Review: Tomb Raider delivers gritty, gorgeous adventure
Straying from the series' roots, the latest Tomb Raider is a gritty, disturbing take on the action-adventure genre. It's beautifully crafted, both technically and narratively, but most of all, it's just plain fun.
Tomb Raider tells the story of Lara Croft and the crew of the Endurance, an expedition vessel on the search for adventure. They get what they're looking for when the Endurance is caught in a storm and crashes on an island filled with terrible people doing terrible things, or something like that. All that’s really made clear is that they want to hurt Lara.
This sense of impending doom can be felt throughout the entire game, which is a non-stop series of unfortunate events piling on top of each other until it almost doesn’t make sense—and then it doesn't. The tale of Tomb Raider might not be the most believable, but it’s the first Tomb Raider game that actually treats Lara like a human.
But Tomb Raider remains an action-packed adventure game, so Lara goes from crying “I can’t believe I just killed that person” to murdering hundreds of people to save a friend in no time flat. Lara's wunderkind ability to pick up a deadly weapon and almost immediately understand how to use it reflects your learning curve as a player: you’ll start out with nothing but a bow that Lara finds on a dead body hanging in a tree, but soon you’ll be running around with three other guns and a heavily upgraded bow.
The combat is exceptionally satisfying, and during my review it never felt forced or boring. This is due in part to how gratifying it feels to use Lara's bow: it's a powerful weapon that goes exactly where you tell it to. On top of that, there’s plenty of arrows scattered throughout the world, so you don’t have to worry about running out of ammo like you might with the other weapons.
While these weapons might be somewhat weak at first, they can be upgraded by collecting scrap scattered throughout the world and found on the bodies of dead enemies. It’s a simple enough system that allows you to improve your armament alongside Lara’s skill level, which you can improve by spending skill points earned through an arbitrary XP system. Unfortunately the skill system doesn't really change the core gameplay in a meaningful way, and most of the skills that you want to unlock can’t be unlocked until near the end of the game, ensuring that many of your skill choices feel hollow.
These exercises in self-improvement take place at campfires established throughout the game world. The game allows for fast travel between fires, but it’s not made clear why you would actually want to do this. The story is extremely linear, in a good way, so the only reason you might go back would be to complete optional side missions you might have missed. Fast travel is a nice feature that feels weirdly out of place in an otherwise excellent linear narrative.
Just as all past titles in the Tomb Raider franchise, navigating complex environments is a vital element, but in this reboot it’s the means to an end, rather than the focus. In most cases the amount of jumping from platform to platform you're required to do is very minimal. Sure, you spend a fair bit of time jumping between balconies and scurrying across ledges, but both the platforming and, by extension, the puzzles in this game are severely downplayed compared to past titles. That's not a bad thing, as it imbues the game with an atmosphere of action and adventure while still giving you the option to access classic Tomb Raider-style puzzles as optional side ares you can explore throughout the game.
The island and world of Tomb Raider feels alive, which is extremely important in a game that is as scripted as this. Animals roam free—most don’t attack, just wander around and potentially get shot—and there’s always something to look at. You can go off and find a hidden tomb to explore, or just search for collectables at your leisure. There’s dozens of sets of collectables to find and challenges to complete that can extend the game to twice its length without issue, but the main story clocks in around 12 to 15 hours.
There’s also four different multiplayer modes in Tomb Raider and, while they feel a bit unnecessary, they stand out as something that could keep players entertained for a while after release. Rescue is the standout mode, challenging one team of players to steal the other team’s medical supplies and return it to their base while the other team tries to stop them.
Unfortunately, the mode is hampered by the cumbersome and bloated online system. It isn’t intuitive to move between modes or game types and takes far too long to join a game. Worse, there’s also only a small selection of maps and they wear thin very quickly.
Tomb Raider is easily one of the most technically impressive games of this generation. It pushes current console hardware to its limits with immensely large, open-world platforming areas that Lara can (at least attempt to) traverse. Whether you choose to fight straight through the main story or take your time exploring every nook and cranny, things usually start blowing up and going awry pretty quickly (showcasing the fluidity of combat and animation in the process). Despite the somewhat disappointing and unnecessary addition of multiplayer, Tomb Raider is a beautiful, unique adventure that's worth exploring.