The last five years that Crystal Dynamics has devoted in retooling the Tomb Raider franchise feels like time well spent. We were treated to the refreshing Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light in 2010, and this year we find a big budget level Tomb Raider, rebooted and appropriately set near the beginning of Lara Croft's career. She is inexperienced but adaptive, often scared but she is a born survivor. This reconstruction of young Lara is so thorough that she feels new, without a past.
There's an impressive level of focus to this reboot. Platforming is easy to grasp but feels rewarding, especially when you survive a collapsing set piece on your first try. The upgrade system isn't complicated, letting you choose from a set of short ability lists. The singular island setting is reminiscent of the first Uncharted (and several previous Tomb Raiders for that matter). Lara's journey is a linear one, but the game has several wide gun battle playgrounds and a wealth of nearby treasure hunting diversions. This impressive sense of direction also gives Tomb Raider consistent fluidity, even if the game has its share of cutscenes.
Complementing this focus is attention to detail. Enemies move in and out of cover with enough unpredictability to make things challenging. When Lara goes toggles off her pistol-aiming stance, the gun doesn't immediately go back into her holster. She instead keeps it out for a couple seconds, like how a cautious person might act in real life. And she can scramble just as easily as her foes; there's actually a controller button assigned for scrambling out of direct fire.
The actual raiding of tombs as side missions aren't especially deep or brain teasing, but they're still worthwhile diversions. Furthermore, these areas aren't the elaborate, gymnasium-sized temples of previous treasure hunting adventure games, the kind with gargantuan platforms and switches. When practically every AAA game this generation has a collectibles component, such a feature still manages to stand out in Tomb Raider. Seeing as how this is Lara's livelihood, it's no surprise that tracking down non-mandatory items fits very well in this game.
While this is a Lara Croft who doesn't wield dual pistols or performs mid-air somersaults, this is still a Tomb Raider game, one that has finally caught up with the times. That also includes a certain degree of Uncharted influences, particularly with the gun battles. And when you consider the added benefit of flaming arrows and the high probability of headshots, Tomb Raider actually improves upon Uncharted's combat in some respects.
Like Lara, Crystal Dynamics have superbly displayed their ability to adapt. When you take Lara in and out of cover without having to press a toggle button, Tomb Raider truly feels like a game from 2013. The regular appearance of quick time events might be a turn-off for some players, but at least the studio had the sense to assign the same input to specific actions. Waggling the left stick is for escaping enemies who grab Lara. X (on the Xbox 360 controller) is what you always press to save Lara whenever she's at the risk of losing here grip on a ledge. Tomb Raider is loaded with these kinds of practical design choices.
Speaking of practical, the addition of adversarial multiplayer satisfies any remaining need for more combat (though the story mode should be more than enough). There are only four modes but they're varied in objectives and fall in line with the Tomb Raider universe. If any thing is missing, it would be some form of competitive treasure hunting mode. Some credit should actually go to Crystal Dynamics thorough efforts in the campaign. The story feels so complete that any complaints or suspicions that parts where cut out to make room for multiplayer feel unjustified
Tomb Raider makes for a well-told trial by fire of Lara Croft without making her transformation too heavy handed. Even by the game's final hour, she's doesn't show signs of becoming the same cocky treasure hunter that we're more familiar with. Lara's true confidence only shows up in a handful of brief moments. This is not to be confused with the many times she's using ingenuity and improvisation to merely survive. The finishing touch to this remarkable origin story of Tomb Raider is the lasting feeling of reassurance that Crystal Dynamics isn't interested in going back to the old Lara, no matter how much this new one evolves.
Developer: Crystal Dynamics / Eidos Montreal (multiplayer)
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Released: March 5, 2013