-adventurer. The younger version of me who thought that maybe, just maybe, there was buried treasure somewhere in my backyard. Or, it could be that the game is just rock solid in nearly every aspect, from the gorgeous graphics to the gameplay mechanics. It doesn’t matter if you’re stealthily choking out cultists, scaling rock walls, or waging all-out war against the crazies living on the mysterious island of Yamatai where you’ve been stranded. Without giving away too many plot details, something nasty has been going down on this island, where the weather can change on a dime and the people there have taken an unusual interest in you and your party. Pretty much everything in this game just works. It’s well-acted, packed with harrowing action setpieces, and features one of the most darkly compelling settings this side of Bioshock‘s Rapture. Having hit in March, Tomb Raider is already one of 2013’s best games.
[ad#longpost]Now, let’s get down to brass tacks. If you’re wondering how this Tomb Raider compares to the older titles on which it’s based, I’ll tell you flat out: I have no idea. I’ve never touched any of the other games in the franchise, so I have no frame of reference. I can, however, tell you that it handles third-person action smoother than just about any other game currently on the market. For example, our heroine Lara Croft needs to sneak around in the dark and behind cover from time to time. But rather than inundating your controller by tying up buttons with “crouch” or “sneak” actions, the game just does it. The stealth sections are contextual (and optional, if you’d rather go in guns blazing), so Lara just starts sneaking around if there’s an enemy nearby who doesn’t sense her. The same goes for cover. You don’t have to tap a button to snap to cover or slide around it; cover elements have just enough “stickiness” that Lara automatically slides up next to whatever box or barrier she’s near, rather than forcing the player to press a button and watch her slam into it. She is the panther to Marcus Fenix’s bull. Some gamers may cry foul and mistake this for “hand holding,” but what it really does is free up your brain to concentrate on things like navigating the multi-tiered environments and the surprisingly solid combat.
On that note, Lara has several weapons at her disposal–including a bow, a pistol, a shotgun, and a rifle, all of which can be upgraded with salvage found on animal carcasses, dead enemies, and inside wooden crates scattered about the island. Each weapon has a few different “levels” of upgrades (it’s never explained how Lara is able to craft a modern-day assault rifle out of a WWII-era submachine gun, but whatever), which keeps things fresh throughout the story. Aiming feels natural and smooth, and nailing silent headshots with the bow is satisfying. If there’s one thing that seems a little odd, it’s that the game rewards you for things like headshots and stealth kills, even though Lara seems to really be hating the whole “killing people” thing early on in the game. It’s jarring to see Lara sobbing and gagging over putting a bullet through a dude’s head one minute, and the next, seeing “HEADSHOT!” pop up in the corner of the screen. Still, each weapon looks and sounds authentic, and a few of them serve as exploration tools. Later in the game, the bow is able to fire rope arrows, letting you zipline to previously inaccessible areas. The shotgun lets you blast through specific barricades, as does the grenade launcher you eventually find.
With the ability to fast-travel between campsites (the game’s version of save and upgrade stations), this gives Tomb Raider a “Metroidvania” flavor that incentivizes exploration and revisiting areas. There’s also hidden challenges in each area of the island that give you additional XP if you complete them. Some of them make sense in the context of Lara’s title of archaeologist (relighting ancient fire shrines), and some of them really don’t (target shooting small totems hanging from trees), but they give you something extra to accomplish and lend an added layer of depth to the environments. There’s also tombs to raid…and while these are optional, I recommend you seek out each and every one. As you walk into a tomb, the camera zooms in slightly and every HUD element on the screen disappears, providing these moments with cinematic gravitas. The tombs themselves typically have one major environmental puzzle that needs to be solved in order to reach the treasure room, but they’re always fair and they make sense if you take a minute to think of how the game’s wonderful physics engine will help you to your goal.
Tomb Raider deftly balances combat and exploration to become an exhilarating action title, through and through. There are times when Lara is thrown into such Michael Bay-ian levels of destruction that it tested even my strong suspension of disbelief, but she always comes out scraped, bruised, bloody, or worse. I’m hesitant to say this (because people are generally sensitive about violence against women), but it’s actually nice to see her get knocked around and hurt, because it shows that she’s human rather than superhuman. It lends some weight to all of the chaos she endures. The first time Lara narrowly escaped death and was forced out into the cold rain, as I watched her shivering and sputtering, I had this urge to reach into the screen to hand her a warm blanket. She takes on the identity of a source of strength for her friends and a force for good on the corrupted island, rather than becoming the shallow sex object her previous incarnation turned into. This is perhaps one of Tomb Raider‘s greatest accomplishments.
If I’m being thorough, I must briefly mention the game’s multiplayer component, but unfortunately it doesn’t warrant more than a few sentences. It features a handful of maps and modes, none of which will blow your mind, and the requisite “Call of Duty-style” level-up system that’s become so expected these days. I played a few matches before backing out the main menu and restarting another playthrough of the main story. It’s too bad, because I can’t but wonder how much more stuff they could have crammed into the already substantial single-player mode if they hadn’t wasted precious time and talent on the vanilla online modes. It’s also a shame to learn that the developer has decided to expand upon the more mediocre side of the game, rather than the excellent single-player side.
To sum up, Tomb Raider is a game that everyone should play. It features convincing performances, a main character you can actually root (and care) for, and an action-driven storyline that will send chills down your spine. Don’t be surprised to see this on top-10 lists at the end of the year.