I’m going to kick this off with a revelation: I’ve never actually played a Tomb Raider (Core Design/Eidos Interactive/Square Enix, 1996 to present) videogame from start to finish. As I’ve alluded to in the past, I didn’t have the luxury of being able to afford every videogame console as a kid so I picked the Nintendo 64 while others were playing PlayStation; I did play the original Tomb Raider (Core Design/Eidos Interactive, 1996) for about twenty minutes (and wasn’t massively impressed by its controls, sparse environments, or graphics) and I think I have either Tomb Raider: Legend (Crystal Dynamics/Eidos Interactive, 2006) or Tomb Raider: Underworld (ibid, 2008) downloaded on my PlayStation 3 but I instantly lost interest in it moments after first playing it.
However, when my friend gifted me Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition (Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix, 2014) for the Xbox One, I was intrigued not just because I felt I had skipped an important franchise in videogame history but also because I had heard good things about it and that it played similar to the Batman: Arkham (Rocksteady Studios/WB Games Montréal/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, 2009 to 2015) franchise (I guess the Assassin’s’ Creed (Ubisoft, 2007 to 2018) series is a better comparison but I haven’t played them either…).
Tomb Raider is, if you couldn’t guess from the title, a complete reboot of the franchise in which Lara Croft (and her fellow explorers) journeys to Yamatai, a lost island off the coast of Japan, to find evidence of the mythical Sun Queen, Himiko. Unfortunately, Yamatai is protected by violent supernatural storms, which sinks Lara’s ship and separates the survivors across the island. Isolated and hunted by the island natives, Lara is forced to adapt to her surroundings to find food, shelter, and warmth and then take up arms against the violent Solarii Brotherhood, who wish to make a sacrifice to the Sun Queen.
Gameplay takes the form of a third-person perspective as players guide Lara throughout her diverse and varied environments; initially, Lara is relatively incapable and struggles to get through the jungles, cliffs, and shanty towns dotted around the island but, once she obtains a pickaxe and a make-shift bow, she soon becomes an accomplished rock climber, forager, and survivor.
Lara is forced to fashion a bow and arrows in order to hunt wildlife for food (though this is merely a plot mechanic; Lara’s health automatically regenerates when she finds cover or avoids damage) but a huge dramatic moment is made of the first time she picks up and fires a gun in self defence. Shaken by the ordeal of having to kill to survive, you’ll soon find yourself blasting fools in the face with a shotgun and stabbing guys through the neck with arrows without mercy.
Lara is able to explore her environments to find various helpful items to improve her progress: salvage and weapon parts can be used to upgrade and enhance her weapons, completing various trials and performing certain objectives and actions will award Lara experience points that she can spend on upgrades to improve her hunting and survival skills, and she can find various treasures and documents scattered across the island to unlock Achievements.
There are also some hidden tombs to be found, which reap greater treasures and experience points; you’ll get a notification when one is near and they’re usually easily identified by nearby markings and drawings. Each tomb tests Lara’s abilities with a few simple puzzles, which involve lighting things, jumping across gaps, and manipulating the environment with her various tools. While they are a fun diversion they are just that, a diversion, and the game’s title is actually somewhat misleading as the actual raiding of tomb’s is not even secondary to the game’s plot; it’s a side-mission, one barely given any prominence or relevance at all.
Instead, the game pushes the plot revolving around the Sun Queen; when one of Lara’s ship-mates is captured by the Solarii, Lara has to go and rescue her to stop her being possessed by Himiko’s spirit and bring and end to the storms that prevent anyone from leaving the island. She faces betrayal and further trials along the way but, by the time you reach the final area of the game, you’ll be more than levelled up and ready to face the waves of enemies that come at you.
Like Batman, Lara is able to use her “instincts” to scan her environment for treasures, intractable objects, and locate enemies that she can combat in a variety of ways: the bow is good for stealth but Lara can also sneak up on enemies for stealth kills. She only has access to one gun throughout the game until the very end, when she acquires a second and ends up as the battle-hardened, experienced hunter/survivor we know as Lara Croft, but this can be upgraded into a rapid fire Magnum. She also obtains a shotgun and an assault rifle (which can somehow also be upgraded into a grenade launcher…) to mow down enemies and use her pickaxe for melee attacks and instant kills.
Enemies are reasonably varied; some will attack with machetes and dynamite, others use assault rifles, while bigger enemies are shielded by Samurai armour, meaning Lara must dodge their attacks to strike from behind. This is facilitated via quick-time events, which also appear at various moments when Lara must run to escape flooding areas, collapsing areas, or her many (many) tumbles down hills and cliffs. It was a little difficult getting the timing right for a lot of these quick-time events as the button doesn’t appear onscreen right away but you soon get the hang of it and will be dodging enemies and blasting them with a clip full of bullets before long.
Lara is also adept at jumping, climbing, and swinging; she can leap pretty far and climb up roped surfaces, jump from rock face to rock face with her pickaxe, and even end up shooting roped arrows to ride her pickaxe down to new areas. Jumping across rocks can be tricky due to the camera angle being just slightly off but, as long as you press X and time it right, you can make most jumps without any issues.
You can bring up the map at any time to see what goodies you’re missing in each area; every area of the island has a bunch of stuff to find that will help you out and unlock Achievements. Lara can also make camp at various points; this will save the game, allows her to fast travel around the map (how, exactly, is never explained…). Upgrade her abilities and weapons, and write in her journal like a geek. You can also switch her outfit here, though none of them are that great to be honest and there’s no option for her classic green vest and hot pants outfit.
Tomb Raider also comes with a multi-player component, though I’m not entirely sure why. In it, players can select one of the many characters featured in the story mode (though, ironically, Lara can only be unlocked after you level-up enough) and take part in deathmatches, rescuing survivors, or retrieving batteries whilst being hunted. As with all online modes, I found this to be chaotic and confusing; I was constantly picked off with frustrating ease, barely ever saw who was killing me, and contributed very little to the match but this is more due to me not really liking online deathmatches and I’m sure if you’re actually good at these modes then there’s enjoyment to be had here.
The entire point of this game appears to be to bring Lara to rock bottom and build her up; some of this is dampened by a lot of her ship-mates constantly telling her that she “can do this” because she “is a Croft”, as though having that last name automatically means she can scale a cliff side and kill a God…but she can, and she does, after enduring some harsh trials and learning to do whatever it takes to survive. Along the way, she becomes comfortable with killing to stay alive and looting treasure for her own benefit and, by the end, is noted to have changed a lot and committed to the life of a scavenger and survivor rather than a simple naïve explorer.
This makes Tomb Raider quite an engaging experience; you really feel like you are becoming this survivor as you learn new tactics and figure out the best ways of clearing out rooms of enemies and solving puzzles. Every area teaches you something new, introduces new elements, and asks you to adapt and, by the time you’re done and you’re back-tracking to other locations to find stuff you missed, no obstacle will be too great for your fully-upgraded weapons and abilities.
Overall, I enjoyed Tomb Raider; it wasn’t necessarily difficult to play through and complete and getting all the upgrades was pretty easy, with only a bit of back-tracking required at the end of the game. There is some replayability in the multiplayer and in the challenges you’ll find in each area but no real post-game story or additional modes that require a further playthrough. Nevertheless, for the first Tomb Raider game I’ve ever played from start to finish, this was a great experience, though I suspect this is largely due to the tight, polished gameplay of this particular title compared t its predecessors.