Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Review Date: 9/12/15
After the commercial failure of "Tomb Raider: Underworld" (2008), Crystal Dynamics went back to the drawing board and decided to reboot the entire series AGAIN, only this time focusing on a young and inexperienced Lara Croft in her first life changing adventure. Twenty-one years old and fresh out of college, Lara teams up with her videographer friend Sam Nishimura and an older archeologist named Dr. Whitman to search for the lost civilization of Yamatai. Lara believes it to be in a dangerous area known as the Dragon's Triangle, which has a long and sordid history of freak weather incidents, shipwrecks, and plane crashes. No one who enters the Dragon's Triangle ever leaves, and such is the fate of Lara's expedition, as her boat sinks off the coast of a mysterious island and she tries to regroup with any survivors. Making matters worse, the island is inhabited by a murderous cult called the Solarii that worships Himiko, the Sun Queen. The leader of the cult sees Sam as the embodiment of Himiko, and kidnaps her with the intent of using her as a means to escape the island. What follows is a tense and desperate struggle for survival as Lara attempts to stay alive and save her friends from certain doom, while also solving the mystery of the Dragon's Triangle and its cursed inhabitants.
It's a radical departure for the series and rebuilds the character of Lara Croft from the ground up. Presentation wise, it resembles "Uncharted" more than previous "Tomb Raider" games, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The game is breathtaking in its scope and beauty. The environments are spectacular and the characters are well defined. The writing tends to be highly predictable and overly cliché, and the overly convenient happy ending betrays all of the ominous foreshadowing that comes before it. However, despite these narrative pitfalls, the dialog is appropriately smart, Lara's personality and attitude are spot-on, and the voice acting is extremely good. Camilla Luddington delivers an incredible performance as Lara Croft, and is one of the best and most riveting performances I've ever experienced. Her work is truly awe inspiring and takes Lara's character to a whole new level. The supporting actors are also quite good, and really bring the whole world of Yamatai to life. The character models look great, and Lara looks like a combination of Carly Rae Jepsen and Hope Solo. She's young and attractive, has a slim athletic build, and has much more realistic proportions than previous incarnations of her character. For the most part, the cinematics look very good, but the forced handheld camera work is a constant distraction and annoyance. The interface is clean and the controls are tight, intuitive, and responsive, which makes playing the game a sheer joy. The music score is a bit of a departure from the series with its percussion heavy jungle beats, but it's quite enjoyable and generates an appropriate amount of dread and tension for the environment. The sound design does an excellent job of creating a deep sense of immersion, and the environmental effects are vibrant and organic. Weapons sound appropriately crisp and heavy, and the shotgun report is so loud that it shakes the entire room.
Gameplay is simple and intuitive, with the main focus being on exploration and combat. The combat mechanics are considerably different than previous TR games, utilizing a mixture of ranged weapons, stealth, and melee attacks. Lara's signature technique of running, jumping, and flipping with auto-aiming infinite ammo dual pistols doesn't apply here, so evasion and precision aiming are extremely important. This also introduces a moral dilemma that I have with the game. There's very little tomb raiding, platforming action, and puzzle solving in the game, and it's primarily a shooter. Lara kills nearly a hundred people in the game, up close and personal, and sometimes incredibly brutally. While you can argue that it's all in self defense, there's no denying the fact that she's a mass murderer. After her first kill she even says "it's scary how easy it was." This also raises the question of how Lara's friends end up getting by, as they don't appear to be killing everything in sight in order to meet their ends. But putting that aside for the sake of entertainment, these action sequences and the constant sense of dread that's provided by armed combatants are what make the game exciting. Lara may not enjoy having to kill crazed cultists, but she's extremely good at it, and it's thrilling to experience it in both a first person and third person capacity.
Unfortunately, the combat also causes the most frustration in the game, as it's easy to become outnumbered and overwhelmed. Thankfully, a generous checkpoint system keeps you from having to go back too far in the game, except during shootouts. You pretty much have to survive an entire wave of opponents before the game acknowledges a checkpoint, so getting killed by the last one or two guys in an extended firefight is extremely aggravating. This made me long for the days of the original TR games when you could save your progress at any time - after every jump or every kill if you wanted. Another departure from the series is that there are no health items, and Lara self-heals if you just let her rest for a few moments. This makes combat a little easier, as you don't have to worry about hoarding and consuming health items, and it promotes a more defensive strategy for staying alive. It's also nice that the difficulty peaks about halfway through the game and then levels off, so I didn't have to worry about increasingly difficult adversaries and impossible boss fights. If anything, combat actually began getting easier later in the game, as Lara's skills and gear improved.
With all of the blood, gore, and killing, it's definitely an M rated game, and Lara's death scenes are exceedingly grim and awful. Over the course of the game, I was thrown off of cliffs, crushed by rocks, riddled with bullets, skewered by arrows, strangled, impaled on spikes, burned alive, shot in the face, and eaten by wolves. These sequences are truly horrifying, and have the intended emotional effect of not wanting any harm to come to Lara. She still suffers an astonishing amount of physical punishment, and Luddington's performance captures every pain-induced scream, wince, whimper, gasp, and cry. There are some incredibly intense and moving moments where you wander around clutching your wounds while panting, sniffling, and crying.
Overall, the game is superb, and it only broke my engagement in one place. For the most part, Lara is quiet and keeps to herself, which punctuates her sense of isolation and aloneness. But towards the end of the game there's a puzzle that she becomes annoyingly chatty about, and insists on offering clues and guidance every ten seconds or so. It's not a particularly difficult puzzle if you take the time to examine it, but I'm guessing it didn't pass play testing, so they added the extra dialog to help people through it. Unfortunately, it really broke my connection with Lara because it felt so out of character for her. In that section she also breaks character by using the American word "elevator" instead of the British word "lift." That was extremely jarring. But apart from that one little digression, the game has a very consistent and engaging narrative, which results in an extremely memorable experience.
Actually, my biggest gripe about the game is with its fraudulent packaging. I intially bought the Collector's Edition version of the game, which came with a soundtrack CD, an art book, a poster map, and a Lara Croft action figure. Unfortunately, the art book was more like a pamphlet, and the soundtrack only included half of the tracks. After spending $100 on this package, they had the audacity to include a note saying "go online to purchase the full album." That REALLY pissed me off. I mean, what's the point in including only HALF a CD? It certainly wasn't a cost cutting measure. It's like the entire package was just advertising material for ACTUAL collectibles. The only thing worthwhile in the entire set was the action figure, but that didn't justify the cost. Later, I bought the Game Of The Year edition because it claimed to include all of the DLC, which I didn't want to bother downloading. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a complete lie, because the only thing it included were some codes to download the supposedly "included" content. That also really pissed me off. As a result of all this marketing deception and outright consumer contempt, I will never buy another "special edition" package of any video game. Unless it comes from Japan. They know how to package things right.