Lara Croft’s having a bad day. For the old Croft that might mean a broken nail or a failed attempt at locking the Butler in the fridge. For this new Lara, a bad day means kidnap, suspension from the ceiling of a dingy cave, and the uncomfortable experience of being hurled off a cliff before landing in a pool of guts. So take a deep breath and brace yourself because Tomb Raider is an adrenaline shot straight to the heart of Square Enix’s original series.
Normally I would now provide a brief synopsis of the story, but in this case the less players know about the intricacies of the island Lara’s marooned on, the better. Suffice to say, the story begins as a young Lara struggles to escape the sinking ship that was transporting her and her crewmates to an archaeological dig. Washed up on the beach of an island in the South China Sea, Lara is separated from her group and swiftly captured by the island’s current inhabitants: a cult so preoccupied with skewering people on sharp objects they clearly have forgotten basic personal hygiene. As Lara struggles to escape and ventures deeper into the island, the secrets she unearths about its dark history soon prove that men with excessive facial hair are the least of her worries.
Abandoning the traditional structure of swashbuckling adventures punctuated by pithy one liners, Crystal Dynamics have opted for a story of brutality. Seriously, I don’t know what Lara did to upset the developers, but boy she’s paying for it now. In the first eight minutes alone she is knocked unconscious, forced to burn herself alive to escape her captors and chased through a collapsing cave by a cannibal before scrambling up the decaying shell of a WW2 bomber suspended on the side of a cliff as sections of it break away, all with a rusty great nail through her side.
Technically, Tomb Raider’s gameplay is seamless, flowing from area to area with barely any loading screens unless you die – and honestly, you need a couple of seconds to compose yourself because the ways Lara is wiped out are brutal. Saying that though, our stubborn heroine gives as good as she gets and some of the finishing moves players can unlock as Lara progresses in combat would make even Patrick Bateman wince.
Developers have never seemed to nail combat mechanics in the previous Tomb Raider games, but here they’ve finally got it right. Scrounging for scrap metal around the island gives Lara access to a small arsenal of weapons ranging from a bow and arrow to a rifle complete with grenade launcher that can be swiftly switched between in the heat of battle. Hand-to-hand combat is also an option, with timed attacks and dodges often more effective than the traditional bang-bang-you’re-dead-eat-my-bullets technique seen in previous games.
Still, Tomb Raider is as beautiful as it is bloody. This is a game that’s been five years in the making and it shows. The attention to detail, from fingerprints on the screen of a digital camera to the fact that Lara is programmed to put out a hand to steady herself if you’re running along a narrow cliff ledge, is mind-blowing. Detail tessellation on the island’s surfaces create ultra-realistic environments that players can spend hours exploring, collecting hidden relics and even raiding secret tombs to gain a deeper insight into the island’s history. The only time the game fails in its attention to detail is the time it devotes to Lara’s crew mates. The supporting cast are given very little significant screen time, with the only real attempt to flesh out their backstories coming in the form of scraps of journals scattered around the island that are easily missed.
After the 15 hours of campaign, many have criticised the new multiplayer option designed by Eidos Montreal as an unnecessary addition. Whilst it is significantly weaker than the core campaign, if viewed as an innovative online extra, this new competitive mode is a challenging new add on. Five maps and four match types offer players an entirely new tomb raiding experience, including the ability to manipulate the environment as a weapon against your enemies. For instance, in one map you can ring an ancient bell which conjures up a sandstorm blinding your enemies and revealing to you their locations. It’s a small fish in the big pond of first-person shooters, but a pretty fish nonetheless that’s more than capable of making a few splashes.
The bar has been set high for a Tomb Raider sequel which, if announced, will be launched on the next generation of consoles. The likelihood of it involving actual tomb raiding, though, is slim: it’s more likely to centre in on Lara two months after her adventures on the island, sitting in a hospital bed, feverish from all the diseases she contracted after wading her open wounds through waist deep, festering waters strewn with bloated, rotten corpses.
Still, if you’re anything like me you will finish playing Tomb Raider sleep-deprived and suspicious of anyone with excessive amounts of facial hair. But you’ll also finish it exhilarated and ready to sling a bow over your shoulder, affix a nasty expression of grizzled determination to your face and go scale a cliff. Gripping, gritty and compelling, Lara’s newest adventure really is the cream of the croft.