For what was once a commanding presence in the videogames industry, Tomb Raider is a franchise that has had a rough time of late. Working to buck industry trends it was typically those title which did not perform will critically that saw greater commercial success, and vice versa. This left a bitter taste in the mouths of peers, fans and mere acquaintances also, and so many thought it was about time something changed. Square Enix, however, thought it was about time that everything changed.
Tomb Raider is a reboot of the franchise in almost every respect. Everything you know about Lara Croft remains true, from the adventures of her father to her personal determination, but none of this rings true with her just yet. Tomb Raider is perhaps in the unique position of being a videogame in which the player begins the adventure with more knowledge of the central character than she has of herself. Some would suggest that the developers have failed to capitalise on such an opportunity, but given the intention that Tomb Raider be the title that brings lost fans back into the fold the priorities obviously lay elsewhere.
As such the first four hours of the single-player campaign are spent do little else but developing Lara’s character. First her intellect, then her sense of responsibility, her athleticism and determination, and finally her loyalty and her moral compass. Then comes the greater confrontations; her first human kill, the need to face overwhelming odds not for her sake – she’s been doing that since she found herself stranded – but for that of a friend. These are the actions of a true hero, and these are the moments in which Lara reveals for the first time exactly why she’s managed to stay relevant as a female protagonist in videogames when so very few of her contemporaries have managed to do the same.
In terms of gameplay, the first hour sets a pace that very few platform videogames – and Tomb Raider is a platform videogame, now more than ever – manage to reach in their twenty-plus hour duration. It’s an entirely linear affair that takes the player from combat to platform segment to puzzle solving in the blink of an eye, and scatters a fair amount of exploration (most notably multi-tiered designs) in the hope of finding salvage with which to improve weapons and collectables throughout.
The core experience Tomb Raider offers is one that lives on spectacle. There are numerous puzzles, platform challenges and combat segments waiting at every turn, but unless you’re hunting for the optional tombs, collectables or the inventive Challenges and their rewards, there is very little that would challenge experienced gamers. Tomb Raider is a videogame that is made to be completed, and it’s all the better for it. The story driven design arguably lends itself to an episodic format more openly than Alan Wake, so much so that it’s a wonder Crystal Dynamics didn’t opt for such a format. What they have delivered however, is a videogame that drives you forward, readily commanding your attention for hours after you first said ‘I’ll just reach the next campsite.’
In a more questionable design decision, Tomb Raider includes a multiplayer gameplay component which feels like it was made simply to fill the requirements of a marketing team’s checklist: versus combat, level system and unlocks are all present, and all utterly ignorable. Unlike the inventiveness of the single-player campaign, the multiplayer gameplay modes are an effort in averageness. Offering gameplay for up to eight players, online Tomb Raider is essentially the same third-person action videogame we’ve been playing for over a decade now. Along with the traditional Team Deathmatch gameplay we have Rescue and Cry for Help modes which dress up the experience a little, but in reality Tomb Raider offers little that competitors with half the budget haven’t offered many times before. Multiplayer modes such as this live and die on the strength of their gunplay, and Tomb Raider’s is nothing greater than that which has been offered on consoles for years.
The aesthetic design of Tomb Raider is commendable, but flawed. Working best when character models are kept to a minimum and the scenery is the centre of the frame, Tomb Raider provides some stunning vistas. The constant change if scenery is its greatest asset, for although the island you remain stranded upon holds a familiar theme externally, there’s much to be revealed elsewhere. Likewise the sound quality flits between genius and humdrum thanks to some fantastic voice acting and a mediocre score. Much of the story exists on the fact that there are some truly believable characters present, but aside from when the action heats up there’s little to suggest that Tomb Raider would command extra investment for a soundtrack CD or download.
Available now for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, Tomb Raider sets itself a high bar for future instalments to beat. It’s an experience that borrows from it’s peers liberally, but does so in a way that is entirely of benefit to the structure of the videogame with very few parts feeling like a spare wheel. As a genre, platform videogames are long past their headlining days of the industry, and yet as a franchise Tomb Raider has the power to make new and interesting things happen in the space. There’s no reason to believe that the future of Ms. Croft’s endeavours is anything less than commanding releases they once were.